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Law of Equal Effort: How to Do Big Things Without Burning Out

A few weeks ago, I ran my eighth marathon. I’m hardly the world’s leading expert on running. I’ve never followed a formal training schedule, hired a coach, or joined a running club and I’m not fast—my PR is just 3:49:00—but I’ve always finished.

The training matters, but what gets me through a race as difficult as a marathon is an approach I take in my life that just happens to help my running, too.

I call it the Law of Equal Effort, and it’s incredibly simple: Regardless what life throws at you, you put in the same effort.

Following this theory, the progress you make over time can vary significantly but, in the end, you get to the same place and you feel a lot better when you’re done.

It’s an important approach when you’re taking on a long-term challenge and you don’t feel confident. And it’s an appealing approach because you’re in control. You don’t always get to decide when things will be hard or easy for you, but you do get to decide how you deal with the ups and downs when they come.

Here’s how you can put the Law of Equal Effort to work in your day-to-day life, as well as a few situations when you should take a different approach. We’ll apply it to three examples: running a marathon (naturally), starting a business, and building a relationship.

Define Your “Forever Pace”

Every long-distance runner is familiar with the idea of pace. When you’re trying to go a certain distance, it’s the speed that—if you successfully maintain it—will get you to the finish line on time.

Steady Pacing

If you go too fast, you risk burning out and either not finishing or under-performing. Any marathoner who’s ever “hit the wall” knows the misery that comes from running over pace.

It does not matter how slowly you go, so long as you do not stop. ~ Confucius

I know my “forever pace” (FP) is around 9:45/mile. That’s the speed where I feel like, no matter what comes my way or how far I go, I can keep running… forever. For a marathon—an event with a defined ending period—I know my current optimal pace is around 8:45. If I run that pace, I can finish and I’ll be proud of my time.

In any case, the idea is to put in an equal effort over time to finish your race.

Pacing applies to every area of your life, though, and knowing your FP will help you make smart decisions about how to take on big challenges.

Pacing When You’re Starting a Business

Let’s say you want to start a business. First, you’d ask yourself if it’s your passion project you want to run forever or if you’re starting something to sell after, say, a few years. Each of these scenarios needs a pace, but it will be different depending on the goal.

If you want to run your business forever, you pick a pace you can stick with forever. That doesn’t mean you will stick with it forever. But, if you don’t set a reasonable pace from the beginning, you’ll burn out and want to give up too early.

On the other hand, if you’re building something you want to sell in two years, you’d ask yourself, “What needs to get done in the next two years?” and “What pace can I maintain that will get me there?”

You may need to push yourself pretty hard to make the goal, but you’ll at least know what that pace is so you’ll know if—at any given time—you’re going too fast (you might hit the wall) or too slow (you might miss the target).

Pacing for Relationships

What if you’re an introvert and you’re building a relationship with a new friend or partner? You don’t build relationships with a specified ending date so being aware of your relationship building FP is important.

If you go too fast in the beginning you might burn yourself out and get tired of them. Or you might burn them out, causing them to need space from you. But, if you go too slow, you might get frustrated things aren’t progressing or make the other person think you’re aloof.

Whatever you’re working on—a marathon, a business, a relationship, or anything else—knowing the pace you can maintain will help you make the best choices to get what you want in the time you want it.

Law of Equal Effort: When to Deviate From Your Pace

When you know your FP, you know what effort you have to put in to meet your goals. For example, if I want to beat my marathon PR, I know I have to keep a pace of at least 8:44 throughout the race.

The problem with pacing, though, is it’s one-dimensional while life has many dimensions that complicate things. This is where the Law of Equal Effort really shines.

In a marathon, there are physical complications—steep uphills that slow you down, long downhills that make it easy to coast, and joints that start hurting at random intervals. And there are psychological complications. In the beginning, you’re surrounded by energetic people who make you want to sprint even though you have 26 miles left. By the end, you’re sore and surrounded by exhausted people. It makes you want to slow down even though there’s only a tiny distance left.

