« The real reasons for the modern productivity movement | Main | IdeaLab 0826: Systemic self-repair, over-blogging, faith, and "doing it" productivity style »

Productivity lessons from mountain biking. Or, what sports can teach us about doing

I'm reading The Inner Game of Tennis, and the first page sounds like a how-to for becoming more effective. From "The Inner Game of Tennis" is Genius:
The player of the inner game comes to value the art of relaxed concentration above all other skills; he discovers a true basis for self-confidence; and he learns that the secret to winning any game lies in not trying too hard. He aims at the kind of spontaneous performance which occurs only when the mind is calm and seems at one with the body, which finds its own surprising ways to surpass its own limits again and again. Moreover, while overcoming the common hand-ups of competition, the player of the inner game uncovers a will to win which unlocks all his energy and which is never discourages by losing.
Sound familiar?

This made me wonder if we substitute "work" for "tennis" we'd get something readily transferable. And this happened while mountain biking [1], so I thought I'd play with connections between it and being productive. I've made the following light-hearted observations, which I hope you'll find valuable.

  • Steady beats sprinting: Steady, consistent pedalling beats sprinting for efficiently covering ground. But a mixture is natural, and sprints are important for hard sections. Interpretation: Avoid "binge" work, e.g., putting off something until a big chunk of time is available, then focusing on it long and deeply. It doesn't work because those chunks don't show up anymore. Much better to break big tasks into bite-sized pieces - something you can do in one sitting, say an hour or less - and tackle them one at a time. For particularly hard tasks, consider sprints (AKA "dashes" [2]) to unstick them.
  • Exercise is good for you: Not a breakthrough thought here, but it's good to tie in health when talking about making progress on the things you care about. I've found that exercise helps me relax and take my mind off work, which opens up my brain to receiving ideas. And while I might disagree with Pressfield in The War of Art (buy it!) about where they come from, I'm not about to lose them. Interpretation: Staying healthy is important.
  • Be ready for inspiration: When those ideas hit you, always be ready to capture them. My riding buddy uses Jott, but I just carry a small pad of paper and pen. Disadvantage of paper: Reading notes later (the pages go into the inbox like anything else) is a challenge because the writing is all jerky and scribbly. I guess it's an occupational hazard in sports involving sweat, adrenaline, and bears. Interpretation: Always have a note-taking tool with you. For work I love my legal pad during meetings, client sessions, and reading, but anything will do. Avoid a PDA, though - too slow. Another tip: When you're having a hard conversation - such as a dispute with the phone company - record the facts then file them in a "problem folder." If you have to follow up (and you probably will) your case will be much more compelling when you can rattle off who you talked to, when, and what they promised.
  • Notice when making mistakes. In the productivity blogosphere you can find a lot about making mistakes. They're good, you're not making them if you're not doing anything, "good" ones are those you learn from, etc. And I agree. When biking I find I make them when my judgement is off, esp. when I'm tired. If I try to push through I get hurt. It's better to slow down, take a break, or switch it up (e.g., hike-a-bike for a minute). Don't let that get in the way of happy accidents, though. I've been delighted more than once discovering a new trail or running into another biker. Interpretation: Be aware of your energy level, monitor errors and flow, and don't be afraid to take breaks. It's not a sign of weakness.
  • Sometimes going faster is safer: This is counterintuitive and requires trust, but there are times when it's best to push through something faster than you're used to or comfortable with. On the trails there are rocky sections that, when taken slowly, feel like you're hydroplaning on gravel. But if you speed up, your shocks start taking over and you can fly. It's like breaking through the sound barrier, except you're on a bike instead of a jet, and you're going a hundred times slower. Interpretation: Control your perfectionism by being a bit less careful and pushing for faster progress. Use Parkinson's law to limit how much time you allocate to the task, and stick to it. Also, consider lowering your standards. It's not a bad thing in this case. (See Great Time Management Ideas From The World Of Improv Wisdom, esp. the fifth maxim: Be Average.)
