a balancing act

For working professionals, making meaningful progress against our training goals can often feel like a futile exercise. Pressing deadlines, cross-country travel, and after-work socializing can upend our training regimens. Further, the creep of "always-on" workplace culture and pressures to outperform the previous quarter reinforce the idea that we must constantly subordinate personal goals to professional obligations. Absent an active intervention, these schedules can make us feel powerless to adhere to any training program.

Yet, by proactively managing our schedules—particularly our training schedules—we can reduce the incidence of these zero-sum, professional-physical tradeoffs. Proactive management means using our discretion (i.e., when we train, where we train, and how we train) to create conditions that increase the likelihood of overall training adherence. Given the primacy of consistency in the training echelon, such efforts can help us realize step-change improvements in our physical development and performance.

So how do we translate this theory into reality?

Two years ago, after becoming frustrated by my inability to hit my weekly training goals, I took a more hands-on approach to managing my calendar. Every Sunday, after reviewing my meetings for the upcoming week, I now devote ~15 minutes to reviewing and revising my training schedule. As part of this process, I allocate my weekly training quota—the weightlifting and cardio sessions—across days of the week according to the following principles:

  1. When possible, avoid the need to make tradeoffs altogether

  2. When scheduling workouts, no one day should impose a disproportionate demand on either time or energy relative to other days of the week

  3. Where possible, maximize enjoyment of the training process

  4. If a workout is the source of unreasonable stress, don't schedule it

Collectively, these principles help me retain a sense of agency vis-a-vis my stated priorities by reducing the probability that, on any given day, I feel at the complete mercy of my schedule. What is more, these guidelines help me better navigate the journey towards achieving greater personal and physical balance.

Although balance is commonly understood as the act of managing disparate priorities, it is best understood in this context as the ability to meet pivotal moments—professional or personal—with the best version of ourselves. For me, this latter definition means being as cognitively engaged as possible while in the office and as methodical as necessary while in the gym; this definition of balance means giving myself permission to direct my attention where it is needed most and to allow it to simply focus. In short, these principles support balance by minimizing the number of distractions on any given day, thus freeing me to bring greater attention to the priority of the moment.

That all said, how did I arrive at these principles?

 

When possible, avoid the need to make tradeoffs altogether.

Tradeoffs arise when a constraint prevents us from solving for multiple interests simultaneously. For many of us with traditional day jobs, this timing pressure is felt most acutely during periods—either in the morning or in the evening—when multiple stakeholders clamor for a limited number of our free hours. That said, this first principle helps us ascertain whether we can eliminate tradeoffs between our professional and physical goals. By having us take a more expansive view of our calendars, this guideline encourages us to take inventory of those periods during the day when we enjoy the greatest surplus (and deficit) of time. With this information, we can then map our days such that we reduce the number of demands competing for any given period of time or, in the best case scenario, access incremental bandwidth (i.e., unclaimed time) that will permit us to achieve more in any given day.

The first application of this principle caused me to reorder my daily schedule. My days now start, rather than end with training sessions. By way of background, for years I trained only after leaving the office for the day. Though comfortable, this routine often came with the risk that, as a result of a last-minute meeting, dinner, or other events, I would need to scrap my workout. After taking a closer look at my calendar, I realized that I could reduce the number of missed workouts by simply shifting my training to the morning when I had no competing demands on my time. As I am a natural early riser, this change required little beyond getting to bed slightly earlier. And as for the benefits? I now consistently make it to the gym and have since freed up time in the evening such that my impromptu plans can be my only plans.

 

When scheduling workouts, no one day should impose a disproportionate demand on either time or energy relative to other days of the week.

For scheduling purposes, this principle requires that work days and workout intensities be inversely proportional within days and, on a consolidated basis, relatively equal across days. In practice, this guidance means intentionally offsetting more demanding days in the office—days when logging longer hours or staring down more unforgiving deadlines—with less intense training sessions (e.g., cardio) or recovery days. Conversely, this guidance encourages the scheduling of extended workout sessions (e.g., deadlifts) on days with greater flexibility to settle into the office or with more predictable ends.

The primary benefit of this principle—greater training consistency—follows from how these scheduling decisions impact timing constraints and tradeoffs. In effect, this principle indirectly alleviates timing constraints to varying degrees throughout the week, which helps reduce the incidence of zero-sum tradeoffs between professional and physical priorities. In addition, this principle empowers us to seek a greater internal balance to complement the external balancing of our priorities. By offsetting these professional and training demands, we can better anticipate and proactively avoid extreme swings in our energy and stress levels. Over the long term, this internal stability makes the ongoing pursuit of professional-physical balance a more sustainable proposition.

 

Where possible, maximize enjoyment of the training process.

Before finalizing my weekly schedule, I do a quick check to confirm that I am not missing opportunities to optimize my training experience. I start by posing the question: Given my training constraints, am I maximizing my overall enjoyment of the process? In theory, overall training satisfaction can help increase the perceived benefit of training by elevating the experience beyond just the physical. Apropos of the tradeoff discussion, this improved cost-benefit relationship can, all else equal, increase the propensity for us to choose training over competing demands when such decisions must occur.

Fortunately for us, applying this principle is straightforward. Optimizing our training for enjoyment, where possible, is simply a matter of applying personal preferences within established constraints. For example, if I notice that the weather will be particularly nice earlier in the week, then I will tweak my schedule so that I can move my cardio session up and take my treadmill run outdoors. Alternatively, if I am staring down three treadmill runs during a single week, then I may swap the second session for a H.I.I.T. class to break the monotony and feed off the group's energy.

While these changes may seem small or trivial—after all, miles are miles and cardio is cardio—they have a profound effect on my mood before, during, and after my workouts. And on the margin, enjoyment can explain the difference between meeting or falling short of my weekly training quota; it can mean the difference between hitting or falling just short of my physical goals. That said, do not underestimate the impact of training satisfaction!

 

If a workout is the source of unreasonable stress, don't schedule it.

It may seem curious to include this final principle in a post about balance. Yet, the reality is that many of us grapple with weeks when professional demands—an all-encompassing project, meetings, or travel—leave us with inadequate time for virtually anything else. During these weeks, these demands take precedence and make it all but certain that we will fall short of our training goals.

By accepting this outcome—this training shortfall—as a given, we can avoid lose-lose situations in which we spread ourselves too thinly and fall short across all efforts. That said, this principle gives us permission to preemptively redirect our attention and energy away from training and towards the most immediate priority at hand. It gives us permission to focus on impact rather than activity, and it gives us permission to place greater faith in our process. In short, this principle serves as a reminder to prioritize ourselves, particularly when we seem to have little time to do so.

By bringing greater intentionality to my decision-making, this framework has helped me create a system that better supports, rather than undermines, my training efforts. And though I expect to continue to struggle with overall balance, the above approach has helped me and will continue to help me to better manage the day-to-day experience of navigating these competing priorities.

 

Matt works full-time in the media and technology space in New York City and is a NASM Certified Personal Trainer. To learn more about his approach to health and fitness, follow him on Instagram @mattjoseph.fit 
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