Work and Rest Like an Athlete

Written on 08 August 2021

For the last 30+ years, my parents have been working 10 hours a day, Monday to Saturday, on their business. When they first started the business, they were working even longer hours. For most school holidays, my siblings and I would run errands at the shop, collecting payments, buying lunch, and sweeping the floor.

Growing up in such an environment, I developed a work ethic similar to my parents'.

To get better at writing, I challenged myself to write 30 articles in 30 days. I practiced writing about 1,000 words every day and read a lot so that I can write two long-form articles every week and still work on SEO and distribution. I started Open Atlas and Yeti Distro while I was at Buffer by working in the mornings and weekends.

And I'm writing this on a Sunday afternoon.

But it isn't just working hard non-stop, as Paul Graham wrote:

Once you know the shape of real work, you have to learn how many hours a day to spend on it. You can't solve this problem by simply working every waking hour, because in many kinds of work there's a point beyond which the quality of the result will start to decline.

Working smart

When I joined Buffer, I was exposed to the idea of working smarter, not harder. Instead of working long hours, I was encouraged to be smart about it. For example, taking breaks, instead of powering through, can help us achieve better results. Many of my better ideas came when I was out for a walk or right after a nap.

But over the years, I learned that working hard and working smart do not have to be mutually exclusive. I take a lot of inspiration from athletes. They work very hard but they also take care of themselves so that they can perform.

There's a saying among athletes, "train hard, rest harder".

Olympic triathletes put in a huge volume of training. No matter how smart they are about their training, and they definitely try to be, they would need a sizable volume of training to perform at the elite level. There's no shortcut. Double Olympic gold medalist Alistair Brownlee wrote that he trains, on average, 35 hours a week over 45 weeks of the year. That is about five hours every day! But they also know the importance of recovery, having "countless hours of massage, physio and all the rest."

Alex Ferguson also wrote about how David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Wayne Rooney would stay after training to perfect their free kicks. But they are as disciplined about looking after themselves. Ferguson wrote in his book, Leading:

[Ronaldo] had this desire to become the greatest player in the world and was determined to do so. He also paid tremendous attention to nutrition, which pre-date his move to England. These days he is religious about taking ice baths after every game so that he can continue to play at the level he demands of himself. He does not touch alcohol, and keeps himself at about three kilograms below his natural weight because, now in his thirties, he has found this helps him maintain his pace.

Work hard. Rest harder.

Knowing myself

In sports, there's the term "active recovery". Instead of doing absolutely nothing to rest after a strenuous workout, athletes do light exercises to help their body recover faster. Active recovery is built into my triathlon training program; it is not just an afterthought. Every four weeks, I do a week of lighter training.

Instead of doing nothing to rest after work, I am intentional about doing things that recharge me.

For example, I have breakfast and dinner with my wife every day. I work out daily and meditate often. I go for long rides outside on the weekends. I sleep by 9 to 10 pm to get sufficient sleep. I read books during lunch and before bed. I also avoid alcohol. And as odd as it sounds, tidying up the house (once in a while) clears my mind.

When I'm not intentional about recharging, I end up wasting my time scrolling through social media aimlessly. That doesn't recharge me. In fact, if I spend my weekends doing just that, I would get anxious when Monday comes around.

How to work is a personal thing. I have found the most satisfaction alternating between working hard and resting intentionally.