  • Always wear a helmet: When you're doing something that's risky (i.e., involves costly potential mistakes) it's foolish not to have protection [3]. Interpretation: Have a safety net. For example, back up your To Dos using your calendar: In addition to putting the item on your actions list, create an all-day event that identifies the deadline for doing it (if it has one) or an informational "__ days until __" or "it's been __ days since __" entry. (There are some subtleties with using the calendar effectively. Start with "Do On" or "Due By?") Another example: Make sure you have regular automated backups of your computer. (I learned about triple redundancy as a NASA employee [4].) When I mention this to my individual clients I often get a big "THANK YOU!"
  • Try biking with friends: While I enjoy soloing, I really love sharing the trails with people. It's more fun, I get to learn from them, and we're there for each other in case of a spill. Interpretation: If you work on your own, consider scheduling a work date, either in person or by phone. Also, consider the value of asking for help. Sometimes a second opinion can get us un-stuck or give us some needed perspective.
  • Pick a good line: Identifying and carefully choosing your path can mean the difference between sailing and grinding. But there's a time for both. When I'm climbing a steep hill I sometimes choose an easy one because if I stop I'll have trouble getting started again. But there are times when I want to challenge myself by taking the hard way. In either case, it's better to find some way to get up rather than stopping to think too much. Interpretation: Plan as much as necessary, but error on the lesser side, and stay flexible. Also, if you're working on a problem, play with possible solutions before jumping in. But again, as my painter friends say, "Don't over-work the piece."
  • Know what trail you're on: Going fast, but on the wrong trail, leads to frustration and backtracking. It's better to pay attention and have a map as backup when riding new trails. Interpretation: Keep your larger vision in mind. When you pick your next action, factor in which of them will move you towards your higher goals. If you're not doing at least one of those every day, you have some thinking to do. Also: If you're trying something new, tap into the experience of others and learn how they did it. History, repeating mistakes, etc.
  • Buy a good bike...: No question about it, when I'm out there I depend on my bike. The trails are rough, and lower-quality equipment literally slows me down. It's also more vulnerable to failure. Interpretation: Your equipment and tools are essential to your work, so invest a bit in quality ones. A powerful computer, multiple monitors, and good filing cabinets. Ditto for your desk chair [5].
  • ...but the rider matters more: Buying a new bike or getting upgraded parts is fun, and you might see a performance boost while still novel, but it's still about the rider, not the bike. Interpretation: Don't fall into the tool trap. Changing tools is easy, but changing metawork habits is hard. Keep in mind, the method I teach just uses a calendar and three lists.
  • Try visualizing: Sometimes stopping to visualize your path is helpful, especially on new and difficult sections. For me, following a line with my eyes and imagining myself riding at each point makes a big difference. But after one or two mental "runs," it's time to give it shot. Interpretation: Try visualizing for motivation (e.g., seeing finished projects), results (e.g., fantasizing phenomenal success), or courage (e.g., dealing with possible scenarios).
  • Avoid backtracking: I've noticed that when planning a ride no one likes backtracking. We seem to naturally prefer loops instead. Maybe this has an evolutionary origin. As hunter-gatherers, staying in same place probably posed a risk - we could use up the resources, become prey, or get fat and lazy. Interpretation: Challenge yourself and try doing things a new way. Also, look for opportunities to automate. Use checklists to make regular work routine and to reduce unnecessary attention sinks. Remember Matt's Law of the Routine: If you're repeating work, it's a waste after the third time [6]. (OK, I just made that up.)
  • Stay back from your edge most of the time: For a long time I rode at my edge, both in terms of of endurance and skill. This was partly due to ego, and partly due to wanting to improve my performance. Then I had a conversation with Chris Crouch, which changed my perspective on the relationship between it and maximum productivity. Check out The Productivity I/O Sweet Spot, Or Why Balance Is A Bad Thing, but the take-away was to back well off of the edge, at least most of the time. For riding this meant taking more breaks and being more respectful of difficult sections of the trail. And guess what? I had more fun and performed a lot better. Surprise! Interpretation: Pick smaller tasks (be more granular in breaking projects down) and take frequent short (micro) breaks.
  • Talking's talking, and riding's riding: When it comes down to it, putting your butt in the seat and pedalling is what gets things done. Interpretation: Work takes seat time. As Don Aslett writes in How to Have a 48-Hour Day [7], the biggest secret of accomplishment is time on the job (what he calls "banging things out"). I love how he puts it: "It's amazing how much of a time management expert this will make you."

