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Breaking the Pain Barrier

Victory at the finish line or the deadline

For professional cyclists, winning is a matter of pain. For those who love the sport, self-inflicted suffering goes part and parcel with every pedal. The more you can suffer, the better you can compete. Consequently, at higher levels of competition, the pain is legendary, with every nerve ending in their legs being dissolved in a fiery pit of acid. It actually isn’t too far from the truth.

Acid is involved, specifically lactic acid. When we have enough breath in our bodies, we are operating aerobically, fueling our slow-twitch muscles with a combination of oxygen and fat. It produces a trickle of lactic acid, but nothing that can’t be swept quickly away. However, if you really need to push yourself, your energy requirements need more oxygen than your lungs can provide. At the point where your exertion becomes anaerobic, you switch to fast twitch muscle fibers, which can be fueled by glycogen alone. When you burn glycogen, it makes a quick stop as glucose before finally breaking down into every cyclist’s nemesis, lactic acid. The body doesn’t like lactic acid and, in protest, the agony begins.

To push themselves to the pain threshold and then far beyond, competitive cyclists employ a pretty nifty technique — micro goal-setting. They break down the entire route of the race into a series of small goals, creating virtual finishing lines in their minds. For example, Ivan Basso (aka Ivan the Terrible) is one of the best mountain bike riders of all time. One of his motivational tricks is to set a series of targets for the race, each one within sight and as short as thirty seconds if negotiating a series of bends. One at a time, he focuses on finishing each one. And keeping with the mountain theme, here’s a similar story from my book The Procrastination Equation for mountaineering:

Inch by inch, life’s a cinch; yard by yard, life is hard. How powerful is this mantra? Joe Simpson, in one of mountaineering’s greatest survival stories, used it to save his life. Left for dead at the bottom of a crevasse in an isolated Peruvian mountain with a shattered shinbone, he had three days to pull himself to a base camp through five miles of truly treacherous glacier field or be really dead. He was already utterly exhausted from an arduous marathon of an ascent, with no food and only a little water, so this journey should have been impossible, except for one critical survival tool: his wristwatch. With it, he set goals. Setting the alarm for twenty minutes at a time, he made for a nearby rock or drift — he was elated when he reached it in time and he despaired when he didn’t. Battling exhaustion, pain, and eventually delirium, he repeated this process hundreds of times and reached the perimeter of the base camp just hours before his friends’ intended departure.

The process looks pretty much like this graph. Look at the solid black line that swoops up. This is your motivation without goal setting, where almost all your intensity is reserved towards the end, the finishing line. You are eventually willing to push yourself, but by then it is too late. Others are already far ahead and your final effort comes too late. With goal setting, that is the red line, the sum of the parts is indeed greater than the whole. It enables you to push yourself past the pain threshold (i.e., the straight dashed line) earlier, more often and to a greater degree.

Breaking The Pain Barrier

There are neurobiological reasons why goal setting works, mostly through activating our brain’s limbic system. The limbic system has direct access to our raw emotional power, but it is only triggered under precise conditions. Consequently, goal setting is creating an artificial deadline that has exactly these conditions, allowing us to effectively mimic the real deadline. We all know that we are most motivated just before the deadline; that’s when our pulse quickens, our focus narrows and we find it easier to ask more of ourselves. What are these key qualities naturally occurring deadlines have that we should recreate when developing our own goals? Science has identified four ingredients.

First, it has to be challenging. We are motivationally efficient in that we want to do exactly enough to reach a goal but nothing more. If you don’t ask much of yourself, you won’t give much. Consequently, you want the goal to be as hard as you can truly mentally commit to. Not ridiculously hard — if you see the goal as unrealistic, you will later reject it — but “doably” hard.

Second, it has to be specific. When you approach a finishing line or a deadline, it is a real, clear event. You can see it, touch it, take a picture of it and point it out to others. It isn’t vague or abstract, like “My goal is do my best.” Similar to Ivan Basso’s line of sight goals, you want it to be tangible and explicit.

Third, think of when you get motivated for a deadline. How far did you allow the clock to run down before you really, REALLY got started? Not just toying with the task but full-on get-it-done. A day? An hour? A few minutes? Goals are powerful when the finishing line is imminent, just ahead of you. Since you know that you get motivated just before naturally occurring deadlines, guess what? You get motivated before self-imposed deadlines too. To get started, shorten up your timelines.

Fourth, goals are best crafted as a target you are racing to. Cyclists and any other athletic competitors are rarely thinking how far they are from the starting line but rather how much closer they are to the finish line. For example, when dealing with procrastination, replace your goal of “stop putting it off” (an avoidance goal) with “start earlier” (an approach goal).

These four principles are hardwired into our neurobiology. They are proven to work anywhere and for almost anything, from financial planning to dieting to parenting. To help you remember it, think of this as the CSI Approach. Make your goals Challenging, Specific, Immediate and Approach. This is about taking control of your motivation. Right now the world is determining your deadlines for you and, consequently, when you will feel motivated. For most of us, this results in an eye dropper of motivation early on and then a fire hose full just before the deadline comes due. By using goal setting, you put motivation back under your own control. Essentially, you can turn on the motivational tap when and where you need it, helping you to cross the vast tundra of the dull daily grind or to endure competitive pain required for victory.

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