A crucial component of high quality work

Do you know what professional athletes do in the weeks just before a big competition, like the summer Olympics?


You will find them at a vacation resort, probably around a nice pool, eating well and relaxing a lot. Late night parties highly unlikely. The schedule is eat, sleep and rest.

I know this because I attended a course about planning your training for optimal performance, partly taught by one of the track and field coaches to our Swedish Olympic team. He explained that the training for the Olympics start at least a year in advance, and once you get close enough – within weeks or days of the event – everything should be in place.

The best thing to do at that time is to gather as much strength as possible to prepare for the big event. And gathering strength means eating well, sleeping well, and not doing any physical training at all.

The reason they go to a resort together is for cognitive preparation and focus. To get away from the normal day-to-day life with family and friends, and instead come together as a team and prepare mentally for what’s to come.

I find this interesting. We seldom plan our larger projects this way.

The marathon of modern work

We usually plan them – and execute them – as if they were a long marathon. Go through the planned list from a to z, ploughing through until the project ends. And if we’re lucky, we might have some recovery down time afterwards. But most often not. The next project is waiting for us around the corner.

I see this problem in agile development practices as well. A cycle of iteration in scrum is called a sprint, and each sprint includes a retrospective for bringing feedback to the next sprint, but the sprints just keep coming at you all the way up until the end of the project or launch of the product.

I think the wording is quite unfortunate and misleading. Sprinting in sport refers to racing over a short distance. It can also refer to the last stretch of a longer race, where you ramp up the tempo in order to cross the finish line before the others. Running as fast as you can for a short period of time. While scrum wants to redefine the word in a different way in this setting, the association is still there in the back of people’s minds.

In Swedish we have this saying “ända in i kaklet”, which literally translates to “all the way into the tiles”. It ultimately comes from swimming coaches back in the day when all swimming pools were tiled. They saying meant that you had to give it all to the last swim stroke – “all the way into the tiles” – in order to finish a race.

It seems like this tendency to want to do it all in one go – all the way into the tiles – is very widespread. And the tendency shows up on both the macro and micro level.

Taking breaks on the micro and macro level

Tiago Forte calls doing things in one go “heavy lifts”. Doing all of a task in one big chunk, and if a task is big and heavy then we just set aside a longer time to work on it. He advocates splitting your tasks up in smaller chunks that can be completed independently in separate work sessions over time, calling it a slow burn approach.

This is an approach for the micro level. It’s related to the opposition of tackling cleaning out your garage through small actions/habits every day versus the large intervention like scheduling a cleaning-out-your-garage weekend. For tasks, it means splitting up work so instead of sitting down for 3 hours straight you can do it in 30 minute incremental sessions over time – leaving you with energy left over instead of drained by the time you are finished.

On the task level, we know about the importance of taking breaks for achieving optimal focus. That’s partly what the pomodoro technique is helping you to do. And how many times haven’t you heard the advice regarding writing, to leave a finished piece overnight and come back to it with fresh eyes the next day?

There’s so much happening in the back of the mind while we do other things. So much that they even have measured the benefits of letting your mind wander vs doing something – like looking at your phone – in the downtime between tasks and found that doing nothing with the mind increases memory retention and reinforces learning.

But what does this look like in the bigger picture view, the macro level?

One way to avoid the constant marathon-of-sprints feeling is to be proactive about planning your vacation and downtime. Sean D’Souza and his wife have three months of vacation every year and planned their business like that from the start. This means they have three months of work followed by one month of vacation, and then repeating this cycle over the year.

But I’m guessing Sean still plans his projects to fall into these work periods. Finish project, then vacation to recuperate.

Isn’t that how we all have learnt to behave? Eat your dinner, then dessert. Finish first, then reward.

Treating downtime and rest as a kind of reward also introduces the possibility of removing it as a form of self-punishment. “No you don’t deserve to rest, you haven’t done x, y or z yet”.

The more I learn about neuroscience, biology, creative thinking and stress, the more convinced I become that we should start to treat downtime as a crucial component for optimal performance. Not as a reward for a job well done, but a pre-requisite for doing a stellar job in the first place.

I have had first hand experience of this.

A solo performance that crashed

In the the early years of my career, I worked together with a choreographer who created a solo that I was to perform. The premiere was scheduled in April, and because I had other things going on at the same time we rehearsed late nights during the winter and spring. Things were going well and we were excited to move from working in the studio to the theatre where the performances would take place. It was pretty big for me as I had never done a solo performance like this before.

One day, not long before the premiere, I slipped while hurrying to catch a bus home. My left knee twisted a bit and hit the pavement. I caught the bus, but my knee hurt. I remember cursing under my breath over getting a serious bruise, hoping it would clear up quickly.

