Make Your Strength Project Stick

We tend to fill time with our projects. During the pandemic many people have found themselves with more time. Time—if Parkinson’s law applies—for work or projects or hobbies to fill. Gym equipment sales suggest that many people’s new time-filling projects involve training at home. Gyms closed plus working from home, no morning routines, no commute, no school, has been as good as planetary alignment for many people to start lifting. But what happens when schedules start to fill up once again with all the demands on our time that have been prolongedly—but still only temporarily—placed on hold?

Parkinson’s Law for the Pandemic and Making Strength Stick

“Work expands to fill the time we have available for it.”

The quote above is known as “Parkinson’s Law,” and while the original author used it mostly to described the expansion of government bureaucracies, he based the concept on the observation that people will take as long to do a job as they have time available, independent of how long the job should take. Writing for The Economist in 1955, Parkinson described the phenomena:

“Thus, an elderly lady of leisure can spend the entire day in writing and dispatching a postcard to her niece at Bognor Regis. An hour will be spent finding the postcard, another in hunting for spectacles, half-an-hour in search for the address, an hour and a quarter in composition, and twenty minutes in deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when going to the pillar-box in the next street. The total effort which would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may in this fashion leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety and toil.” (Parkinson CN, “Parkinson’s Law” (Nov 19th, 1955)).

This sounds like mere procrastination, but Parkinson’s Law is not a totally negative outcome. There are those of us—up to 80% of college students, according to one—that extend whatever jobs we have to take up the time we have to do them in.

One could succumb to the same expanding work that Parkinson described without ever missing a deadline or falling behind. There is a type of efficiency in using the time you have instead of rushing about and then being idle for your free hours of the day. Procrastination is what happens when work not only fills the time available but spills over into the next day, and the next, and the next, until the procrastinator is far behind—and the procrastinator is aware that this will happen. (Wypych, 2018: “Procrastination is an irrational delay of intended actions despite expecting to be worse off”). Rather than talk about procrastination, we want to look at how we tend to fill time with our projects.

During global lockdowns, many people have found themselves with more time, working from home or stuck at home. Time to do more things. Time—if Parkinson’s Law applies to you—to fill with work or projects or hobbies. Many of these new time-filling projects involve training at home, if the now chronic shortage of gym equipment for purchase is any indication. Gyms closed plus working from home, no morning routines, no commute, no school, has been as good as planetary alignment for many of those who were undecided about training from home.

But what happens when schedules start to fill back up with the demands on our time that have been prolongedly—but still only temporarily—placed on hold? Early schedule changes were abrupt, but the creeping demands on our time will come back more gradually, putting pressure on the tasks and projects that became extras during lockdowns. Like the proverbial frog in a pot, we run the risk of becoming overwhelmed and being forced to unload all projects deemed unnecessary, like sailors bailing a ship. This raises the question of why we take on new projects in the first place and what types of projects tend to last and what type tend to fall away when life intervenes.

Reverse Procrastination

Procrastination is the conscious but irrational over-filling of one’s time with delay and distraction. The procrastinator, finding themselves idle, stretches out existing work. “The strongest contributions to procrastination came form lack of value, delay discounting, and lack of perseverance, suggesting the involvement of motivation and impulsivity.” (Wypych) The procrastinator’s opposite is one who has extra time and decides to fill it with something productive. Some people take on a valued project whose time-cost is suddenly affordable after finding themselves with new hours in their schedule.

We tend to take on new projects when we expect they will have a benefit, when the project carries some intrinsic feeling of value, and when our susceptibility to distractions are less likely to pull us down unproductive paths. (Read more here: Motivation and Goal Setting.) Strength training is an intrinsically motivated activity. Few people lift weights for trophies and records, instead finding value in training itself. For those who believe in the efficacy of barbell training, it will have a high value. Though it may take weeks of consistent training to first recognize the benefits of strength. New projects are often problems of value versus costs, including the choice to start strength training during a pandemic.

