Willpower vs strategy? My story from couch potato to half marathon!! What it means in leadership?

I have never been fond of running. Even during my teenage years I have not run more than a kilo-meter at a stretch. Then how do you go from being a couch potato to running a half marathon? Are the learnings transferrable to business as well? Can we use the same strategy to achieve targets in our professional and personal life?

The first step — Identify the need for change

The journey started when around May, 2020 I decided to run a full marathon. I had been eating (a lot) and my weight was continuously increasing. I was well inside the journey of being called obese. The body seemed perfectly fine, and to me I never looked more than being slightly fat (never felt I was overweight).

Understanding that you need improvement is the first step. Most of the times everything looks fine (to you). Identifying that change is needed is the most crucial step. This step looks the easiest, and yet is the most difficult in all the steps. You have to be ready to embrace change.

Starting — Jump over the barrier

Just as kinetic friction is less than static friction, but only after you go over the hump, similarly making a change requires going over that static resistance. You will still have kinetic friction, albeit slightly less. Though I had planned for the journey in May,2020 , I never really started working on it till January, 2021, a delay of 7 months. I had noted my wish, and that settled the matter in my brain. The initial friction was huge and the fear of change did not allow me to start. Some days, I even forgot that I wanted to make the change happen. Other days, I was stressed as I had not made progress.

Our mind and body always resist change and to simply acknowledge that you need to make a “change” starts a chain reaction, including procrastination. We do not like change, period. Even when you are absolutely sure that the change is for the better, you will struggle. Hence, it is absolutely important to go for the kill, put the wheel into motion and start the change. No matter how small a step, starting is the first big huddle that needs to be crossed. The earlier you start, the lower you reduce the duration of your pain. We all want to live in a predictable pattern and within our comfort zone. This helps in avoiding change that are detrimental to us, and stop us from doing change that is beneficial to us. Hence, its important to be sure about the change and after that to start with it immediately.

The hook-Create a rewarding strategy

I have always wanted “Bait”. This “Bait” can be anything that you have always wanted (something not badly enough that I would drop everything and get it and not so casual that it would not give me some goosebumps). In October, 2020 I created a the reward strategy. I got three versions of the “Bait”.

Bait A- Highly unlikely to be achieved, reward not too great.

Bait B- Slightly difficult to achieve (the one which I actually want to achieve), reward the one which looks best among A,B and C.

Bait C-Easier to achieve (still not without effort. A bait that when you know if you will achieve you would want to give B a shot). Reward lower then B.

All of this helped in making B the best proposition. Yet gave the confidence that C was achievable and something that I wanted to reach.

Make use of psychology to place your rewards in a manner that it is enticing. You would want to sandwich the target between something you know you can achieve and something very difficult. This would help you go for the target knowing you can achieve it and at the same time stretching for the goal. It is highly important to place the goals in the above manner. One of the biggest issue in business is that when defining goals we have a single reward for a single number. Either the person does not feel the reward satisfactory for the effort needed, or he does not feel capable to give a shot. By placing multiple rewards in this manner we can get to work harder for the target we actually want.

Planning — How not to do

I started to create a plan on how I will achieve the target. And then I tore up the plan and threw it out the window.

Planning to the last minute detail never works. It is an impediment. It is like missing the moon because of a small variation in the angle of projectile. No matter how accurate a small deviation over a large distance is huge. You need to have freedom to adjust. Every day will be different. You will sometimes do more than the distance you planned, other days less. Having a broad plan rather than a granular one gives you more freedom to adjust and work towards it. Not having a plan at all also does not work. You need to have a plan which is flexible and broadly defines the way to achieve your target.

Willpower-How to tame

Every year, I have taken multiple resolutions. Over the years few of them were converted into habits, others lost and forgotten. I had started the path of fitness, going to gym, cycling, high intensity interval training, body weight training etc, none of them ever stuck. Most of them were over in a month, some in 2 months.

