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Relax for the Same Result (2015) (sivers.org)
132 points by FeatureIncomple 7 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 47 comments

For many physical efforts, overpacing and poor form can both rob you of results. In particular, exceeding your aerobic threshold for any period of time will require recovery time --- you can pull this off at the end of a ride or in a critical effort (breakaway, hill ascent) where you'll get a chance to recover afterwards, but full on and you're simply sabotaging yourself. Perceived effort is a very poor guide. In some activities there's a very real risk of acute or chronic-overuse injury as well.

John Cleese talks of a similar concept in creative activity, learned from a screenwriter who'd worked with Alfred Hitchcock:

When we came up against a block and our discussions became very heated and intense, Hitchcock would suddenly stop and tell a story that had nothing to do with the work at hand.

At first, I was almost outraged, and then I discovered that he did this intentionally. He mistrusted working under pressure. He would say, “We're pressing, we're pressing, we're working too hard. Relax, it will come.” And, says the writer, of course it finally always did.



Interesting that Steve Jobs had pretty much the opposite approach to group collaboration and pressure, yet got good results from them as well. At the expense of an often very miserable working environment.

Philosophies do differ widely.

There's some suggestion that young and old Jobs had markedly distinct management styles.

That's ... also discussed in a talk somewhere that I've heard recently, though I don't recall by whom at the moment.

More generally, there's been subsstantial research of highly innovative companiess, most especially the research labs at DuPont (Hounshell, https://www.worldcat.org/title/science-and-corporate-strateg...), AT&T (Gertner https://www.worldcat.org/title/idea-factory-bell-labs-and-th...), the Manhattan project (various), and more. The lighter touch seems generally preferred.

I wonder if the time-scale is relevant. Are we talking about different things when "keeping the pressure on" for project that weeks or months in duration and "maintaining intensity" for a specific effort measure in hours? Could you deescalate the latter while maintaining the former? How does that work with stress and cortisol and other factors?

I’m not sure what that Jobs style was the opposite. He was the industries leading example of taking your time to get it right. Like when he canceled the iPad just prior to the launch decision, and told the team to take a few years to try to make it into a phone instead.

The extraordinary pressure he put people under on a daily basis, especially as deadlines approached, his biographies are full of reports of working long weekends, sleeping in the office, having him push push push push to the breaking point.

Thank you for the Hitchcock anecdote about creativity under pressure, that idea is new to me.

When it comes to the physical realm, perceived effort (or “rating of perceived exertion”) was shown to be as effective as heart rate for pacing interval training in this study and others it references:


From my layman’s perspective it makes sense that perceived effort would be a great guide to overexertion as those perceptions seem to be driven by the same system that prevents us from overreaching in general. Tim Noakes calls it the “central governor” that keeps us from doing harm to ourselves:


Perhaps the best way to set yourself up for success is to decide on an optimal threshold and try to stay within its bounds, no matter the endeavor. It seemed to work for Hitchcock’s creativity and we know it works in the physical realm as well.

Then you can stress the system to see if it’s beneficial or not. Maybe we should all be doing “creative interval training” to increase our capacity for creation, just like we would to increase our cycling capacity!

Perceived effort, and ability to self-monitor it, varies greatly. An experienced athlete may be much better at this, though often with some form of outside assistance: pace clocks, splits, speed measurements, heartrate monitor, etc.

The inexperienced or untrained athlete may mistake effort for result, often sacrificing form (which may be none too perfected to begin with) in the effort. This especially is where the perceived effort vs. actual attained performance diffrence manifests.

For activities such as swimming, formal coaching involves an extraordinary level of focus and time on stroke technique. The biomechanics of moving through a dense fluid make proper execution of stroke, recovery, turns, starts, and breathing critical to efficient and effective performance. I've had the experience of sharing a pool with swimmers who were faster through the water but worse on turns --- I'd recover the half-bodylength they gained on me each lap with tighter turns and a more efficient kick and glide off the wall. Coach noticed too.

Even more ... pedestrian ... activities such as running, or mechanically-integrated activities such as cycling and rowing have a significant element of technique involved, though in my estimation probably less so than swimming. The remarkable deviation in styles of elite and novice or poorly trained athletes is starkly evident to even casual observers.

In high-skill sports, from ballet to tennis to golf, the requirements for form over raw strength are even greater.

And I'd argue in each case that a tremendous effort exerted with poor form will virtually always result in a lower achievement --- slower speed, longer oveerall time, shorter distances or hights jumped, less weight moved, etc. All the more so at the limits of performance or ability.

What a fantastic anecdote. Thanks for sharing.

I think there's a similar effect in school - I realized in college that in many of my classes, it was not hard to get a B, but significantly more work to get an A. So lowering my effort level and aiming directly for a B in a class or two significantly decreased my stress levels over the semester, freed up time for extracurriculars, etc.

