Those Lazy Marathon Runners

February 3, 2009 at 12:55 pm | Posted in Attention Management, Information Work, interruption science | 2 Comments

There’s a typical news and commentary pattern where a story or posting about a corporation cracking down on non-work distractions (like checking Blackberries, accessing shopping websites, March Madness pools) is followed by a stream of rebuttals about how everyone needs a break and that being mentally rested, happy, and socially connected to peers actually makes them more efficient over the long run.  The key concept here is pacing.

I’m sure most of you can remember a time when you had to leave work at exactly 5:00 but still had a bunch of work to complete at 4:30.  I’ll bet you were amazingly focused and productive in that 30 minutes!  Even to the point you were pretty proud at how efficient you can be.  Now, why don’t you just work like that every hour, every day?  If your boss watched you for those 30 minutes, would they have a right to expect you to work at your peak efficiency all the time?  That’s a good reason to keep your door closed – you couldn’t do it.

A Basex study said 28% of a typical information worker’s day is spent on “interruptions by things that aren’t urgent or important”.  Is that bad?  What’s the correct number?  Trick question – I don’t think 0% is as optimal as it sounds. 

This thought got me wondering if there’s a way to quantify how much better someone could work at peak efficiency and what the “correct” amount of slack-off is assuming you are optimizing for the long-run and not a very short-term burst that leads to burnout.  Ding! Olympic runners!  How much “slack” is there between the fastest a person can run for a short distance and the actual time they run to finish a long-distance race (the marathon) in optimal time?

The world record for the marathon is by Samuel Wanjiru at 2:06:32.  I calculated that at any given 100 meters during the marathon, he was running it in 17.99 seconds.  The world record for the 100 meter dash is held by Usain Bolt at 9.69 seconds.  There are even huge football players that run the 100 meter dash in under 12 seconds.  That lazy Wanjiru!  And Bolt has to start his 100m from a standstill too.  That means Wanjiru is running at only 54% of maximum speed (I’ll assume for the sake of argument that, if he wanted to, Wanjiru could run a fast sprint even though runners are better at different lengths). 

By my calculations, Usain Bolt could run the marathon in 1:08:09. That’s enough time to run the marathon, take a shower, and watch two episodes of the Simpsons (without commercials) before Wanjiru met him at the finish line.

Except, of course, that Bolt would keel over long before hitting the finish line at that rate.  It’s important to pace yourself.  Seeing as Wanjiru is the best marathon runner on the planet and that is the fastest time recorded, I can safely assume his time is the optimal compromise between speed and endurance. That pacing requires throttling back to almost half speed.

What is the relation between physical and mental endurance?  Is “pacing” needed to optimize long-running mental tasks as it is with physical ones?  I think it is.  While I can remember some painfully long mental sprints at times, truly long tasks require some mental pacing as well.  And just like sprinters, breaks between sprints are what make the sprints more effective. 

So some advice to those people that calculate how much those non-work distractions are costing companies (sometimes calling them “unnecessary interruptions”), implying that’s the amount of benefit out there to take back a piece of: look to the long-term finish line, not the isolated moments in the day.  If optimal physical pacing is 54% of maximum short-term capability, maybe 28% isn’t a bad pace for mental efforts.  Or, given the number of goof-offs out there, maybe it’s 25% or 22% that’s optimal – but don’t imply it’s 0%.  So don’t watch an information worker doing 5 minutes of web shopping or a marathon runner for just 100 yards and conclude they aren’t giving it their all.

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  1. […] breaks.  Even the best runners have to pace themselves for a marathon.  I calculated that optimal performance for the best marathon runner is obtained by running at only about half speed.  What if you spend a bunch of time and effort getting people to eliminate certain […]

  2. […] life-affirming message you are likely to be blasted with shake-you-to-your-senses statistics on time wasted, money wasted, brains harmfully rewired, and interruptions run amok.  I’ve commented on all […]


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