Six easy lessons from seasoned mountaineers
Have you ever wondered how some people always manage to complete what they have planned for the day, rain, hail or shine? Mountaineers are this sort of people. You too could tackle your to-do list with the skills of a serious hiker, without even leaving the comfort of your workplace. So let’s unpack what they are doing so right.
It’s been a while since I last climbed a decent mountain. I miss the experience – wandering through peaks and valleys is a part of who I am. In fact, I’ve learned many universal lessons from hiking with much more experienced mates, which I’m now using to tackle mountainous goals in my work.
When I neglect these lessons, I often find myself losing direction or going down rabbit holes, even early in the day. Without seeing any progress, my motivation and focus eventually starts to fade, along with the last remaining hope of getting any tangible results for my time and effort. Are you able to relate?
However, things look very different when I launch myself into action with the mindset of a seasoned mountaineer. Work tends to flow really well, as I’m ticking off one task after another with laser sharp focus and abundant energy. There’s a great momentum; I feel optimistic and in control, confident that I‘ll soon reach the finish line.
I’m at my most productive when I’m committed to complete what I’ve planned for the day, prepared to walk across rugged terrain and to jump over hurdles as they come. I’m aware that if I progress too slowly or get sidetracked, I might soon find myself left behind in an unpleasant situation.
If I was actually messing around in the wild, I’d risk having to spend the night in the cold and damp, in the companion of crawly creatures. When it comes to business, after an unproductive day often comes a night of tossing and turning in a cold sweat. I’m kept up by disturbing head chatter, thinking about how I’m going to face my unhappy team and clients. If I could choose, I’d much prefer the crawlies.
So what do mountaineers do to get from A to B in time while staying safe and enjoying the hike?
Here are six simple tips:
1. Know your limits and plan accordingly
From experience, I know I’m able to handle around 1,400m change in elevation when climbing, and around 1,000m descending, in one day. Otherwise I’m able to walk a distance of 28km in undulating terrain. When I try to exceed these limits there’s a good chance that I fail reaching my destination or injure myself.
In the context of work, I can spend around three hours a day analysing complex information, developing creative solutions to problems or researching new information. After that time my brain starts to slow down and the quality of my work drops, which I understand is the case for the majority of people. On the other hand, I can immerse myself in workspace design or do routine tasks as long as needed, sometimes even late into the night.
When you’re setting out what you want to achieve in a day, you too should keep in mind how long you’re able to work productively on different tasks. I suggest you try to be realistic. Of course, there are times to be ambitious, but my experience is that falling short of our self-imposed goals over and over again can destroy our spirit.
2. Tackle the most challenging tasks while you’re at your peak
When you need to jump over boulders or cross a wild river with 20kg on your back, you’d better be fully switched on. You have a much better shot at succeeding – while staying safe and even enjoying yourself – if you challenge yourself at the time of the day when you’re at your strongest and sharpest. Having to exert yourself once you’ve used up your energy is not fun, and can even be dangerous.
Similarly, when you’re at work, there are a few hours each day when your focus, energy and mood are peaking. Most people find that they produce their best work in the morning, while others – i.e. night owls – are in their element in the evening or late at night.
Either way, it’s best to complete tasks that require intense concentration and deep thinking during your most productive hours. You’ll find that your work reaches a higher standard, you achieve more, and feel less inclined to procrastinate.
3. Generate momentum early on
Overcoming a difficult quest is exhilarating and liberating. It makes you feel lighter and gives you the drive to move forward and kick other goals. Interestingly, taking small steps that give you a sense of progress and achieving minor milestones can also boost your energy and mood to a great extent.
I remember some walks in the mountains where I reached a lookout point only a few minutes after starting out, from where I could clearly see that I was already closer to my destination. I suddenly felt proud and unstoppable, even though getting to that point was really easy.
But when it comes to work, please keep in mind that you can only gain real sense of progress if the goal you work towards is meaningful to you. Getting a step closer towards a vision that makes your heart beat faster will more likely fill you with optimism, energy and pride than say clearing out your mailbox (which is always a short-lived achievement).