This is very similar to the Pareto principle : 80% of the highest result is obtained through 20% of the highest effort. To get to 100% of the highest result you will have to deliver four times more effort.

Most of the time, 80% is good enough. Save your resources for other endeavors.

I’m sure you mean well but you’ve liberally modified paretos principle. In general it is a macro indicator of outcome not effort! Something like 80% sales come from 20% of customers.

The Pareto principle is just a contextualized way of describing the dynamics of a system with diminishing returns. If you could say anything has "low hanging fruit" then it has diminishing returns.

Totally analogous to every single self-styled agile software development environment I've ever worked in.

People pushing themselves to the breaking point when they could get better results by just stopping whatever they're doing and take the week off.

Last 10% of bug fixed, 90% of total effort. I'm with you. This COVID-19 thing has changed my perspective on work, (although I'm not so sure about my employer's.) We're split into A/B team, one week in, one week out. I really happy, probably the first time in my working life I've achieved the nominal "work/life balance". The office feels more productive, I'm more productive, fewer people making ad-hoc demands on my time. The project is more focused if you make allowance for some handoff gaps. I'm not completely destroyed on Friday evenings, and if I am, I have a week to recover. I look forward to my ON week Mondays, I have had a week to think about what I could/should do. Really, if this continues with some adjustment, I think it would be the perfect cadence.

It's more than the 80/20 rule, it has to do with how people perceive the notion of work. It used to be we would let the computer do the work for us and we'd kick back and read mad magazine. Now it's the other way around and the tools are driving us instead.

And it's because in our rush to not get corporate like those people we despise, we've become even worse than them and our desire to fit in and gain acceptance and recognition have caused us to go all out like the fellow on the bike and we're just causing pile ups which would be better off if we cleared the road.

Everyone has several people on their team who would do well to just stay home and let the others do their thing.

There is the related story of "Amundsen vs Scott" race to the South Pole.

Amundsen had studied human behavior and efficiency under stress. He knew a constant pace every day was way more efficient than doing epic effort. So he will restraint his people and not let them do more than a given distance each day, I think it was 30 miles or so.

This gave his team an edge against constant epic efforts on Scott part.

A week off is probably too long. What I do, because I can, is taking days off just when I consider I need it. This day or days off is a day you enjoy life and after them you feel plentiful and strong.

Much better than wasting the day being forced to work and generating very little work and burning yourself off.

I actually measure the actual time I do meaningful work so I know exactly how better it works.

Exactly! There's always going to be that one guy trying to prove he's a 10x that'll trek out all on his own into the wilderness in the middle of the night and then a bunch of others who will follow because that's she start-up way

Riding a bike works like that. 2-3 minutes is a huge difference in terms of power output required. Headwinds can sap your power. Going slightly above your average feels like a headwind. A coach potato like me can output about a hundred watts on a good day so if you have money to spare and want to go faster, buy upgrades. 3 watts here, 2 watts there and you are at +10% ;)

I ride about 100 miles a week. The author either lost form trying too hard, or really wasn’t trying that hard.

Wait, so you're telling me "don't buy upgrades, ride up grades" is a lie?

I am joking, of course, but I think you're completely right in that for beginners, a small investment in upgrades (or even just a good solid bike) pays for itself in huge boosts of performance.

Of course, after that, then buying more and better things is just bad for your wallet ;)

I took up biking as an adult again by biking with rental bikes in Mexico City (government owned) and they are built like tanks for durability, not for riding pleasure.

When I finally got on a "real" bike, I flew. I was much faster and agile than my bike-riding friends. Because I couldn't upgrade the bike, I had to upgrade myself, and these investments are compatible with any kind of bike (or sport, actually).

It reminds me of one video (unfortunately I can't find it at the moment) where journalist vs pro rider were racing each other with different bikes - road, city bike, old lady's bike.

What was surprising that pro on lady's bike couldn't match layman journalist on proper road bike. Basically all the energy spent on women's bike goes to flexing (heating) the frame. City bike built like tank was better as at least it was sturdy.

However it also shows that good bike is so much more important as you would think pro would match you riding anything with two wheels.

I'm really interested in that video. I assume that the women's bike was a steel model, since steel is supposed to be the most flexible common frame material.

Also curious about all the people who say "no surprise considering the bike".

Do you want to move faster or do you exclusively want to excercise?

For engine powered stuff when you relax you get better results.

Every time I try to push for lap times on the track I end up exhausted after 20 minutes with worse times, inconsistent laps, plenty of oh shit close moments and most importantly I don't enjoy myself. Instead when I relax, focus on riding with good technique I end up with faster times.

But of course the temptation to push is huge, especially if you can't get any faster for longer periods.

Also interesting: I've broken my records multiple times right out of winter after 3 months of not riding. Can't explain that.

Same with downhill mountain biking. If you are relaxed, you are loose, and you flow smoothly which is fast. If you push too hard, you get caught out by dozens of little things you weren't expecting because you are in new territory and that slows you down.

