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It's a marathon, not a sprint

02 Oct 2020  |  Steve Hobbs 
It's a marathon, not a sprint

In the lead up to this weekend's virtual London Marathon, performance coach and media consultant Steve Hobbs considers the parallels between running and business both during and post-lockdown

As a performance coach, plying my trade in running and in business, I've had an interesting six months, and yes that's "interesting" in that bunny ears speech marks kind of a way since what I offer to both sectors has been impacted severely.

It has also been interesting in the true meaning of the word. It has helped me deepen the central philosophy of my work that draws parallels between running and life (beyond the cheesy metaphor), so let me start this piece by describing my experience of runners through lockdown, before I create a hypothesis of the parallels in working life.

There have been three types of runner through lockdown (okay, this is a bit of an over-simplification as everyone's experiences through lockdown are so unique but let’s go with it for the purposes of this piece).

· The short-term outcome focussed

· The new runner, without a plan

· The process oriented, staying focussed on the moment but with a longer-term destination in mind

Let me add some colour. Some of these experiences may feel familiar.

The outcome focused runner went into lockdown in great shape having done the hard yards of winter training for a spring Marathon, perhaps London in April. They were focussed, laser-like, on their goal and were well on the way to achieving it when the world turned on it's head. All races were cancelled but they managed the crisis, they repurposed their training around new goals and went out and smashed some incredibly fast times in virtual races that befitted our now virtual world.

Then, once the shininess of the virtual racing world dulled, they were left a little lost. Not quite sure what to focus on next, motivation fell, they felt burnt-out or perhaps became injured from pushing too hard. They are still a little lost as they recover, not quite sure what they are recovering for.

Moving on to the new runner. With the closure of indoor venues, many people turned to running. Who can forget the mobbed parks of sunny April and May?

Many of these people were new to running. Some followed plans, the NHS' 'Couch to 5k' has seen record downloads for example, but many didn't. They just ran.

They ran because it was good for their mental health, enabling them to get out of their home and away from zoom calls for a while. But they didn't follow a plan, they were just surviving, and they either literally ran out of puff or got injured, and then became disillusioned and isolated, unsure what to do next.

Although good for a while, neither of those experiences sound great, do they? They are clearly not sustainable.

The process-oriented runner, however, had a different experience. They were most likely to be established runners, but perhaps not in their best shape going into lockdown, perhaps recovering from an injury, perhaps struggling with niggles, and perhaps secretly happy that spring races were cancelled as it allowed them to re-build their fitness without the pressure of performance.

This group focused entirely on the process, staying in the moment, going from one day or week to the next - but they did so with a long-term destination in mind (often to get back to full fitness) and were prepared to be patient and adaptable to changing landscapes.

They knew where they wanted to head, but they were relaxed about when and how they would get there as they knew that their life, ordinarily dynamic anyway, was now full-on turbulent. They thrived. Without the pressure of performance, they built up a good head of fitness steam and are now in great shape, having enjoyed the journey and learned loads along the way.

What are the parallels for business? And for people in business?

In a crazy, upside down world, a focus on short-term outcomes is understandable and inevitable. In a modern-day media environment, where you can theoretically measure returns so easily, clients (and leadership teams) will prioritise investment in those things that deliver a short-term return.

Yet a crazy, upside down world also makes outcomes harder to predict than ever, normal rules do not apply, things you expect to work don't and successes can take you by surprise.

It reminds me of the early days of agencies wanting to tie their remuneration to client's business outcomes. A protagonist's response to that strategy was that there were too many uncontrollable variables that affected the client's performance beyond the media and advertising strategy to make it sustainable.

Those variables have never been more uncontrollable as now and outcomes can surely never has been so unpredictable as now. In that context, fixating purely on outcomes is likely to be extremely stressful and lead to some questionable decision-making.

What about new runners without a plan? They were running as an outlet, to survive, as many of us have been doing in our working lives.

We have been in survival mode, getting through what needed to be done from one day to the next, rarely lifting our heads to assess where we might be heading. We stayed in the moment, and while mindfulness absolutely has its place in helping us cope in an uncertain world, we can do little more than survive without a direction of travel.

At worst, with high volumes of frenetic, stressful activity we run the risk of burn-out (I could write a whole section here on how our body has evolved to release cortisol and adrenaline to help us cope with acute, short-term stress like escaping from dangerous predators, an evolution that is actually not that helpful in conditions of chronic stress as we have all faced over the last few months, perhaps next time).

With burn-out, we can lose our sense of purpose - what we're here to do, what impacts our sense of identity - who we think we are, and ultimately leads to a loss in our sense of belonging.

You can tell where this is heading, can't you?

Yes, in troubled times, we can learn a lot from the process-oriented runner.

To be clear, by process I mean the journey we go on. I obviously believe in setting tangible objectives for businesses and individuals, I do it with people every day, but I prefer to regard those objectives as the direction in which we'll travel rather than necessarily the end destination - we use them to make decisions about how we invest our time and energy, which therefore provides a sense of purpose.

Furthermore, it's being process oriented that mitigates the risks attached with being outcome focussed. Without attention to the process we can become so fixated on a goal that we will do anything to reach it. A focus on outcomes promotes a win at all costs approach, which is rarely healthy in the end.

In sport, that's why people cheat. It's why they take performance enhancing drugs.

In business, it's why people make questionable ethical decisions. When focusing on process, you can be AND NEED to be more adaptable to what happens around you, re-constructing your short-term goals in pursuit of your long-term ones and re-constructing your long-term ones if you realise the flightpath to delivering them is simply too turbulent.

In running, there still is no certainty as to when races will truly return. The parallel is clear in business. We don't know when, if ever, things will return to normal - ambiguity and anxiety reigns. This makes it business critical to now focus on the process - it is critical for you as an individual too.

Stay in the moment, focus on the process over fixation on short-term goals. It's where you will be able to add the most value, it's where you'll feel a sense of purpose, a sense of identity and it's how you'll feel like you belong.

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