How about you? How does your favorite non-work activity improve your personal productivity? How has it changed how you look at your work? Any take-ways for us?


  • [1]I love mountain biking. I ride a couple times a week during the season, and here in New England we've a bunch of fantastic trails [1]. Is it dangerous? Somewhat. Is it painful? Sometimes. But it is a heck of a lot of fun.
  • [2] A reader asked recently what I thought "about the whole 'work in dashes' concept." I replied that it's a useful technique. Merlin describes it in Kick procrastination's ass: Run a dash. I call it time blocking and work chunking, but it's the same idea: Break work down into a fixed segment (preferably small) and focus. It leverages the idea that getting started is hard, and that momentum builds once we dive in. Mann also has a formula to get started: Break an hour into 5 10-minute segments, with a 2 minute break between - (10+2)*5. (Speaking of formulae, you might enjoy my Some Tasty Morsels From The Ideamatt Self Help Formulary.)
  • [3] Jeez - I sound like a condom commercial.
  • [4] Check out this article from my old stomping grounds: Public Lessons Learned Entry: 0659. I was pleasantly surprised to see that I'm not the only one getting value from tracking lessons learned.
  • [5] A surprising tip from How to save money running a startup: "Buy cheap tables and expensive chairs. Tables are a complete rip off. We buy stainless steel restaurant tables that are $100 and $600 Areon chairs. Total cost per workstation? $700. Compare that to buying a $500-$1,500 cube/designer workstation. The chair is the only thing that matters... invest in it."
  • [6] The first time it's new. The second time might be spurious. But after the third time you've probably seen enough instances to form a pattern. You might resist taking the time out to automate, but take it from a former programmer: It's always better to write a subroutine than to copy and paste. :-)
  • [7] This book was controversial. For example, his take on workaholism: A cop out for not having guts (NB: that's my interpretation). And on being present: Busy is the best way to smell the flowers. Here's a good one on work and play: "If Martians arrived and our activities weren't labeled work or play, how would they know the difference?"

Reader Comments (12)

Great post, Matt. You make me want to take up mountain biking. :-)

September 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

Thanks, Rebecca. Yes, I really love the sport. Maybe you have some good hills where you live?

P.S. I'm happy about all the [ good things | http://miscellaneousmayhem.blogspot.com/2008/08/hello-againhello.html ] going on in your life. I loved the falcon (hawk?) visitor. Nature's something else.

September 5, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Valuable book. In the 70s, Gallway was my introduction to "the inner game," his interpretation of Eastern philosophy and processes to thinking and doing. I'm glad he's still being discovered and read.

September 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

Thanks for your comment, Andrew. Maybe 1/3 of my candidates library ( see [ A Reading Workflow Based On Leveen`s "Little Guide" | http://matthewcornell.org/blog/2007/03/reading-workflow-based-on-leveens.html ] ) is books like this, from time management to personal development. Some of my favorites are "older" ones like this (e.g., PO). What others would you recommend?

September 8, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell


Great post, I too will have to seriously consider mountain biking now.

I read the Inner Game of Tennis awhile ago and found that it definitely can be reapplied to other things besides Tennis (you can read my full review at http://www.drewtarvin.com/blog/articles/the-inner-game-of-tennis/ if interested).

My question to you is, how do you think it applies to things like work that aren't based in a physical motion. What does self 2 do then?

September 10, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDrew Tarvin

Matt, I've got a good addition to your list. I'm an avid mountain biker and when biking through a rocky area I noticed that I'm much more apt to hit the rocks when they are what I focus on visually as opposed to when I focus on the path between the rocks. That's a real practical application of the old maxim "Obstacles are what we see when we take our eye off of our goals".

