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Smaller Steps Faster Progress

By Jessie Richards

A couple of years ago I started running for exercise, and I've tried to be consistent with it. I quickly built up to longer distances and durations than when I started, but then I hit a plateau and stayed there for a year or more. I found it difficult to increase my endurance beyond a certain point, and I found it particularly difficult to increase my speed.

Then about a month ago I went for a run with a friend who's been running for years and is in excellent shape, and I asked him to critique my running.

"If you take shorter strides than you're taking now and let your feet move more quickly," he advised, "you'll last longer and your running speed will pick up."

That hadn't occurred to me before. I hadn't been trying to move in any particular manner, but just let my body take me where and how it would. When I started paying attention and focusing on taking smaller steps, I found that I didn't really have to "try" to move more quickly; it just happened. The change wasn't dramatic, but enough for me to tell I was making progress.

A month later my running has definitely improved. My breathing is less labored, my energy level stays higher, and my speed is increasing. This morning I ran the same distance on the track where I made my discovery, and did so in considerably less time, even without consciously trying.

Best of all, I didn't feel like I was straining, struggling, and short on breath. I felt relaxed and enjoyed it from start to finish. In fact, I felt that I could have just as easily kept running.

Shortly after my discovery, it occurred to me to test the same principle in other areas of my life, particularly my work. I like to think of myself as a "get things done" person, but I have to admit that I have a problem with procrastinating.

Not that I'm lazy. I'm happy to work hard and put in the hours, and I relish few things more than having completed a project. Yet I find myself habitually avoiding the initial dig into large or long-term jobs, often putting them off until I have to cram to meet a deadline.

Recently I figured out why I do that: I've always assumed that I needed to make progress on big projects in big strides. But applying my running principle to my work, I realized that with smaller steps I could maximize efficiency, move more quickly, cover the same distance in less time and with less effort, and not be so exhausted at the end.

I no longer wait until I can clear a seven-day block on my calendar before starting a seven-day project. If I have an hour or two today, I can use that time and make a start—a small stride. Then I can work on it a bit tomorrow—another small stride—and a bit more the next day and the next.

Working that way, I find myself getting to the end of what initially seemed like a daunting project, even without having devoted huge blocks of time. And I don't feel like I've run a marathon.

The job got done because I picked away at it with small steps. And as it's happening, I can breathe! I'm not desperately playing catch-up. I'm not struggling to get in the mileage. I'm learning that sometimes the best and most lasting improvement is made not in one dramatic move, but bit by bit and step by step.

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