I have been an endurance athlete all my life. I bicycled across the United States, spent two weeks kayaking 140 miles down the Missouri River, and bicycled 300 miles in 24 hours. I know what it is like to be tired, sore, and hungry but still have a long way to go before the bright lights and loud cheers of the finish line.
The strategies I implement during an endurance event are the same that work in the corporate world. Whether it is kicking off a major project, starting a new job, or preparing for a big presentation, these 4 tactics helped me accomplish those new or challenging tasks.
Last year I was preparing to run 100 miles — twice my longest run — on narrow, dirt trails through the mountains. Compared to my other runs, the distance is 2x, the time to complete could be 3x and the pain and suffering could be 4x. Most runners go through the night and see the sunrise, the sunset, and then the sunrise again on their journey. All with zero sleep. It’s hard. But so are many things we face at work. Try these 4 tips:
1. Visualize Success
Do you know what success looks like? For this run, it was crossing the finish line on both legs within the 30-hour time limit. For two months before, I went to bed dreaming of crossing the finish line with my hands in the air, a big smile on my face, and my wife waiting with a warm embrace.
I use this same technique when getting ready for a big presentation. I imagine the audience sitting straight up, laughing at my jokes, and asking lots of questions. I imagine them coming up at the end and thanking me for an insightful presentation. Is it corny? Yes. Does it work? It sure helps. Here’s proof.
The University of Chicago studied the impact of visualization and shooting basketballs. Each of the following groups were tested at the beginning to measure their accuracy of free throws:
1. Practice Group – This group practiced free throws everyday for an hour.
2. Visualization Group – This group visualized throwing the ball but never touched it.
3. Control Group – This group did nothing.
After 30 days, the groups were retested. The first group improved 24%. The second group improved 23% without even touching the ball. And as expected, the third group didn’t change at all. While practicing has a significant improvement, visualizing success is comparable.
So when I ACTUALLY cross the finish line or give presentation for the first time, MENTALLY I have successfully done it at least three dozen times.
2. Talk To People
I can almost guarantee someone has been in your situation before. Unless of course, you are going to Mars. And even if that is the case, talk to people who have been to the moon – there aren’t many. Talk to people who have been to space — more than who have been to the moon. Or, talk to people who work for NASA – more than who have been in space. Ask about what they learned or their challenges or their suggestions.
I have several friends who have run 100 miles. They told me how different it was from a 50 mile run. They told me where people have problems. They told me how to train. While their experience won’t be exactly like mine, at least I am more ready for some of the challenges I will face along the way.
During my career, I’ve rolled out many new systems. While I prefer not to be a company’s first implementation, there are times I’ve been the biggest. I spent time with previous customers talking about challenges, issues, and problems. I probe the technical staff. I pinged our own IT department. While I ask a lot of questions, the most important one is: “What one thing did you wish you knew before you started?” If you can’t find someone to talk to, keep looking.
3. Practice Being In the Situation
So if practice and visualization have similar results, imagine what combining both could do. It is hard to practice running 100 miles before the event. Even people who run marathons don’t run 26.2 miles before their big day. But, put yourself in a similar environment. Instead of doing a training run in the morning after a restful sleep, do it in the dark after a hard day of work. It is very different and will better prepare you mentally when the sun goes down and you still have 12 more hours to run. If you can’t practice or experience the full environment, break it into parts.
Standing in front of a large audience and giving a presentation for the first time is nerve-wracking. For the big presentations, I’ve given them to test audiences (of my peers) who will give valuable feedback and be gentle. I’ve delivered them in front of a mirror or recorded myself. And I always make sure the introduction is solid. I practice it in the car while driving, in the shower before work, or on the trail while running. Because if I can start strong, confidence will carry me a long way. It’s hard to trip at the beginning and finish strong. I then practice each of the main parts over and over. This reminds me of the musician walking through New York who asked someone, “What is the best way to get to Carnegie Hall?” The person just replied, “Practice. Practice. Practice.”
4. Ask “What If?”
It’s no fun when things go wrong. But, they will. At 3 a.m. after 23 hours of running and my stomach not reacting well to the most recent caloric intake, I needed a new plan. I had been in similar situations before and had thought through my options for when my stomach went on strike. All endurance athletes throw up at some point as your gastrointestinal system is stressed to the max. If this is your first experience, you may panic and want to stop. But, there are easy remedies so be prepared when it happens.
Any good project manager asks “What If?” all the time. It’s called Risk Assessment. They think about a key person leaving, a system going down, or some other catastrophe occurring. And depending on the impact to the project’s goals, they put in a plan to mitigate the risk. A good friend is a pilot and talks about the redundant systems on an airplane. Failure at 30,000 feet can have dire consequences. You don’t need a Plan B if you run out of peanuts but will if the rear stabilizer fails.
What risks do you face? If they are significant, what are your mitigation plans? And, if the risk actually occurs, what is your plan to fight through it?
We all face challenging situations. Using these 4 tips will improve your odds of a successful outcome. 25 hours after starting my first 100 miler, I crossed the finish line. My hands were in the air as my wife put her arms around me for the embrace I had dreamed of well before I started this crazy adventure.