In the last few weeks, inspired by my Index Data colleagues Adam Dickmeiss and Jakub Skoczen, I’ve started running. Humilatingly short distances, and at laughably slow paces, but running nevertheless. I’m forty-three, I weigh over a hundred kilograms, and I absolutely love good food and drink. If I don’t do something, it would be terribly easy for me just to slowly but inexorably get fatter and more unfit until I keel over.
So far I have run four times, racking up a less than inspiring total of maybe three miles. So you might want to take what I say with a pinch of salt. Still, I feel like I got a general insight on yesterday’s “run”, if you want to call it that, and as usual I am arrogant enough to assume that the world ought to be told.
On my last-but-one run, I did manage to rack up a whole mile, but by cheating. I ran half a mile, then walked 150 meters up the steepest part of the course I’d planned out, then ran the last half-mile home. I made it back alive without having to stop.
But yesterday, attempting the same course, I got carried away and thought I’d be able to run the whole thing without dropping to a walk. So I kept running up the steep part and into the homeward leg. Well, I was right: I was indeed able to keep running all the way up the hill. But it wasn’t far into the homeward leg before I just couldn’t keep going, and had to stop to recover before ambling home. I ended up achieving less overall than I had the previous time when I followed the pan to go run, walk, run.
So here is the lesson: when deciding whether you are too tired to do something, don’t think about how tired you are now, think about how tired you are going to be.
I ran up the hill because I wasn’t too tired to do it. But I should have been thinking about whether, having run up the hill, I’d be too tired to run home.
I think this principle applies in a lot of places. One that’s bothered me recently has been in watching Season 5 of The West Wing. During the crisis that engulfs the White House at the very end of Season 4 and which is the heart of the early Season 5 episodes, virtually every major character at some point tells one of the others to go home and get some sleep. And every time the response is, “No, I’m OK”. Yes, Josh: you’re OK now. But once you’ve stayed up all night at progressively decaying levels of efficiency, you will be useless in the morning when you have to, I don’t know, formulate a policy on reducing subsidies for Minnesotan soy-bean farmers. Don’t take a break? You may be able to run up the hill now, but you’ll end up having to walk home.
A more relevant, and indeed non-fictional, application is programmers pulling all-nighters. I guess every serious coder has done this a few times — I know I have — and there are times when it is absolutely the right and proper thing to do. When there is a hard deadline in 24 hours and 24 hours’ worth of work left to do, the only sensible thing is to work for 24 straight hours. But to keep doing it? To get into a lifestyle where working through the night becomes routine? No, it won’t work. You might make it up the hill for today’s project, but you’ll end up having to walk home. Plan for how tired you are going to be.