At the beginning of summer 2021, I had the pleasure to work remotely for a week from the friend’s place pictured in the header of this article.
One of the prominent beauties of the place is the private, 50 meter-long swimming pool the apartment complex has. We swam every day before lunch.
One day, in between lengths, I complained a bit because I was tired. That day’s training was more challenging than expected.
My friend looked at me and asked: Why do you think we train? To train more tomorrow, and then more, and more, and so on indefinitely, he answered. There is no end goal. Just train more.
To some extent, it was enlightening.
Recently during one of my one-on-ones with Udi Dahan, the CEO of Particular Software, and yes, everyone has a quarterly one-on-one with Udi, we touched on something that later I connected to the discussion with my friend.
Slow is Smooth. Smooth is Fast
With Udi, we discussed the “Slow is Smooth. Smooth is Fast” SEAL and Delta Force motto. The motto can be summarized as you cannot go fast without first slowing down. I quickly connected it to my swimming activities.
Swimming is an extraordinarily complex and challenging activity. Swimming fast comes with many subtle challenges. Technique is everything; it’s much more important than strength. And probably the most difficult part is breathing.
When swimming front crawl or butterfly for the sake of the sample, the breath pace is determined by the stroke pace, and swimmers cannot breath when their body needs it or at the rhythm they want. Usually, what happens to amateur swimmers when they start is that they try to swim faster by stroking faster. Stroking faster comes with breathing at a faster pace and with less time for each breath. Less time to breathe means less oxygen exchange which causes hypoxia that eventually leads to less effective muscles. The result is that they go slower instead of faster.
Why is that so complex? Let me use the front crawl stroke as an example. The front crawl stroke is composed of at least five stages:
- The initial part of the stroke is how and where hands and arms get into the water.
- Then there is the catch when swimmers start pulling water with their hands and forearms. How the elbow is positioned is crucial to a good catch.
- After catching water, the next stage is pulling. In this case, a critical factor is the body angle needed to distribute strength between pectorals and back muscles properly.
- Then, how the stroke is finished is the next step, needed to squeeze out all possible energy from the previous pulling stage.
- Finally, getting elbows out of the water with hands nearly touching ears stretching over the surface.
Add to the complex mentioned stages the need to breathe and coordinate with leg movements crucial to strokes and breathing. Even if you never practiced front crawl, you probably got a good enough picture of the complexity.
Swimmers, especially beginners, need to slow down to concentrate on breathing and many other essential details. Only by slowing down can they focus on each step in isolation, on the required technique, and repeat the movements repeatedly until muscle memory kicks in. They become a natural part of the swimming style. At which point going faster becomes a secondary effect. Until you start focusing on legs, but that’s another complex story.
How can we swim the ocean of thousands of activities?
Can we learn something from swimmers, and many other conceptually similar activities, to improve our efficiency? For example, if we believe we’re achieving little to nothing, how can we go “faster”? What would a swimmer do?
By slowing down, as swimmers do, we can concentrate on the details of the task. We can improve and master them. More importantly, the act of repeatedly performing an activity creates the same “muscle memory” effect, and the task becomes a habit. Once it’s a habit, and trust me, it takes time and energy and perseverance, it won’t take its toll anymore.
I’m using the swimming analogy because I swim three times a week, and I’ve been doing that for most of my life. The same approach applies to many different activities. For example, practicing a problematic music piece is the same thing. You start slow to work out the notes, fingering, and dynamics until muscle memory kicks in, then you speed it up.
The journey is more important than the destination
Last but not least, do not focus on the final result. Just focus on the improvement itself. Improve for the sake of improving and to improve more tomorrow. Swim today so that tomorrow you can swim more. One day, by chance, you’ll try swimming a very long distance, and you’ll do it.
Concentrating on the final result might be counterproductive. If you happen to meet the deadline, you’d be so happy that for some time, getting the task done repeatedly, after that, would be impossible. The same happens if the deadline is missed. That’s due to the way dopamine works. And by the way, this applies to professional athletes too. They won a gold medal today, but there is another competition tomorrow. They learn not to focus too much on a single event to precisely avoid the dopamine effect. They just swim every day.
Getting stuff done is not easy. Getting many things done is even harder. We have two options, become workaholics and quickly get burnout, or gradually change a few little things to achieve more in the long run. I already wrote about why and how to improve your schedule by carefully planning:
- I’m a procrastinator. I fail at To-Do lists.
- Lifehacking 101: I’m bad at to-do lists, now what?
- Lifehacking 101: without data we’re blind
- Lifehacking 101: journaling as a continuous learning process
- Lifehacking 101: plans disruptions
In this article, I touched on something that is less tactical and more strategic: the need to slow down to build habits and master the details of all the activities we want to complete. Only by slowing down we understand how to go faster. On the same topic there is an excellent article written a few years ago by Antony Marcano: Slow is Smooth. Smooth is Fast.
Image credits: myself.