Performance Lessons from the Gym

After a year hiatus, it’s time to get back in shape and I’ve started going to the gym again. The other day my daughter asked me about the exercise journal I use: “So, does everyone at the gym carry a clip board?” The short answer was, “No.” and her question got me thinking about how some of the lessons I’ve learned at the gym apply to improving performance at work.

Start where you are, not where you want to be. I’m older, heavier, and more time crunched than ever. After taking a year off from lifting weights, there’s strong temptation to try start where I left off. It’s good for the ego, but bad for the body, so I started where I needed to be. The weight was ridiculously, embarrassingly light, but it let me focus on technique and build my strength in a slow and steady approach. When learning to be a great supervisor, communicate better, dress professionally, or whatever, we’ll never go wrong starting at the beginning and building a good foundation.

Have a goal and a plan. There are lots of ways to increase physical performance: endurance, strength, flexibility, decrease weight, increase muscle size, etc. However, each requires a different approach, so for gym time to be effective, a person needs to know how they want to improve performance, and have a timeline, and a plan. One of my favorite quotes is from T. Boone Pickens: A fool with a plan can beat a genius with no plan. Want to get better at any work skill? Figuring out exactly how you need to improve and the steps to do it will put you light years ahead of those who are simply hoping for the best. Stop trying to randomly fix everything and focus on the one or two skills that will make the biggest difference in your job this year.

It’s all about you. It’s easy to be intimidated by the gym rats who seem to have muscles on their muscles or feel the need to follow the crowd and do what everyone else is doing. Development is extremely individual and it’s important to remember to only measure your progress against you. There will always be people at work who are more experienced, more skilled, and make your challenges seem effortless. Where you are against them doesn’t matter, it only matters that you are better than you were and steadily getting better than you are now.

Aim for steady progress // persistence pays off. Development is never about today. Never. Ever. There people at the gym who throw technique out the window – risking injury and only doing about half of the proper exercise – in an attempt to lift more than they can safely handle. All the grunting and body distortion is dramatic, but largely counterproductive. Likewise, being great at work today does no good if we burnout, break down, or burn bridges. All development is about doing things today that make us better tomorrow. If we’re in it for the long-haul, we can stay focused on the plan and be confident we’ll get to where we need to be.

Go three steps forward and two steps back. Improvement is not linear so I have learned to cycle the amount of weight I lift, periodically reducing weight and then slowly increasing past where I was before. As wonderful as it would be to make linear progress forever, that’s not how people improve any strength, physical or mental. We need time to rest, recuperate, and rethink. Ever have an unsolvable problem, stop thinking about it for a few days and have the answer pop into your head? That’s how people learn and incorporate new skills and ideas. Sometimes we can take a lot in at once, sometimes we make almost no progress despite our efforts, so we need to allow for the growth spurts, setbacks, and plateaus.

Measure progress. I am currently focused on building strength and I have found that what I can lift today isn’t as important to me as making sure I’m steadily gaining strength. Because I have a plan and continually track progress, I can anticipate the timing of the next several milestones. Professional development can be less objective to measure than weights, but without measurement, change and improvement is difficult to manage. It’s also much easier to give up in the dark moments if you can’t see where you’re headed and look back on how you’ve already improved.

Improvement hurts. Lately, I wake up at a time that is “daytime” only in the technical sense so I can get to the gym before the crowds. Picking up heavy things makes the muscles ache a lot longer than it used to. Where I once enjoyed running, these days I grind out a jogging/walking/stagger more reminiscent of a zombie movie than a Nike ad. But it’s ok because I expect exercise to be uncomfortable. The bigger challenge is when we forget that all development is uncomfortable and expect to get better without effort or difficulty. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work that way and the discomfort of the unknown, fear of looking ignorant, and internal tyranny of self-doubt are far more painful than time in the gym.

It’s not about the gym, it’s about getting better. The gym is just an easy to understand analogy for looking at what it takes to improve professionally. (That said, if you’re into such things, you might check out #HRFitCrew on social media and join in.)


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