How do you keep going when it’s hard to keep going?
Recently a friend of mine tweeted that she was in the middle of writing a book.* The deadline was looming but she had a long way to go to get to the finish line. She said that she hadn’t run a marathon before, but guessed that’s what it must feel like.
I’ve run a few, and her description seemed to me a really great way to describe what she was dealing with. After chewing on the comparison for a bit, I tweeted back three thoughts for encouragement.
Really, I think those keys to keep going when the going gets tough can apply to any long, difficult task. So whatever your finish line might be, these thoughts can help you get there, too.
Reaching the Finish
My toughest marathon was the JFK 50-mile ultra-marathon that I did to celebrate my 50th birthday. It was my first ultra, and my only goal was to finish. It turned out to be a long day, but from that experience and several others like it, three key lessons emerged for how to keep going, no matter how far away the finish line seems to be.
1. Don’t stop moving. I was in pretty good shape at the time, but I wasn’t sure I’d be able to run the entire thing, so I didn’t even try.
Instead, I set up a pacing plan. For every mile I ran, I would allow myself to walk for exactly one minute. At the aid stations every 5-6 miles I could also walk from the first table to the last one, and grab up as much nourishment as I could. But at the end of the feed zone I had to start running again.
No matter how slow, there always had to be forward movement.
When we find ourselves in the long struggle, the surest way to make it take longer is to stop moving. As Winston Churchill is credited with saying,
Once you commit, keep moving. Even if it’s just a walk, every little step brings you closer.
2. Focus on this mile. When I was developing my most recent on-line course, Leading Virtual Teams, it was easy to feel a sense of overwhelm. The plan called for 27 video lessons, each of which went through a ten-step process that included researching, writing, recording, editing, and uploading – that’s 270 discreet steps.
When I laid it all out on a spreadsheet, the task seemed almost insurmountable. The key to getting it done was focusing on one specific task to do in that moment, and doing that.
Write one paragraph. Edit one minute of video. Build one graphic. Like steps along the running trail, gradually the finish line came closer and closer.
Running 26 miles may seem impossible, but if you can run one mile, do that. Pick a concrete, actionable task that you can knock out today. And then allow yourself to feel good when you do – it will help give you the energy and momentum to do the next one.
3. Follow a good nutrition plan. The hard math of the marathon is that every hour you will burn hundreds of calories; if you don’t replace them, eventually you run out of energy, hit the “wall,” and grind to an ugly halt. To endure, we have to have a plan to sustain ourselves.
During my time in the Army, when we went on extended missions there was always the operations order – the overall plan. But within that order we included lots of other supporting plans – for getting food and fuel, water, supplies, and even for resting.
We had learned that rest is especially important for leaders. When they are exhausted, they can’t think clearly, and when that happens, bad decisions are sure to follow – we’ve all seen it happen. We had to change the mind-set. Trying to prove how tough we were by going days without sleep was the opposite of good leadership; it was irresponsible and self-destructive.
So as you run down the trail, build self-care into the plan – get quality sleep, eat good food, give your brain a break by getting outside for a walk, or doing something else for a little while. Then get back to finishing today’s mile.
In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald takes a moment to catalogue the types of people in the world, and I think he put them in order of effectiveness:
If we want to pursue effectively, we can’t afford to be tired.
Keep Going – The Takeaway
My friend’s marathon is writing a book. It’s a huge challenge, but I’m sure she’ll be successful.
Whether your marathon is completing a degree, moving up to the next rung, strengthening a relationship, building a team, or actually running a no-kidding marathon, the keys to success are the same:
Keep moving – do something every day that brings you closer.
Have a solid long-term plan, but focus on finishing the mile you’re in right now.
And take care of yourself so you can stay fresh, focused, and make good decisions along the way.
I’ll see you at the finish line.
* Update: Author Suzi McAlpine successfully met her deadline; her first book, Beyond Burnout, is in print as of February 2021. It is a well-written practical guide for helping individuals and leaders recognize, treat, and even prevent burnout.
Note: If you are serious about achieving your goals, you may be interested in previewing my Goal-Setting Mastery Course, which gives you lots more ways to keep going when the going gets tough!