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Work Smarter, Not Harder: Applying the Principles of Interval Training to Your Career

by Amanda Vogel, MA on Jul 01, 2013

Improve productivity by putting more downtime in your personal life and professional life.

In much of the working world, people are expected to be on the job for 40 hours or more every week. People seem to respect you when you say you’re really busy. However, when putting in a hard day’s work goes awry, it translates to “crazy busy” or “I’m swamped.” And “crazy busy” is not conducive to the good health and well-being we aspire to for ourselves, our families and our clients in the fitness industry.

Perhaps nonstop work could be considered worthwhile if it meant you got a lot accomplished—every day, every week and every year—and felt great doing it. But “busy” and “productive” are not the same thing. Confusing these two ways of working can amount to plenty of job stress and time spent without much to show for it. Or worse, it could lead to burnout, a drop in motivation and perhaps lack of job security.

In some ways, this “push, push, push” practice at work is tantamount to asking fitness clients to exercise really intensely without ever balancing that effort with lighter exercise, rest days and/or recovery. Proper recovery is as important at work as it is with physical activity. Think of interval training, which has become popular in the fitness industry because its benefits are promising. We all agree, however, that for interval training to work optimally, the intense exercise must be coupled with adequate recovery. Why can’t the same apply to a fitness career? Simulating an interval style on the job—putting in a focused effort for a specified time, then taking a break—could maximize productivity, efficiency and enjoyment. This article challenges the current “nose to the grindstone” standard of work and looks at whether we’re being as productive as we think we are.

When Productivity Slows Down

To get a better sense of how you might be able to make your workday more productive, first take a step back and consider the following: What does an “all work and no play” day look like in the fitness industry?

It looks like being on the run, but not equipped with good time management, observes Trina Gray, owner of Bay Athletic Club and an elite coach for Team Beachbody® in Alpena, Michigan. “We feel useful or important when we are busy,” she says. “The more emails, texts and calls that build up, the more needed we feel. But being busy is really just a false sense of accomplishment.”

Based in the greater San Diego area, Will Marré is an executive coach to CEOs and co-founder of the Covey Leadership Center, where he created programs based on the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Free Press 2004). “The rat-race way of work is a downward spiral of working harder to produce less and less. It’s very much like overtraining. The more you work out, the weaker and more injury-prone you become,” he cautions.

Jade Teta, ND, CSCS, founder/creator of Metabolic Effect and of Time Millionaires, in Asheville, North Carolina, calls this state “busyness without business.” As he describes it, “There is a frenetic pace, constantly something to do and the feeling of catching up. But when the day ends, nothing really got done. You answered emails, trained clients, shuffled paper, made calls to prospects and everything else. But no major items got checked off the list. No momentum was built for your business as a whole.”

Liz DiAlto, a fitness and lifestyle coach in Laguna Beach, California, worries that in addition to being detrimental to business, this approach doesn’t set a good example for fitness clients. “It puts trainers in the position, very often, of having to live a lifestyle of ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’ This hurts our credibility and our confidence when it comes to working with clients,” she declares.

No client wants health guidance from a fitness professional who always appears harried and worn out. But do clients even notice when a trainer is operating at a “rat-race” pace, especially when they see that trainer for only an hour or two a week? It’s not just about what clients notice; it’s about the service they get. Most trainers report that they find it challenging to meet with clients back-to-back all day with few or no breaks. So it stands to reason that some trainers might come to work feeling overworked and mentally drained, even if their clients don’t detect it.

Teta shares how the cycle of being overworked affected him in his early days of personal training: “I would have wall-to-wall clients in the morning for 4 hours straight and then wall-to-wall clients in the evening for 5 or 6 hours straight. By the time I got lunch, ran errands, did paperwork, made follow-up calls and answered emails, I was back in the grind of training again. What this schedule did was keep me very busy, but I was exhausted and my business suffered. I was less attentive to my clients, and my energy was low. I was not working out, and I felt listless and lethargic at the end of every day,” he remembers.

Gray’s story is similar. “My early days were spent rushing from instructing class to training clients to promoting boot camps to processing payroll to responding to member issues to training my team to putting out fires everywhere in the business,” she recalls. “It was stressful, unplanned, and led to weight gain, sleepless nights and chronic fatigue. Even though the result of my work was incredibly fulfilling, it was a drain to get there,” she says.

“It’s extremely easy to burn out in this field,” notes Todd Durkin, MA, CSCS, owner of Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego and founder of FITBLOK, an online streaming video company designed to allow trainers worldwide to post scheduled workouts that reach hundreds or thousands of people at once. “Most of us got into this field because we love people, we want to give back, and we love health and fitness. Trainers tend to give a ton of energy every day.”

