Productivity Lessons from Artists and Entrepreneurs
There's a lot of overlap between athletics and work, and the world's best apply the same principles to, say, training for a marathon as they do to building a business
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Though building up your body and mind to tackle athletic challenges may seem like a unique endeavor, that’s not the case. Performance is performance, and there are many parallels between training for a marathon, making great art, and building a business that lasts. All are challenges that demand hard work and self-control in pursuit of a goal that is days, months, or even years away. Persistence is key, as is the ability to cultivate, sustain, and channel motivation.
Put simply, the overlap between professional, creative, and athletic success is huge. Here are a few timeless productivity lessons, or principles of performance, that apply no matter what you’re doing.
Prioritize Consistency Over Heroic Efforts
“People who don’t do creative work for a living often assume that it’s like what they see in the movies—that it’s 36 hours of muse-fueled blitz, sitting at a typewriter with a cigarette, pouring out genius,” says Ryan Holiday, creative strategist and author whose latest is Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work That Lasts. But that’s simply not the case. Though inspiration can suddenly strike, turning it into a tangible finished product is a matter of sustained effort, he says. “It’s getting up every day and doing the work…taking thousands of passes and polishes.”
The same holds true for athletic development, according to Steve Magness, professional running coach and my co-author of Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success. “It’s okay to do what I call ‘see God’ workouts every once in a while,” he says, “but the best athletes are the best not because of a few massive efforts, but because of consistency over a long duration.” Look, for example, at this chart representing the training of one of Magness’ top athletes prior to a breakout competitive season. Five is an all-out, puking in the corner effort, and zero is a skipped workout.
Having a mentor in entrepreneurial pursuits is “invaluable,” says Bob Kocher, a partner at Venrock, one of the largest venture capital firms in Silicon Valley. “Someone who cares about you, knows more than you, who will give you both good and constructive feedback and create opportunities is a blessing beyond imagination.” Additionally, a good mentor helps you avoid making the same mistakes they have. “We all need to grow, learn, and take risk,” says Kocher. “Having a mentor makes this massively easier.”
The value of a trusted coach is equally unquantifiable. A coach lets an athlete focus all their energy on execution, on showing up and getting the work done. Nic Lamb, who won the Titans of Mavericks in 2016, puts it like this: “Having trust in a coach is key. It removes the mental weight of needing to think about your workout. Instead, you can devote your full focus to showing up and executing.”
“When you’re working on a book, your brain is like a laptop that won’t go into sleep mode—it’s just getting hotter and hotter,” says Holiday. “Sleep is not just about rest. It’s the period where the mind is shut off and reset. You need that, or you will catch on fire.”
Kocher has observed that when entrepreneurs sacrifice sleep, they also “sacrifice creativity, self-control, and attention span.” Studies from researchers at Harvard demonstrate that our brains make sense of, consolidate, and store all the information we are exposed to during the day when we sleep. Additional research shows that sleep is integral to restoring willpower: When sleep is lacking, so is self-control.
Sleep, of course, also restores the body. It’s only after you’ve been sleeping for at least an hour that performance-enhancing anabolic hormones like testosterone and human growth hormone—both of which are critical to health and physical function—are released.
Put Yourself in Good Company
“I seek out people who know things I don’t and try to learn from them,” says Kocher, who adds that he surrounds himself with positive, smart, and diverse people who bring new perspectives and are not afraid to challenge him. Starting a business is hard, not only because you need to maintain motivation through ups and downs, but also because it can be easy to get stuck inside your own head. A supportive, honest, and open-minded peer group helps solve these problems, says Kocher, and encourages an entrepreneur to “pressure-test their thinking, assumptions, and ideas.”
Magness likes to say, “We is far more powerful than me.” A training group or team doesn’t just make you better because people are pushing you, he says, “but it also gives you a purpose beyond yourself.” A comprehensive analysis published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that one of the most powerful motivators to stick with a fitness program is being in a supportive environment.
Focus on What You Can Control, and Don’t Ever Become Complacent
“All work leaves your hands at some point,” says Holiday. And what happens next is almost always out of your control. “People either like your work of art or they don’t. The ball goes in or it doesn’t. Your time was good enough or it wasn’t.” Worrying about the result is a distraction from what you really should be thinking about: how you can respond, and what happens next. According to Holiday, this premise is just as true for a successful result as it is for a failure.
“I think people believe arriving is the big win. Don’t get me wrong—it’s an honor to make the NFL, or to be a published author, or to be invited to represent your country at the Olympics. But to me, that’s only the beginning. I want to beat myself each time,” says Holiday. “A lot of what goes into creating a body of creative work is the same thing that goes into being a great athlete: preparing, learning, not being complacent, finding ways to challenge yourself, and staying healthy. Look at Tom Brady: He looks better right now than he does on his 2000 draft-pick card. He’s smarter, wiser, and more dedicated. That’s the model to look at, I think.”
Brad Stulberg (@Bstulberg) writes Outside’s Science of Performance column and is author of the new book Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success.