A novice runner will ignore his pacing when it’s most important and try to stick to it when it’s least important. He’ll get caught up in the excitement and run too fast at the starting line not realizing he just used up everything he needs at the end or he’ll feel his pace slowing on a difficult hill and push himself to speed up.

Both of these scenarios—especially combined—lead to burnout and poor performance.

Newbie Pacing

What I do, instead, is try to maintain an equal effort throughout the race regardless what happens along the route. When it’s early on and everyone’s sprinting, I hold myself back because I know I need that energy later on. Near the end, I use that energy while the people around me are slowing down.

And, just as important, I don’t try to maintain the pace no matter what. If there’s a big hill, I slow down and take it easy on the way up. This can take me off pace, but hills don’t just go up. They go down, too. So, I push myself on the downhills to make up time because I know if I grind it out on every uphill, I’ll burn out.

Law of Equal Effort

It’s the same approach I try to take in the rest of my life. I don’t always control when things are easy or hard, but I do control how I react to either scenario. Let’s go back to our examples.

Law of Equal Effort for Business

When you start a business, you’re signing up for a roller-coaster ride. One day, everything’s going your way. The next, “OhmygodthisissohardIjustwanttoquit!”

If you’re motivated to succeed, it’s normal to want to dig in your heels when things get hard. You work longer hours and push your willpower to the brink. What happens next, though, is either burnout (you give up) when the hard times keep rolling and you’re out of steam, or you become so exhausted that when things return to normal, you need so much time to recharge that you fall behind again.

As a result, you end up in a cycle where you’re working too hard when you should be slowing down and slacking off when you should be pushing harder.  It’s not healthy, and it doesn’t get you any closer to creating your vision.

What if you do the opposite? What if, when times get hard (the uphills), you just keep plugging along with the same effort. You won’t make as much headway. But you’ll also be strong and ready to ramp up when things change for the better (the downhills).

Law of Equal Effort for Relationships

What about building a relationship? Watch any movie with a hint of romance, and it’s easy to be convinced that, when something strains the relationship, it’s time to step up and use all your energy to get things back on track.

But anyone who’s had a long, happy relationship in real life knows that isn’t how it works. The tendency to wear yourself out fixing a relationship is what leads to burning out and slacking off when things go back to normal. And that’s what leads to the next crisis.

What if, instead of completely emptying yourself when things get hard, you slowed down a little bit? What if you took a measured, calm approach and then, when things got back on track, you turned it up then.

It’s hard to make progress in a relationship when times are hard. Trust is low, feelings are hurt, you go into protection mode. The more effort you put in here, the worse it could get. But if you carefully nurture things back to a good place, you can make tremendous progress during the happier times. You have the energy to pour into it and it’s easy because everyone wants it to be easy. And, with more progress, comes fewer hard times.

When the Law of Equal Effort Doesn’t Work

The Law of Equal Effort has served me well, but it’s important to note there are times when it shouldn’t be used.

  • Existential risk: When you’re on the brink of collapse, LoEE doesn’t work. This could be a major crisis at your company or your husband/wife/business partner is heading out the door right now. When you’re in that place, you have to suck it up and fight and deal with the consequences of that later.
  • Severe burnout: If you’ve given it your best effort and you’re still exhausted and ready to give up before the end, it’s time to take a break. No, you won’t stay on pace, but you may at least finish. Trying to fight through an all-encompassing burnout doesn’t usually work.
  • The end is in sight: LoEE goes out the window once the end is in sight. When you can see the finish line, you don’t need to leave anything in the tank for later. Turn it up and let your adrenaline carry you to the end even faster. You’ll collapse in exhaustion at the end, but who cares?

Final Thoughts on the Law of Equal Effort

If you’re a highly motivated person, the Law of Equal Effort feels unnatural and even wrong at first. But if you stick with it a while, you’ll see it works beautifully for so many areas of life.

It works because you’re still putting in the same effort, but you’re better aligning that effort with life’s uncontrollable circumstances so you’re not struggling unnecessarily and screwing up the future.

When you apply it right, you stay happy and motivated throughout the process. And, when you stay happy and motivated, you have a better chance of achieving your goals.

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