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Small Steps to Big Gains + Using Constraints to Break Free

November 15, 2017


Interesting Thought: Small Steps to Big Things

The saying "go big or go home" may have a nice motivational ring to it, but unfortunately, generally those who go big end up home. I think a better aphorism would be "small, incremental steps lead to massive gains." It may not carry the same inspirational firepower, but it's far more honest and how most progress actually works. 

Whether it's in writing, athletics, business, or academics, you've got to practice pacing. If you "go big" and over-exert yourself too early, you're likely to end up in trouble—either in over your head, prematurely fatigued, or injured and burned out. 

In endurance sports, it's always the athletes who are most fired up and gung-ho on the start line who blow-up later on in the race. However, the athletes who go out conservatively and stay within themselves execute what is called a negative split: they get faster as the race goes on. They groove in, find a rhythm, and steadily build upon it, picking up momentum as they go. 

The same theme holds true outside of sports. Those who build the highest quality businesses, professional and creative careers, and interpersonal relationships almost always start modestly and gradually pick up steam. They, too, negative split.

Research shows that if you want an emerging passion to occupy a larger part of your life, the best way to get there is to start small and progressively grow over time. In doing so, you maximize the chance that you're moving forward more often than backward. This allows for something called compounding gains: each day you get a little bit better from the place you were the day before. On a day-to-day basis the gains may be trivial—perhaps even too small to observe—but looking back over weeks, months, and years the gains can be enormous. 

The conundrum, of course, is that "going big" is so much more thrilling than going small and incrementally. Going big feels great in the moment. But come mile 13 of lives' marathons, when we realize we've still got 13 more miles to go, we often wish we would have gone out a bit more modestly. Taking the long view requires patience, purpose, and discipline. It's about tempering one's excitement and wisely channeling it in an upward spiral of compounding gains. 


Coaching Corner: Using Constraints to Break Free

When a young Stephen Spielberg was directing the movie Jaws, he ran into a big issue. The mechanical shark that his team had spent time and money creating had two problems: On camera, it didn’t look convincing, and more importantly, the shark broke. Spielberg was faced with a dilemma: How does he convey to the audience the shark's movement and build suspense, without actually being able to show the shark on screen?

As anyone who has seen Jaws knows, what you don’t see is often scarier than what you do. Spielberg used barrels and other items being dragged by the “shark” to show movement, and the infamous Jaws music to build the suspense of the impending doom. Without the mechanical sharks breaking, it’s doubtful that Jaws would have reached its iconic status.

Our first reaction when our plans go awry is often panic and despair. How are we supposed to succeed if our well-formulated strategies are no longer viable? Instead, we can view our newfound constraints as a gift. They free us up, allowing us to escape our default way of thinking and completing tasks. Constraints can push us towards creative new ways to conquer a problem.

One of the collegiate 800-meter runners I work with came down with a minor injury that prevented him from running on turns for two weeks. He was pain-free when running in a straight line but as soon as he took any turn, pain arose. To keep him fit and ready to go, while we figured out the injury issue, I had to design workouts that provided the physiological adaptations that we were after only by running 100-meter reps on the track. So we manipulated rest intervals, exercises done in between, and a few other variables to do everything from speed work to tempo training using 100-meter repeats on the track.

And it's not just when unexpected things happen that constraints can be utilized. With runners, I will occasionally give myself an artificial constraint in creating workouts, forcing myself out of the traditional few workouts that I tend to rely on. By limiting myself to creating a workout on a few soccer fields, or at a new park with no measured paths, I make sure that I am thinking about the whole workout and what the athletes will get out of it, versus defaulting to a familiar session. When it comes to writing, if I am stuck, I’ll put artificial limits on myself, such as describing an event in 3 sentences or less, to force me out of my comfort zone. Whether artificial or real, constraints are opportunities to break from our default way of operating.


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