September 11, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJoe Banks

Matt, if you enjoyed the Inner Game of Tennis, let me recommend another book in the same vein. It's called [ The Pleasure of Small Motions | http://www.amazon.com/Pleasures-Small-Motions-Mastering-Billiards/dp/1585745391 ]. I picked it up when I was having a particularly tough time with the mental side of pool and the book absolutely changed my life. It really opened my eyes up to how unrealistic my expectations were about what I can achieve at any given moment. This alleviated my frustration not only with pool but with work and my relationships. I now see my life as incremental change and I don't allow myself the frustration of not being good enough I just see the path to my goals as a step by step process.

September 11, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJoe Banks

Hi Drew. Not much I can add except that any effort - sports, productivity improvements, art - has both technical and master/performance sides. What keeps us from being on our game? How can we go deeper? Etc. More on the subject from you would be welcome.

September 11, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

I've experienced the same thing. Lovely one - thanks.

September 11, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Matt - You raise two interesting questions.

For the first- what keeps us off our game, I think it goes back to "thinking too much." I've personally dealt with many situations where I've made a mistake at something, and then have told myself "I just need to make up for it, just correct it now." For example, if I strike out in baseball, the next time I'm up, I might think "If you hit a homerun, the strikeout will be forgotten." My mind is still focused on the thinking (hit a homerun), and not the doing (letting the body swing naturally like it has a thousand times in the past).

For the second- how do we go deeper- I wish I knew. Perhaps improving our imaginations, our ability to think in details and really immersing ourselves in the ability to nonjudgementally observe AND visualize, we could make even better improvements. After all, maybe it's poor visualization that misses observing how the seams of a baseball are moving (to determine it's a curveball), and therefore self 2 doesn't know how to account for it.

I imagine (ha) it's also related to repetition. The best way to get better at something, to develop those habits or "grooves" is through the repetition of doing it. Whether it's playing baseball, doing improv, or managing a project, repetition allows you to move out of self 1 and go into autopilot (self 2). There's a reason Tiger Woods still goes to the driving range despite being the world's #1 golfer.

How would you say we go deeper? Is there a way to shortcut "practice for 1,000 hours"? How does this apply to GTD or personal/project management?

September 12, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDrew Tarvin

Hi Drew.

> what keeps us off our game, I think it goes back to "thinking too much."

Yes! I've been thinking about over-thinking, and, at least in the town of smarties I live in, it can get in the way of progress.

> "I just need to make up for it, just correct it now."

Excellent point. Our psycho-muscular system gets thrown off if we focus on the thinking. This is solid [ Alexander Technique | http://matthewcornell.org/search/node/alexander ] ground; very deep. Do you know about it?

> how do we go deeper- I wish I knew

Ditto. I love your insight re: non-judgemental observation. It's going into my book.

> How would you say we go deeper? Is there a way to shortcut "practice for 1,000 hours"?

Sadly, I don't think there are any shortcuts. We humans have been thinking about this many, many centuries, and (like the paranormal!) something would have shown up by now. And there'd be a hell of a lot of bloggers (incl. yours truly) out of work.

> How does this apply to GTD or personal/project management?

Hey - If I had the answer I wouldn't be relying on you. Jeez! :-) Seriously, this deserves further study. Finishing Gallwey's book would be a great next step.

Thanks for your comments, Drew. Much appreciated!

September 16, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

I'm an avid mountain biker out on the West Coast. On every ride, I learn something new or deeper about myself, my bike, the trail, the land surrounding the trail, figuring out where to go, how to get there, and how to do this myself.

I'd probably re-phrase your point about talking vs. riding as--Nobody else does the ride for you. You gotta do it, or not do it. (Sometimes the real smart thing is to know the extent of your skill sets, and not try the extreme passage.)

My hobbyist involvement with mountain biking actually led me into managing a bike store for several years, which made a big difference in my overall riding.

October 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMTNBKR

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.