This is part 1 of a series of 3 posts. After you read this, check out Part 2.
Several years ago, I decided to start lifting weights as part of my workout routine. After muddling my way through it at home (and seeing minimal results), I decided to work with a professional and hired a personal trainer. I was amazed at how quickly I saw results. Years later, I still see him every few months to tweak my workout routine and push me further.
Dave, my personal trainer, used to compete in bodybuilding competitions. He knows how to get results. He also understands how much psychology is responsible for being able to push yourself. Over time, I’ve observed that much of Dave’s advice doesn’t just apply to fitness and weightlifting. The psychology and coaching he uses to push me to achieve more than I could alone can also apply to being successful in the workplace.
Here are some workplace lessons I’ve learned from my personal trainer.
1. Be productive, not just busy
Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Work Week, has a quote I like: “Focus on being productive instead of busy.” It intrigues me that some people will work out regularly for years without reaching their fitness or weight loss goals. This is a prime example of being busy rather than productive. After haphazardly working out by myself, I finally acknowledged that I wasn’t getting anywhere near the results I wanted despite my efforts. I suspected that working with an expert would help me get results faster, and it did.
The same principle applies in the workplace. There is always somebody who has been in your shoes. You’re not the first person to have the kinds of problems and challenges that you’re having. Read books, blogs, and magazine articles from people you admire. Talk to your boss, a mentor, or a peer about the challenges you face and how you’re handling them to make sure you’re on the right track.
I recently attended a professional development event at work. The executive that spoke advised people to always talk to their manager to make sure they’re prioritizing their work appropriately. She acknowledged that some people are hesitant to do this because they feel that asking “Am I doing the right thing?” is a sign of weakness. She explained that, on the contrary, she’s always considered it a sign of professional maturity because it shows you’re focusing on working on what truly matters.
Consider this: Why do professional sports teams have coaches? All the players on the team already know the rules of the game and that they’re supposed to work within those rules to win the game. Yet, coaches clearly are valuable enough to be used by both individual athletes and sports team. Their years of experience and keen observations of things the players don’t notice lets them guide the players to victory. The same principle applies in the workplace. You have respected mentors, bosses, and co-workers. Rely on input and lessons learned from those that have “been there, done that” to be more successful yourself.
2. Learn to tell when something doesn’t feel right
When I worked out on my own, I would find exercises online and do what they showed in the pictures. With a printed-out diagram as a guide, I was sure that I was exercising properly. Au contraire! When I began lifting weights with my personal trainer, he would point out where I should be feeling resistance in my muscles as I lifted weights. Dave would also correct my form until I started feeling my muscles move just as he had explained I should. Talk about eye-opening! All the time I was working on my own was somewhat wasted because I wasn’t exercising properly or to my highest potential.
For exercising, it initially took guidance from somebody else to guide me in the right direction. Now, I have enough experience with lifting weights that I realize when I’m not doing something properly because it doesn’t feel right. I’m usually able to course-correct myself to get on the right track. (And, if I can’t, I know that I need to ask for help.)
You must strive to have this same awareness of “this doesn’t feel right” at work. If you’re not getting the results you expect, maybe your approach is off. If you’re busy all day but aren’t having success with your team or project, your efforts are probably misdirected. (Paraphrasing Tim Ferriss again: you’re being busy, not productive.) If you can’t identify how to change your tactic to get the result you need, then get help from somebody with a different perspective.
Growing your ability to be aware when something is not working or “off” is key. It will save you from wasting a lot of effort on something that isn’t paying off. Being able to detect when something isn’t working is the prerequisite to being able to course-correct.
3. Work smart: push yourself but respect a healthy balance
Some personal trainers have a drill sergeant persona. You may have seen these in the gym or on any fitness-related reality TV show. They bark orders and push their clients hard because dammit, if you had motivation and drive, you wouldn’t need a personal trainer! For some clients, I suppose this is true. They benefit from somebody taking charge and pushing them hard so they can get results. But, pushing too much can lead to bad things: injury, burnout, quitting. Like everything in life, there must be a good balance.
In contrast to the Drill Sergeant Personal Trainer, Dave is more of a teacher. One of the things he tells me frequently is “we’re going to work smart.” Working smart means accepting that sometimes you have to not push yourself as much when the situation warrants it. This ensures you back down when needed to avoid injury or burnout. You should make small sacrifices in an individual workout for the greater long-term benefit. For example, the second week that I’m doing a new workout routine, I’m often not able to lift weights as heavy as I think I should. My body is learning new movements and having to adapt and recover from the new set of exercises that first week. So, Dave says we’ll work smart and use a lighter weight while I recover that week rather than push through with heavy weights and injure myself.
To be clear, Dave isn’t one to take it easy on me. When I first started working with him, he would push me so much that I would start feeling light-headed and sick and would have to stop my sessions early. He explained that he was trying to find where my limits were. Soon, he knew how to push me enough to challenge me, but to stop short of making me physically sick.
This applies in the workplace as well. You shouldn’t skate by on “good enough” by never pushing yourself to improve or try new things. By the same token, you should never push yourself so much that you never have breathing room. If you ever push yourself too far (and start feeling burnt out or overwhelmed), this is your sign to back down a bit and assess whether you’re “working smart.”
To Be Continued…
I’ve learned even more lessons! Check out Part 2 of Workplace Lessons from My Personal Trainer.