Focus on efficiency, not completion

It’s not always grind or die.

The way I see it there are two ways to do something, you either do it or you do it efficiently. Both will give you the same result. The task will be done, but only one will be efficient. That’s the one you want.

Let’s start with the first way of doing something. Doing something without a structure, plan, process, backstops, data and other essentials of efficiency, will ensure you do it ‘eventually.’ However, because nothing is decided, you don’t know where you’re going and by extension, how and when you’ll get there.

Any act or its action can be divided into pre-action, action, and post-action. This will allow segmentation of behavior and will streamline a focus on all aspects. In mere ‘doing something’ without efficiency, only the second form i.e. the action is focused on while ignoring the before and after.

Doing something efficiently will require a lot more work on the pre-action and post-action. What is the plan? Is this the best possible way to do this? Can I scale it further? Am I scaling it too much? What is the biggest roadblock? Can I work backward from the goal? These few questions can build your pre-action.

Similarly, studying the process after the ‘action’ in the post-action phase is also helpful. Did I complete the task eventually? Where could I have improved? What was the highlight of the process? What was repetitive and didn’t lead to improvements? What was the lowest point? Regardless of success or failure, understanding where efficiency and inefficiency lie can be used to turn one to the other.

This might seem like a ‘going-nowhere’ generalist and vague sort of rant. I hate those too. So, instead of standing on ceremony, and harping this thesis, I’ll provide an example. This example looks at a measurable action executed inefficiently and with experience, efficiently. Needless to say, this piece is my learning from it.

I like to ride a bicycle. It ticks my boxes of simplicity, easy and minimal. I started with commuting and getting in shape, and then translated into a challenge. I recently got a road bike to cycle long-distances. The featured image is the same. In order to have a goal to work towards I set myself a challenge - summit Nandi Hills with efficiency.

For context, Nandi Hills is an area about 65 kilometers from Bangalore. It lies to the north of the city, past the airport. It makes for a great drive, and, as I’m discovering it, an even better ride. The last few kilometers are at a steep incline, but the view is worth it. For my commute, it’s a total distance of 130 kilometers.

In the past two and a half years of riding a bicycle, I’ve summited the hill once. Or rather, I was about to till the traffic forced me to stop. (Yup, the traffic extends till there). But since this attempt was ‘on a whim,’ I understood the importance of planning and suffered due to inefficiency.

I’ve found, especially with long physical activities — like running, swimming, cycling, or any other form of training, efficiency is key. For this kind of training, low impact, and long duration, sustainability is key. If you don’t execute at an efficient clip, you won’t make it. That’s why endurance athletes in each or a combination of these sports, precisely structure their training, nutrition, and sleep.

I’ve witnessed this first hand. During the ‘on a whim’ ride, I grinded my way back home. I didn’t get a good night’s sleep beforehand, plan my nutrition, build the strength, or pace myself. This left me with aches in my calves, hamstrings, and quads. After the ride, I didn’t eat right, taking in more calories than burnt, and from unhealthy sources. The recovery was also off, even after an extended nap, the aches, and hunger persisted. Since my body wasn’t prepared for the exertion, but I pushed it inefficiently anyway, it reacted as it should.

Since making this mistake with cycling, I’ve made it with running and swimming, with similar outcomes. Then I decided to work on the entire package, rather than the isolated ‘action.’

Earlier this year, I planned on resuming the goal to summit the hill, but made, what I hope is an efficient plan. I resumed cycling once the lockdown eased, and planned longer rides on Sunday mornings when the roads were relatively empty. Beginning with a total distance of 30 kilometers, I intended to reach the goal of 130 kilometers. Scaling it by 10 kilometers every other week.

The goal throughout was to cycle with efficiency. Few flexible rules for the same were:

  1. Don’t grind if you don’t have to
  2. Don’t let it ruin your day
  3. If you aren’t eating right and sleeping well after, you’re doing it wrong
  4. Persisting aches and pains are a problem, manage them
  5. Set a comfortable time limit and achieve it
  6. Have a post-ride normal day plan and execute it

Working backward from 130 to 30 kilometers with 10-kilometer increments would give a best-case process of 10 weeks. Riding once every two weeks, instead of once every week will double the process to 20 weeks. Add into this supporting strength training and flexibility sessions throughout the week. Counting rest weeks, late Saturday nights, the odd injury, work, and other commitments, the process can last for an average of 15 weeks, or a good four months.

Of course, this process is dependent on having gone from zero to one. Meaning, this is with a base of some cycling, or aerobic training, adequate endurance, and the ability to sit on a tiny and uncomfortable saddle for at least three hours. Most people underestimate the last part.

Despite still in the process, the focus on efficiency not achievement has made me better off. From injury management to having time for other things, since the goal is not to finish, but to finish well, even if it means finishing later, the focus on short-term achievement is gone. Instead, there’s just a focus on the process. Sitting at home stretching out, instead of cycling, is part of the process. Midweek strength training a supporting muscle is part of the process. Equally important are the long hours spent on the saddle. Everything is part of the process.

The focus on efficiency rather than completion has made the achievement all the most sweeter. At first, it’s hard starting but not completing something immediately. The delayed feedback loop is hard to wait for, but patience is your friend and teacher.

Here’s hoping this works for more than just cycling. 🚲

Writing as opposed to keeping the thoughts locked in my head.