A few years back I joined a triathlon team at the local YMCA. I’ve always been interested in endurance sports. I’m an avid cyclist, and had just completed the Los Angeles marathon, so I figured if I added a bit of swimming to the mix I would be a super athlete. Interestingly enough, swimming turned out to be nothing like the other two legs of a triathlon event. The sport itself requires as much technique and coordination as it demands physical condition. It is fascinating to observe how much you can improve over the weeks, not just by becoming stronger, but especially so by tweaking form, becoming aware of your body position, and noticing how it affects the way the water is channeled around you. But perhaps the deepest insight that came from that experience has nothing to do with sports.
Bear with me for a moment as I explain. You see, most triathletes train for the swim portion of their sport in a swimming pool despite the fact that, in general, triathlon events require participants to swim in a lake, reservoir or the open sea. When training in the pool you perform different strike exercises, learn your pace and so on, and all the time you’re told to look down and follow the dark blue line. On the other hand, open water swimming during a race is much simpler rule and etiquette-wise, but can be much more intense. All you have to do is swim toward your goal as fast as possible!
And yet, as simple as that sounds, most of the time you end up taking longer to get there and you swim for a longer distance than you need because you lose sense of direction. And not just because you’re engulfed in a swarm of thrashing limbs. There are several reasons why the ocean can set even the most seasoned swimmer off track. Some are external. Waves will unbalance your stroke, making you work harder with one arm than the other; Water currents or a strong wind will push you consistently in one direction. Other reasons are internal. Some people stroke differently with one arm than the other. In a swimming pool, small deviations don’t matter that much, because every few seconds you touch the wall, turn, and reset. But in the ocean, even a minor shift in direction will eventually push you far from your goal.
Open water swimming is very much like today’s work environment, in that you have not only to set your own long term goals, but also make sure that you’re working toward those goals. Successful goal setting is not just about goal setting, but about achieving those goals. In the real world, it’s easy to get sidetracked working on the wrong things without even realizing. Much like in open water swimming, there are factors, both external (that last email you received, the planning for an exciting project that’s still months ahead, or even a coworker coming to chat) and internal (lack of caffeine, personal problems, pictures of cats!), that can send you miles away without any warning.
Luckily, a couple of weeks before my the Santa Cruz Triathlon, my big event for that summer, our coaches took us to the ocean in a cold, foggy California morning. We did two laps, from the shore to a buoy and back each time. The first time, I found myself swimming diagonals, zigzagging around and falling way behind my more experienced teammates. The second time, I was taught the simple trick: When you get in the water, look for a fixed reference. It might just be the buoy, or perhaps a mountain in the horizon or a bright colored building, if you’re so lucky. Then, every 10 strokes or so, look up and check that you are facing the right direction. It might seem wasteful to slow down to look up, but it’s a small price to pay for making sure you don’t swim one yard further than required. This second time around, I followed those instructions and the results were astounding. I could keep up with my teammates without expending a bit of energy more than before, simply by staying the course, confidently and relaxed because I had a fixed goal and I could see I was making progress toward it.
Here is where the analogy with the real world becomes complete. When you set a goal for yourself, don’t just set it, lower your head and work away until you’re done. Every once in a while, step back, consider what you’re doing, and carefully think over whether it’s driving you closer to your objectives, or away from them. In our team, we do this in various ways. For example, we have daily scrum meetings, with weekly recap/retrospective sessions to correct the plan. Personally, I like starting my day writing a list of things I want to achieve. Then around lunch time, I grab a cup of coffee, take a look at that list and see if I’m making progress. More often than not, I realize that I spent too much time on something that wasn’t what I planned. When that happens, I nudge myself back to work on the right thing, whatever is important and urgent, or perhaps, sometimes, it is fit to alter the daily plan if something relevant has changed.
Remember: Check your bearings, and stay the course!