There is a time to push though, in order to move your abilities further and get familiar with the aforementioned edges of your abilities. But race day is not the right time.

On your last paragraph, that happens to me all the time. A week of practice practice and can't do it, put the bike away for a week and then I can do it first try. I think of it as a limitation on how quickly we can change and update our muscle memory, reflexes and intuition.

Watch for the literal perfect example of this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y8ryQOiX05k

Aaron Gwin wins this World Cup Downhill race after breaking his chain in the first 50 yards. No pedaling after that and yet he's so smooth and fast.

This effect is similar with racing games, and generally enything requiring good reflexes. When exhaustion kicks in after 20-30min of trying, accuracy and lap times/scores plummet.

I would attribute it more to being focused rather than being relaxed, but those two states are connected.

This only worked because his relaxed pace/speed was fast and built up by MONTHS of intense training first.

He would not have had that time if he had gone at the relaxing pace the entire time he spent training.

Relaxation is good, no doubt. But there is a time and place for, as they say, "going hard in the paint". Building muscle and associated stamina is one of those times.

This is a perfect example of why experiments require a control group to mean anything at all. I am surprised that the intelligent Mr. Sivers would fall into this rookie trap.

I’m not disputing your comment, but still I agree with the gist of the article. My four year old son recently learned to ride a bike (in The Netherlands) so naturally he now wants to cycle everywhere himself.

So instead of putting him in his seat and cycling to the store myself (20 km/h) we now cycle side by side (10 km/h) to the store. It takes exactly 5 minutes longer single trip, and it doesn’t matter a bit.

If you really depend on achieving 100% vs. 90%, and it takes a ton of stress to get to 100%, it might be time to change habits/goals/employer.

I’m not disputing your comment either, but in startupland the difference between 90% and 100% is often the difference between dead and alive.

Article gist: achieve a flow state / allow yourself to engage the default mode network to reduce exertion, perceived or real, on a physical task with low cognitive overhead (non-competitive cycling).

>A few years ago, I lived in Santa Monica, California, right on the beach. There’s a great bike path that goes along the ocean for seven and a half miles. So, fifteen miles round trip. On weekday afternoons, it’s almost empty. It’s perfect for going full speed.

For anyone familiar with the area, it’s clear that this article plays fast and loose with reality. The path is narrow, and nowhere near “almost empty” except in the middle of the night. Further, it’s so twisty that you’ll only reach “full speed” on short sections. Your time will be dominated by cornering technique, not power output.

Ha! I wonder if the seagull incident was a subtle way of giving away the author is full of crap ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)

In some of the companies I've worked for in the past, there's this weird misconception that if you don't look stressed, then you're not taking things seriously. "I don't think you are treating this issue with the sense of urgency it requires." I never understood this.

I get the sense of "relax", but I'm trying to get the essence of it. Is it to be more mindful, stop obsessing/stressing about the thing that you are doing while still putting action in? I still struggle sometime because the only way I think I can do something is to focus fully on it, I'm in my head tracking all of the different perspectives, and tasks that can offshoot from the current thing I am doing. Also another thing, is if you primarily "think" for a living (any knowledge work) won't you get into a habit of overanalyzing/overthinking? I've found exercise and doing something physical as the best way to get out of your head.

The takeaway I have is basically what you said - stressing about something may make you feel like you're working harder, but really just burns up your emotional energy. From the end of the article: "When I notice that I'm all stressed out about something or driving myself to exhaustion, I . . . try dialing back my effort by 50 percent. . . . [H]alf of my effort wasn't effort at all, but just unnecessary stress that made me feel like I was doing my best."

Stress and anxiety can be a signal that you need to take something seriously, but if you're already taking it seriously, it's not helpful. If you can drop it while still responding to the situation appropriately, you'll be better off. Focus, don't obsess; progress, don't stress.

This is something I also learned in my time working technical product support - at first, when emergencies happened with the product, I would panic and scramble. But I eventually realized that didn't actually help and just made things less pleasant for me and anyone interacting with me. Everything went better if I took the emergency seriously but calmly, and just handled it without reacting emotionally.

I saw the mountain bike he was (presumably) using and figured the takeaway was “if you want to ride fast, get a road bike”

Put another way: investment in the right tools for the job will get the results faster than killing yourself.

The photo is credited to someone else - I imagine it was chosen for beauty rather than truth. Earlier in the article there's a link to an actual bike, and it is a road bike: https://surlybikes.com/bikes/legacy/pacer

Yeah, I read the article long ago and the picture was different. I believe it was a seagull shadow on the beach or something like that.

So, did he or did he not stop or slow down to wash his face and mouth from pelican's excrement?

So much of work life is looking busy.

Another interpretation: if you push yourself and keep your mouth closed, birds can't poop into it.

"Don't let a Pelican shit in your mouth" was definitely my takeaway from this story too

This. This wins for the best comment.

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