Willpower is finite. It will decrease whenever you need to make a decision. If you have to make the decision to do a particular task everyday, there is a high probability that some day you will make the decision of not to. This will then start the cascading effect when the number of times you make the decision against it will follow. One day you look back and see a long stretch of absence. The easiest way, that I have figured out is to make it a habit, removing the option of making a decision. Once you have it as a schedule, there is no decision making, or willpower required. Do not make multiple changes to your schedule, as following that will need willpower, but make subtle changes, only one component. Over the years, I have figured out, making one resolution and building it into the habit is far easier then trying to follow multiple changes. Once a particular change has imbibed, converted to a habit, a schedule where you no longer need will power, can you think about making another change. You never need willpower to brush your teeth in the morning. There was a time, when it needed your conscious effort to do so, remember your childhood?. You want all your changes to become brushing your teeth (effortless). Also, as willpower decreases throughout the day, you would want to have this change in schedule early in the day. This is the time when your willpower is high, you have a routine and you are more likely to follow your routine. “Do the most difficult thing of the day, first thing in the morning”. If this change is the most difficult thing of the day, do it first thing in the morning.

Data — Right and relevant at right duration

Every time I started, only did a few times did I collect data, and that too a single point — weight. Such a data is single dimension. This time I was bent on collecting the right data (not more data, more does not mean correct). I started collecting weight and body dimensions once a week. Earlier, because I was looking only at weight and it was not moving, I was easily demotivated. This time having additional metrics that were moving, gave hope that I was in the right direction.

Collecting lots of data is not necessarily the right approach. Start with collecting few relevant data points, at reasonable distance apart. Whenever you feel that the data you are collecting is not moving, either you are not collecting the other metrics that will eventually make this one move or you are missing the metric that is balancing it. In case of only measuring weight, you might be missing on calorie intake, which is neutralising it. Or it may take a lot of time to move the needle, and other sub metrics are moving in the meantime. Its important to realise which metrics to capture and the intervals. If you feel demotivated, go deep and figure the sub metrics. Remember, data points are coupled and have causal relationships with other data points. You may need to play around to figure out the matrices that are impacting your primary point. Digging deeper and learning this relationship will help move the needle in the right direction.

Intermittent rewards-Keep it achievable

The larger bait started the ball rolling. The intermittent rewards made it sweeter. In order to remain on track I would treat myself on achieving milestones.

Always keep the milestones achievable. Have intermittent rewards that you want. The pleasure of earning your reward will make you crave for the next one.

Time — When you have none

Whenever I started, I always thought I did not have sufficient time. This always became a self fulfilling prophecy where with all other factors, it never became a priority. This time, I changed the internal statement. I always thought I had sufficient time. This lead to finding solutions and was always able to figure out the time.

If it is important, you will find out the time. You never need to find out the time to brush your teeth, or to dress up? These are a part of habit, and important. These are priorities. Everyday we have multiple options on how to spend the day. We end up spending our time on what we sub-consciously think is important and will improve our survival chance. This in turn gets driven by the statement we tell ourselves. If the internal dialogue is that this is the priority, you will create time.

Skin in the game-No pain no gain

I put the things that I liked on the line after achievements. I decided that if there is a food I want to eat, I will do it only after achieving a specific target. I invested myself into the game by committing things publicly and opened myself to ridicule in case of failure. Failure is acceptable if you have given your everything, else you come across as a talker and not a doer.

Unless you put something worthwhile you do not appreciate the game. Commit yourself by promising things that you like after the line. Put yourself in position which you are afraid of, in case you are not able to achieve the target.

Journey — The important bit

During the course there will come a time when you realise its the journey that is full of fun, learnings and enjoyment. It is the journey that you wanted to be a part of. The end now just looks like a means to get you started on the journey. All of the above points got you to the place where you are, and as you enjoy the journey you forget about the baits, rewards. You find that you have time to do this, and you do not need willpower. Its now who you are, an inseparable component.

Afterword — Fitness

Today we are rushing into an area of productivity. We look forward in making India a world leader. We are marching forward to a $5 trillion economy. In order to achieve all of these targets, we need people to be fit, especially way into their 50s and 60s. We need their expertise to drive the momentum forward. We also need our youngsters in their 20s,30s and 40s to be in the prime of their health.

A unhealthy body is prone to be sickness. The sickness not only impacts the worker but the organisation as well. One of the hurdles that we will have to overcome in our growth trajectory is “productivity loss due to sickness”.We as an economy are loosing billions on “sick leaves”. One of the best way to tackle this is to promote health and fitness in the organisation. A fit employee will also be higher in performance. It is a Corporate Social Responsibility now to ensure that employees are healthy.

Want to run? Have any queries on running? Have you applied any of the above leadership / management principles? Leave your thought in the comments below. I am willing to promote fitness, especially running in organisations and people, and answer any queries on the same.

I am passionate about designing and developing complex systems that impact people’s life. A avid reader and a believer of multi-disciplinary teaching.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store