The ability to give energy is an ideal quality for any fitness professional to have. But that energy must be continually restored for the sake of career longevity. “Overworked fitness pros may get injured, which leads to limitations in the workplace, possibly leading to decreased income,” observes Fred Hoffman, MEd, owner of Fitness Resources Consulting Services in Paris, and recipient of the 2007 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year award. “They often get burned out mentally and start looking at their work as ‘only a job,’ no longer enjoying [what they do] and forgetting why they began working in the fitness industry.”

You might know a fitness pro who is operating on burnout—or perhaps you are one. It’s an easy cycle to fall into, because most fitness pros aren’t making money unless they’re working. Financially, it might not be an option for you to cut down on clients as a way to carve out more downtime in your day or week. The key to working smarter (not harder or longer) is to identify periods and causes of unproductivity, and then leverage your ability to become more productive.

Recharging Energy and Productivity

“Smart, productive work is much different than hard, repetitive work,” according to Marré, author of Working to Win (Capital Books 2013). He advises that one step to avoiding the trap of being busy and unproductive at the same time is to stop focusing on how hard you are working. A better question is, “How much value am I creating?” What if your energy is at an all-time low, but you plod along on a task anyway? The value of your work might be greater if you take a brisk walk or chat with a friend first. When you get back to the task feeling refreshed, you’ll be able to work more efficiently and concentrate better.

Making the switch from “How hard am I working?” to “How much value am I creating?” can be tricky. As a rule, fitness professionals relish hard work—in the gym and in their search for career success. Going back to the analogy of training a client, consider that you wouldn’t advise clients to exercise to the point of becoming sick and utterly exhausted. Still, you do want them to put in a strong effort and fully commit to the workout. Between workouts, the idea is to recover so the body becomes stronger.

Now apply that routine to your everyday work experience and your career as a whole. “I like to talk about the concept of rest-based working or rest-based living,” says Teta. “This involves intense periods of focus and intense work followed by relaxing downtime.” (See the sidebar “‘Interval Training’ for Your Workday” for an example of Teta’s rest-based living.) Putting in a strong effort on the job leads to results, but you do it with a game plan that includes periods of work/career “recovery.” This is “interval training” for your work schedule.

Interval Training for Your Work Schedule

Most fitness pros know what interval training looks like at the gym. But how do you make it fit what you’re doing on the job? With snack breaks, short days, days off and vacations—all of these are part of a smart work arrangement.

In The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working: The Four Forgotten Needs That Energize Performance (Free Press 2010), author Tony Schwartz cites a study of world-class violinists and their work habits and rest habits. “The best violinists figured out, intuitively, that they generated the highest value by working intensely, without interruption, for no more than 90 minutes at a time and no more than 4 hours per day,” Schwartz explains in his book. “They also recognized that it was essential to take time, intermittently, to rest and refuel.”

Plan for recovery breaks every 60–90 minutes throughout the day, advises Marré. “Every hour of work should be followed by a 5-minute recovery period in which you evaluate your last hour’s success and refocus your positive attention on your next client.”

Avoid spending your 5-minute break on an activity that’s quite similar to what you were just doing. For example, a casual chat with the client you just finished training might not feel like enough of a break. If you’ve been writing on the computer, resist visiting Facebook or surfing the Web as a break. “Mindfully listening to music or eating a quick snack or savoring a refreshing drink of water are all good ‘instant’ recovery sessions,” recommends Marré.

“Don’t multitask during breaks,” adds Teta. “Do one recovery activity and focus on that completely. Eating a meal while surfing the Internet while talking on the phone is not recovery.”

In addition to regular 5-minute re-energizers, plan on weaving longer breaks into your day to further recharge your productivity. “Longer recovery sessions should be scheduled in the morning, midday and afternoon,” Marré suggests. “These 20- to 30-minute refresh-and-reboot sessions are times to focus on building your expertise, connecting with mentors, engaging in a hobby or reaching out to friends. Learning, playing and socializing are the best recovery breaks, because they change your inner state of being. This increases your energy and makes you a more interesting person.”

Teta uses a similar technique that he calls “day intervals” to make his workday feel productive without feeling frantic. “For 2 hours, you might take clients, schedule meetings and do other tasks requiring focus and output. Then you set a break for 30 minutes. This is a real break, just as someone who did a true sprint would not be able to keep jogging but would be bent over gasping for air. You could go for a walk, take a nap, do some foam rolling, stretch out, hit the sauna, meditate, or nourish yourself with good food. For the next 2 hours, you will be more focused with your battery recharged and working at peak performance.”

To make sure these crucial breaks don’t get deprioritized and cast away when the day starts ramping up, Durkin advises that you add break times to your calendar. “It is essential to build personal time into your schedule every day,” he says.