So it might be a mistake to dig into those monster projects with no end in sight first thing in the morning – you could quickly find yourself overwhelmed and perhaps even mentally paralysed. You don’t want to get lost in the woods either before making any visible progress – which is how I feel sometimes when diving deep into open-ended research projects or experiments.
Instead, before you jump into those daunting tasks or so-called ‘black hole’ projects which can make time disappear, pick a small job that matters to you, and at which you know for sure you can excel.
4. Find your pace and rhythm
I walk relatively fast, especially uphill, and have frequent short breaks. Interestingly, I often reach the summit at the same time as my mates who walk more slowly and steadily and have fewer breaks. However, whenever I need to walk at their rhythm I soon start to feel pain in my muscles and run out of juice.
You must also have a natural pace and rhythm, whether in the context of walking or working. How long can you engage in different activities with your full attention, energy and smarts? How often do you need to take a break? There are no right or wrong answers, but you need to be aware of how you function best.
For example, ninety minutes is usually a good amount of time for me to get on a roll and make good progress with writing reports or analysing data, and then I need to take a substantial break. On the other hand, when I brainstorm I need to refresh my mind more often. However, then I only need a few-minutes break – typically moving around and stretching my body – after which I’m ready to carry on.
I’m sure you’ll also find that you work more effectively and also feel better when you follow your natural pace and rhythm rather than trying to conform to someone else’s.
5. Decide what you need: consistency or variety
I love variety, in general, but I had several wonderful nature hikes where I was wandering through the same sort of terrain for a very long time. I was powering uphill or descending into a deep valley for hours on end, or even for a whole day, without anything breaking my rhythm. Every step appeared similar throughout the morning and afternoon, and I loved it. I felt clear, present and connected to the world around me. Some people call this state ‘the moment of truth’.
I often have similar experiences at work. I can make great progress when I get the chance to immerse myself in similar types of activities all day long.
A business educator once taught me about a technique he uses to maximise his own productivity. Each day before starting work he decides on the ‘energy’ of the activities that he would focus on, and then he spends all his work hours either creating, or collaborating, or analysing, and so on.
I tried this technique and it works for me, so I try to tackle tasks that are similar in nature in batches. When workflow allows, sometimes I spend whole days creating new content, or communicating and collaborating with team members, or doing obligatory paperwork.
However, this strategy doesn’t work for everyone. Some people I know can get a bit bored by doing the same sort of work for too long, and prefer to mix things up, jumping into vastly different activities every couple of hours or so. This is their way of maintaining momentum. What is yours?
6. Preserve your time and energy
While bushwalking, it can be tempting to check out sidetracks to nearby hilltops or lookout points. They are often only short distances away from the main track, rewarding you with spectacular scenery.
However, good hikers know if they have enough time and energy for these little side trips, or if they should say no. They watch the clock and check their inner resources closely, just like drivers watch the fuel level when they have a certain distance to cover before getting the chance to refuel.
You rarely see a mountaineer doing things half-heartedly. When they walk, they truly walk, with their eyes on the path ahead. When they rest, they truly rest, enjoying where they are at, with their backpacks off.
Just picture them trying to sneakily shuffle themselves a few meters forward during a break, in order to feel that they are not wasting any time. Or can you imagine them leaving the track every few minutes to check out what interesting surprises they may find in the area? That would be ridiculous.
Yet, we keep making the same kind of silly mistakes at work, sending ‘just one more’ email during our lunch break, and checking our social media accounts ‘just one more time’ while we’re meant to concentrate on the task at hand. These are some of our habits that eat up our time and energy, so why not make an effort to stop them?
Even if you’re not a hiker yourself, I’m sure that at some point in your life you’ve walked through difficult terrain and conquered real mountains. And although you probably needed to stretch yourself to reach your destination, at the end you felt that it was all worth it.
Next time, when you feel a bit disoriented at work, or lack momentum, imagine yourself pulling on a pair of hiking shoes and think about who you need to be in order to reach those amazing places.