Some Thoughts On: Working Hard Enough

In May last year I started working with my powerlifting coach – the result of which was this post on knowing when to push yourself. In short – I suggested tempering your expectations of how much you achieved each day in relation to how you were feeling. The goal was to aim for a sustainable ‘rate of perceived exertion’ (RPE).

…Well, it turns out that’s really hard to estimate.

A couple of weeks ago it dawned on me how poor we humans are at estimating where our ‘max exertion’ level is. In other words, when we think our tank is close to empty, we’re normally underestimating ourselves. Anyone that’s pushed themselves to failure can likely back up this sentiment – you had more in you than you thought. In fact, a friend that used to run spartan races with me had a term for this: ‘your emergency tank’.

Now, I’m not suggesting we need to push ourselves harder every day, but rather, I want to share with you a useful tactic for better estimating how close you are to failure (physical, mental, and emotional).

Velocity loss.

To continue the lifting metaphor for a little while longer, let’s say you’re doing a bench press. The first couple of reps tend to set the pace for the whole set. In fact, if you had a stopwatch and timed each up/down movement, you’d find that the first 60-70% of your reps would be at roughly the same speed. Then, lactic acid and fatigue starts to build up, it’s harder to push, and each rep then starts taking progressively longer.

This is velocity loss – and this is how you start to estimate that you’re close to failure.

Each rep past that point will get slower and slower until eventually you can’t even lift the bar off your chest.

The Art of Sustainable Effort

There’s a general rule of thumb here:

The closer you are to failure (burnout), the longer the rest period needed.

Take a moment and reflect back to the last time you found yourself in a crunch period (probably in an effort to hit some sort of deadline) – working 16-20 hr days with only a few hours sleep scattered throughout. Do that for just a few days and you’ll likely need at least 5-10 full recovery days before you feel ‘refreshed’ enough to think strategically and enthusiastically about a problem again.

Ideally, we want to avoid that. So our target here is maximum sustainable effort. That can be for you personally, or across your teams.

So how do you know when you’re close?

You watch for velocity loss.

When work output starts slowing down, take a genuine break. An afternoon together at the pub, or simply just a midday-finish can work wonders. Catch it early, and you’ll maintain that strategic, attentive enthusiasm that you’re after.