Even with carefully planned daily breaks, too many days of continuous, full-time work will eventually slow down your productivity. That’s why the experts interviewed for this article also advocate “interval training” your entire work week, month and even year. For example, don’t work on the weekends, suggests Troy Fontana, a business consultant and president/founder of PT Solutions Inc., in Reno, Nevada. “Enjoy your downtime. Don’t work Friday after 2:00 pm. It will make your weekend seem like a 3-day weekend.”

“I believe in the power of taking a full day off every week,” observes DiAlto. “This day should involve self-care, whatever that means for you: enjoying a non-work-related book, taking a bath, getting a massage, mani-pedi, or just spending time with friends/family and not talking or thinking about work. It’s important to understand that we actually serve our clients better when we’re taking better care of ourselves, too.”

Along these lines, Gray schedules a weekly massage for herself and sticks to it no matter what’s going on with her schedule. “I often use this time to think through work issues, but without the noise of the world interrupting me,” she notes.

And don’t forget vacation time, whether that means taking a trip or just kicking back at home. “Breaks do not have to be vacations,” Durkin points out. “They can be ‘stay-cations’—for example, a 1-day mini-vacation where you stay at home and relax or take a personal day.”

Whether you pack your bags and head somewhere exotic, or set up camp close to home, be sure to plan “work/rest” intervals in your long-range schedule. Hoffman recommends prebooking and prepaying for trips, which helps you quash any excuses for why you’re too busy to take time off. Adds Durkin, “Give yourself some empowering places to look forward to going to.” The prospect of an upcoming getaway can make you feel more motivated at work. And it doesn’t have to be a lengthy, once-a-year excursion, either.

“A strategy that works well when you’re looking to re-energize is to take a 3-day weekend every 6 weeks,” says Fontana. “I have found these timeframes create a sense of renewal for the trainer, yet the distance in time is great enough that neither clients nor the business suffers from your break.”

Not only can vacations—whether they’re long and elaborate or short and simple—help you become a better, more energized fitness professional; they also can do wonders for helping you ignite further business success. “Getting out of the daily grind is where magic is created,” remarks Gray. “It’s when we aren’t thinking [about work] that often our best ideas appear and our energy is recharged.” 

Maintaining Your New Work Lifestyle

Despite your best efforts, sometimes life does get pretty busy. The best way to preserve “interval training” as part of your work schedule is to get strategic. Setting the stage now for greater productivity in the future involves both determination and creativity. For example, Fontana says that trainers need to use boundaries to protect personal time. “Start by having a memo on your phone that states that you answer and return phone calls between 8:00 am and 5:00 pm only, Monday through Friday,” he advises.

“Be the master of your schedule,” adds Teta. “Set training times and nontraining times; nontraining times never have a client in them, ever. Also, set business development times that are separate from training times. And set recovery times. Whenever a client is in a spot you have planned for recovery, move that client.”

Since both short breaks and long breaks are important, you might need to get creative about coordinating vacation time and work time. For example, while on a monthlong vacation last summer, Hoffman used technology to “check in” on work. “Knowing that most people and companies are not on vacation for 1 month, I decided to spend a couple of hours every morning answering emails, doing work, etc., and then spend the rest of the day on vacation,” he says. With a Wi-Fi connection, you can use tools such as email, Skype, Facebook and WhatsApp Messenger to inexpensively touch base with clients, staff and co-workers back home. “Being ‘mobile’ allows us to do a lot of work and communication away from the workplace and basically from any location,” observes Hoffman, author of Going Global: An Expert’s Guide to Working Abroad in the International Fitness Industry (Healthy Learning 2011). On the other hand, if you’re able to unplug completely during a vacation, jump at the opportunity!

Finally, finding the time for the breaks you need might require letting go of certain activities, commitments, specializations and even clients. “When we try to do everything, we do nothing,” notes Gray. “Running ragged is not the way to success. Choose to be amazing at a few things in fitness; focus on those.”

Time to Play Every Day

Your job in the fitness industry is not unlike working out: “The quality of effort you put in is the quality of the result you get out,” notes Teta. “Motivation and determination are allies only when applied smartly. Moving faster with purpose in the wrong direction simply moves you farther from your goals at a faster rate.”

Fortunately, the “work/rest” construct discussed in this article is part of the solution. “The happiest people in the world have work, love and play in their lives every day,” observes Marré. Now’s the time to ensure that you do, too.

Recommended Reading

Schwartz, T., Gomes, J., & McCarthy, C. 2010. The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working: The Four Forgotten Needs That Energize Performance. New York: Free Press.

IDEA Fitness Journal, Volume 10, Issue 7

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About the Author

Amanda Vogel, MA

Amanda Vogel, MA IDEA Author/Presenter

Amanda Vogel, MA, is a presenter, group exercise instructor and the owner of Active Voice, a writing, editing and consulting service for the fitness industry. She writes for leading magazines, includi...