The Benefits of Sprints

I would never make it in a factory. Or in retail. Or in any career where my value is measured in hourly increments stacked up over a pay period.


I just don’t have the endurance. When I work – writing, working on a strategy for a client, sanding down my kids’ play set, whatever – I tend to be the most productive if I work in sprints. I get more done in short bursts of high intensity work then I do in tackling a single task over a long period of time.

Again, why?

Part of it has to do with boredom. When I read, I have much better retention of material if I can focus my reading in increments of 15 to 30 minutes. If I get into a book and have the time to read chapter after chapter for more than an hour, I am much less likely to remember it the next day. Where as if I read for four 15-minute increments over 90 minutes to two hours, I am much more likely to be able to recite specific passages.

The same goes for writing. Even today, I had a big word count goal. If I’m working really hard, I can write about 2,000 words per hour of non-fiction and about half that of fiction. I told myself yesterday that, in order to set myself up for success on a project, I needed to go into next week having written 12,000 words this weekend. It was a big goal, like I said. But rather than chaining myself to a coffee shop table and banging my fingers on the keyboard until they bled, I devised a strategy. Writing for 30 minutes, I can write 1,000 words without my concentration lagging. Any longer than that and I would get tired a couple hours in. So I decided to write 30 minutes six times each day – today and Sunday. In between, I would spend 90 minutes doing other things – talking a long walk, running errands, catching up on English Premier League.

Did it work? Absolutely. I’m now writing this at 8:13 pm, having completed my 6,000 words for the day and not even feeling very tired. I’ve also spent a bit of time reviewing what I’ve written and it is much better than the things I wrote over marathon sessions.

Go figure.

If you read the brilliant Born to Run by Christopher MacDougall, you’ll be familiar with the theory that seeks to explain how slow, upright humans evolved physiologically to survive in a world dominated by much faster four-legged predators. McDougall explores a lion hunt on the African savannah in which a lion sprints away from hunters, which follow at a slower, but much more sustainable pace. While the lion is able to cover short distances at great speed, the hunters can cover much longer distances at slower speeds. Lions run 100 yard dashes. Humans run marathons.

And while that explains our physiology, I can’t help but believe our neurology is the exact opposite and, also, kind of the same. We are able to pay enough attention for a long period of time to, say, watch The Lord of the Rings. But in order to write The Lord of the Rings, we need bursts and breaks.

It’s a theory. I’m no neurologist, but I have spent enough time bent over a keyboard to know what works for me. Whether I’m writing or at work, I break tasks down into easily managed chunks. If I have a 20-slide presentation to create, I break into five groups of four slides. If I have a 100,000-word book to write, I take it in a hundred, 1,000-word increments.

Easy enough.

But to keep myself honest, I assign a time limit to each of the tasks. A thousand words gets 30 minutes. Four slides gets 40 minutes or 10 minutes a slide. Not only does this help me project deadlines, it keeps me honest. I set a timer on my computer and have iTunes playlists of ambient music that I can easily drown out in 20, 30 and 40 minute length increments. I hit play on the tunes, start on the timer and dive write in.

What happens when the timer ends? Well, just like a test, it’s pencils down. It doesn’t matter if I’m struggling toward the last sentence or if I’m feeling good enough to keep going, I stop. I get up. I move around. I know that if I don’t my work with suffer and so will I.

This system would never work for someone like my brother-in-law, who has spent a majority of his career building cars. His success is measured in time and quotas. His schedule is prepared for him and he has adapted ways of keeping himself engaged over long periods of time. When I worked retail, I used to pray for big rushes of people to keep me distracted and make the time go quickly.

But now that I make my living exploring and understanding, challenging and communicating ideas, I need my mind to be as engaged as possible; to get as much clarity and clearheadedness to produce my best work. In order to do that I have to channel my mental Usain Bolt.

The sprint is not necessarily for everyone. I work with a lot of talented people who seem endless in their ability to work for hours and hours. I envy that, but I just can’t do it. The key to being a sprinter and being effective at sprinting is to manage it, to understand it, plan for it and work sprints into your day. If you’re like me, it will make a world of difference. Your work will get better, your mind will be clearer and that little part of you that starts to wander will be put in check.

Try a sprint:

  1. Take a large task and break it down into slices that will take you a half hour to complete.
  2. Plan a day where you can complete at least four sprints. Early morning, mid morning, afternoon and evening.
  3. Set a timer on your phone.
  4. Work until it dings.

I’d love to hear if it works for you and I’d love to explain a little more, but I’ve done my thousand words and the timer just went off.

Pencils down.

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