I was limping the last bit home, and when I arrived I saw that my knee was swelling. I actually had a small gig that very same night and I called my friend to say that I had to cancel. I was very sad about it but I didn’t want to put stress on my knee when I was so close to a big premiere.

But my knee just kept swelling. I couldn’t put weight on the leg because it hurt so badly. I called my physiotherapist, crying on the phone, and asked what to do. It was a Sunday and he was busy painting the walls in his apartment, but promised to take a look the very next day.

When I arrived at his practice, the knee was so swollen that he couldn’t even make a proper assessment of the injury. There was nothing to do but to wait for it to heal – first heal enough to gauge the damage and apply the right treatment, and then heal enough to be able to work again. Since he couldn’t assess the damage, he couldn’t even estimate how long it would take to recover.

We had to cancel the show.

As devastated as I felt at the time, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

It turned out I had a partial tear of my inner knee ligament. I had good help from my physiotherapist, going to regular treatments, healing progressed well. And just when we thought I was ready to begin rehab training, I caught a tonsillitis that kept me in bed for over two weeks.

This was actually also good, because it made sure I didn’t train too much too soon which is the common trap in injury recovery. When I finally was back in the gym, the injury had truly healed and I had no setbacks in my recovery training.

Picking things up again after the break

The premiere had been rescheduled to the autumn instead. And the interesting part of the story comes now that we picked up the rehearsals again towards the new premiere date.

Very often, a piece of choreography is changing and the creation process continues right up to the last minute. When rehearsal time is short – and it often is because of constrained budgets – you are just lucky to remember what it is you are supposed to do. Being at the right place at the right time without mistakes is all you can aim for. To know the What and the Where.

But for us this time, things were different. I had injured myself so close to the premiere that the choreography was already finished. When we picked up work again, we could focus on the details instead of the structure. The Why and How, intentions, phrasing and dynamics. All the fun and interesting stuff.

And during all those weeks and months where I didn’t work actively on this piece, somehow the movement material had settled in my body. Things had happened behind the scenes, and it showed.

This made both the rehearsal period up to the premiere so much more enjoyable and fun, and the quality of the finished piece skyrocketed. When we finally premiered, it was a success. I performed that same piece on numerous occasions over 1,5 years and still count it as one of the most fulfilling ones of my career.

All because the involuntary break we had before the final rundown towards the finish line.

Plan the breaks in advance

I took this lesson to heart when I planned my first own show that premiered in 2016. I setup the rehearsal period with one longer consecutive rehearsal block, with more than a month long break before entering the theatre, and then the final two weeks of time block up to and including the premiere and consecutive shows.

And the same thing happened. While I wasn’t completely finished with the piece before the theatre block, the fact that the material wasn’t recent made a huge difference. And coming back to it with fresh eyes enabled me to make some bigger changes that very much improved the finished end product. I had perspective, and clarity of mind.

So how would this kind of planned downtime look in reality?

While actual off-work time – like a vacation – sometimes might be the most desirable, I don’t think it’s the only way to achieve the same benefits. Being off one project might mean that you are simply focusing on something else for a while.

In the month between the rehearsal block and the theatre block, I was working on a web development client project. A very different process and activity.

Brian Casel mentioned in his newsletter a comment he heard at MicroConf 2019 from Jason Fried of Basecamp fame. At Basecamp they have a sort of “Tick Tock” approach to product development. Work on something, launch it, and let it breathe for some time while they focus on something else. Then they come back to it at a later point, refreshed and with new ideas.

Brian reflects on the fact that he works like that naturally, since he have several things going on at the same time and goes back and forth between them over a period of one or two years. I think Paul Jarvis works in the same way, dedicating a period of time like a couple of months to each focus. Moving between projects like running his Creative Class course, Chimp Essentials course, or creating a new podcast season.

Serial single tasking

I think this kind of serial single tasking is a very good way of working. Over a longer time frame you still accomplish many different things, but you don’t get the same split mind that I think you would get if you worked, say, one workday or one week at a time on each project.

What I wonder, is how our work would be affected if we planned a bit of downtime (or context switch) just before that last sprint rush towards the finish line?

Another approach would be to split up a huge undertaking in larger blocks of perhaps a couple of months each, and then do other things and work on other projects in between.

The goal is, as always, to maintain your energy levels, motivation and produce the highest quality of work possible.

What if you took some vacation days the week before the launch week instead of after?

What if you scheduled an event so that nobody on staff was allowed to work the day – or even two days – before the event?

You happily pay for that downtime, knowing that the return on investment comes in terms of energy, clarity and motivation from everyone involved. Like collectively “sleeping on it” and coming back with fresh eyes.

You would truly have planned for optimal performance. Investing in downtime is investing in quality.

If you have control over how you plan your own time, I encourage you to try it. I don’t know if this approach suits all kinds of projects and endeavours, so if you try it I’d love to know about your experience.

Any takers?

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