April 27, 2011

Lengthen Your Stride

In 2002 I trained for and ran the Chicago Marathon. (And although some find that wording pretentious, I always say I trained for and ran a marathon because the training was the bigger challenge by far.) I am eternally indebted to the excellent trainers and mentors I encountered through the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training program. They told me not to be intimidated when the faster runners passed me by, reminded me to keep my gloves on even when I had shed most of my other layers, and they encouraged me to leave something on the course at the place where I realized I would in fact finish the race.

Another bit of wisdom they drilled into me was that if I felt I was unraveling, it was probably time to lengthen my stride. This was counterintuitive: it essentially meant to slow down so I could speed up, or at least that’s how I remember processing it initially. It didn’t make any sense to me but it worked, undeniably. In Mile 8 of a 10-miler, or Mile 22 of the marathon for that matter, my technique was to start taking longer, more focused (and seemingly slower) strides just as the end-of-course pressure started to envelop me. It’s a counterintuition that, by analogy, has served me well in many situations.

I’m collecting examples of such counterintuitions: things that completely “flip” your understanding of a situation, and shake up your thinking at just the right time. Dan Pink has some great examples in his book A Whole New Mind. For example, he proposes that organ donation should be opt-out instead of opt-in to recruit more donors. This prompted a colleague of mine to posit that airlines should charge for carry-on bags as a disincentive, and then check baggage at no cost, in order to expedite boarding and deplaning.

Once you start looking, examples of counterintuitions abound. A recent post over at Get Rich Slowly explains why extended warranties are a lose-lose proposition. Gretchen Rubin has written about how reading boring articles improves a vacation, and also about how asking for a favor from someone can improve your relationship with that person. I once heard that peeling a banana is much easier if you start from the “other” end—the one we are less accustomed to starting with. And I’ve gotten much farther in the Sarah Vowell book I was trying (and failing) to speed through ever since I decided to read just one essay per week, but always on Sunday nights.

When I decided to do a Week of Extreme Slow as part of my Embedded Librarianship project, I had no idea how many happy returns there would be, and this far into the year. What I learned then is what is now enabling me to lengthen my stride and give time to the things that actually require more time and focus. Busywork tends to fall away during these periods of more intense focus, and you can actually eliminate a lot of little things that you realize may not need to be done after all. Sometimes we distract ourselves from our real work with things we like to think are real work when they are really just distractions.

This really came together for me as I was reading (and loving!) Sarah Glassmeyer’s essay The Bomb Under the Table, part of SLA’s Future Ready 365 blog project. In it she asks information professionals to consider this question, "How much do you change your life because you’re afraid of what might happen?” This, too, is one of those distractions. It’s like asking yourself at Mile 22, What if I don’t finish the race? Instead, maybe you need to just lengthen your stride. And keep running.

1 comment:

Dave said...

Wonderful wisdom! Thanks Eileen.