Many people start strength training with the idea that it is a long shot. They chase some future value that remains theoretical until they start to feel and see the results. Until then, they may approach barbell training with a wait-and-see attitude—usually high motivation but low perseverance. Perceived risk present challenges when the value vs. cost balance of training changes. How do some people keep strength training as their time starts to become more constrained?

Making it Last: Tailor Your Time

Part of the issue is the exercise of control over a person’s schedule. Time—having enough time—is one of the common areas people tend to feel out of control. Perceived control is a basic human need that, when pressured, tests our ability to act rationally as we try to reestablish control, similar to how hunger drives our search for food. “Individuals who do not perceive control over their environments may seek to gain control in any way possible, potentially engaging in maladaptive behaviors.” (Leotti, Lauren A, et al. “Born to choose: the origins and value of the need for control.” Trends in cognitive sciences vol. 14,10 (2010)).

Dumping the extra baggage you accumulated during lockdown may not be the best adaptation to increasing demands on your schedule. Instead, people battling Parkinson’s Law have found that, rather than trying to maintain a less busy schedule, they retain control by maximizing the value of their free time. One physician, writing about his busy schedule, offered this perspective:

As my efficiency increases, daily duties take far less time, but free time still eludes me and the number of tasks I must complete spirals out of control….

In understanding Parkinson’s Law I have begun to appreciate the significance of moments. Whereas I previously needed a large amount of free time to appreciate freedom and detachment from the confines of the hospital, I now need a comparatively short absence. As life’s schedule fills up, one must tailor it to maintain these breaks. (Jesse Alan Shantz MD, “Battling Parkinson’s Law” CMAJ 179 (9) 968 (Oct 21st, 2008))

There is an important distinction between control and the perception of control. Perception of control is strengthed by doing something, even if that something will not improve our actual control over the situation. If you have ever been stuck in traffic on the freeway and tempted to get off and make your way on backroads instead, you will understand. The backroads are no faster, but just the relief of being able to drive instead of sit still makes the detour attractive. Tailoring your schedule, as the above quotation suggests, is a more subtle exercise of control. It may mean trimming the excess demands on your time, but it also requires a focus on value and highlighting the things of value. Spending extra time with your family may not always be possible, but you can work to maximize the value of that time. Similarly, you may have to become more efficient with your training time.

We have some ideas on how to maximize your training when time becomes an issue:

Strength Training Tends to Stick

Given time, physical training tends to help satisfy certain psychological needs. For example, strength training is a means of self-actualization, since being stronger makes us physically more capable and more confident.

Strength also helps develop a sense of control. The below quotation is from a previous article on Maslow’s hierarch of psychological needs:

“Every time you load the bar, face it, and choose to challenge yourself you are exercising control over the most basic, fundamental sphere of your influence: YOU. When nothing else makes sense, you can control your actions, you can make a choice. Small choices like choosing to train when you don’t want to, or overcoming the fear of a heavy set, help ground your need for control. And from there, the things that matter most—being a good person, showing empathy, raising kids, and making yourself better—stay in your control. We can tie the outcomes of training directly to different aspects of Maslow’s hierarchy: getting stronger helps you achieve esteem, helps you garner independence, and it helps you become the best expression of yourself. This IS an effort of self-actualization. But the day-to-day grind offers distinct and no less important adaptations. When you make choices that add value to you, each training session becomes an exercise of will, defiance against chaos and an act of control. Control isn’t about always succeeding. When it comes to you versus the bar, you do not always win, but as long as you succeed or fail by your own choices, you don’t really lose either.”

We are confident that strength tends to stick around, but it has to be given time and value. If demands on your time start to put pressure on your strength training, focus on the routine first. Progress and meaningful training come from consistency and the value you put on your training, not from marathon-length workouts and massive time-investments. Keep stringing workouts and look at some ways to be more efficient with your training time. If strength is your new status quo, you can maintain more control over your training even as time becomes more precious.

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