Chasing Earned Fatigue

I usually cringe at the trite question: “what does success mean to you?” But, Jodie Foster’s answer has stuck with me over the years.

“In the end, winning is sleeping better.”

When I first heard this, I immediately paused the podcast I was listening to and took note. Foster powerfully compresses so much into a handful of words.

Personally, sleeping better requires the sensation of earning my fatigue1, which usually arises from a day packed with total dedication to each task. One where I come home, drop my backpack, and crash-land onto my bed2 with my entire being filled with contentment. This past summer3, I’ve been chasing “earned fatigue.” In doing so, the following thoughts have shaken out: contrast (and how it sparks fatigue), defining “enough,” and toeing the line with overtraining.

Contrast

If I stuck to the minimum physical activity levels that being an engineer—or generally, a knowledge worker—required, my days would culminate in a sort of “cupcake week.“ Sitting (or standing) at a desk for multiple hours doesn’t provide the physical contrast needed to truly relax (acknowledging that this is a function of my age and capacities). If my working day is mostly spent sitting (near leisure), it’ll be hard savor it after-hours.

This “contrast“ seems to have two faces: physical and mental.

Physical

How have I attempted to remedy this inactivity? By pushing my baseline as far as I can from relaxation. More tangibly, this involves practicing being uncomfortable and shocking the system through humbling experiences4.

Regimented discomfort has taken the form of training. Currently, I aim for three key sessions (around 60–70 minutes) a week—focusing on strength—and two supplementary workouts (endurance and yoga). By kicking off my days with intense, physical work (and the concentration it requires5), any bug or feature I tackle at the office almost pales in comparison.

“Shocking the system” refers to experiences that embody the literal definition of “humbling.” Challenges which knock me down, so I can make sure I don’t forget how to stand up again. An instance of this was my first outdoor cycling race. I trained indoors all winter…rookie mistake. Come race day, I got dropped from the peloton and spent the rest of the race rounding out the back of the field. I was in the peak physical condition, but failed to realize that conditioning can’t substitute time in the saddle, drafting skills, and timely gear shifting. The race helped me spot these unknown unknowns. Since then, I have been building my endurance base and sharing some great memories (and laughs) along the ride.

Mental

The mental side of contrast mostly mirrors its physical counterpart. That is, submarine-like periods of attention help me better enjoy the lighthearted moments. However, there are two nuances I want to explore: why some of my smartest friends are (often) the “goofiest” and how meditation compliments our default mode of consuming media all day.

Raw Intellect <> “Derpiness”

When I think about my friends6 who pack the most mental firepower7, a common thread through all of them is that they love derping around. To provide some context, one of my closest friends, Nishant, is easily one smartest people I know. We’re so comfortable around one another to the point that we laugh at the most mindless things. On many occasions, I’ve cried of laughter reading his messages. I’d guess that this dynamic occurs because Nishant is constantly surrounded by extraordinary colleagues, implicitly applying pressure to appear “with it.“ Goofing around after hours provides a refreshing contrast.

Meditation as Mental Defragmentation

While engineering necessitates (relative) physical inactivity, the mental work involved lands on the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s very possible—if not common—to spend all of my waking hours consuming inputs (text, audio, video, etc.). Through this lens, mental contrast involves stepping away from these stimuli. Meditation has accomplished this for me. Over the past three years (and ~268 hours using Headspace), the practice has become a sort of defragmentation for my mind. Time to just be with my own thoughts, process them (if needed), and work through any difficult emotions. Moreover, while meditation may come across as a purely mental effort, its effects have spilled over into my workouts8.

Defining “Enough”

Now that we’ve covered contrast and its role in onsetting earned fatigue, let’s dive into something I struggled with. Defining how much fatigue is enough. I generally approach advice listicles with a ten-foot pole (advice is extremely lossy). But, entry #36 in Ryan Holiday’s recent post captured the core of this difficulty:

“Know What’s ‘Enough’ — If you don’t know what ‘enough’ is, then the default answer is always more.”

Having more of a Type-A-leaning personality, I pushed my physical limits. I (foolishly) crammed weeks with multiple two-a-days, racking up six to seven workouts a week. As you can guess, I eventually hit a wall and became somewhat of a zombie when I wasn’t caffeinated or in the gym. To break down this wall, I imposed structures in which “enough” was more concrete (or even defined for me). Physically, this involved working with a coach who would plan our workouts, push me to safe failure, and check in to make sure I was resting enough (both in sleep volume and recovery days). There is a subtle—yet impactful—difference in having someone define the bounds of a workout. Let’s take the following superset as an example:

  • Dumbbell pullovers at 35 pounds for 15 repetitions
  • Diamond push-ups for 15 repetitions
  • (Repeat the above for four rounds)

I have done this circuit both with and without a coach. Despite the similar levels of effort in each context, completing it with someone else calling the shots feels more rewarding. It’s as if the rungs on your “ladder” are created for you, allowing you to focus on climbing; as opposed to trying to simultaneously climb a ladder you’re building. More generally, this delegation of “enough” might explain the (more recent) proliferation of group fitness classes. They’re instances of having someone construct ladders for us.

Rebounding from Overtraining

With a notion of enough fatigue, it’s normal to accidentally surpass it, or more-commonly: overtrain. There’s no beating around the bush here. Recovering from overtraining is hard. The following helped me immensely (and have cognitive analogs):

  • Seasonality: an (unfortunate) adage thrown around the fitness community is that one should “always be improving.“ I agree with the general notion here, but it glosses over a subtle nuance. Improvement can (and should) happen along multiple axes. More specifically, plateaus in one performance metric might be a sign to focus on another (potentially related) one. This happened with my cycling power output. I tended to compress how “effective“ a workout was solely based on my output, trying to set a PR session after session. When the wattage started to flatline, I redirected my attention to flexibility—through more consistent yoga—and it pushed the ceiling on my output within a month. Tying this back to seasonality, a useful mindset for handling overtraining is dividing efforts along seasons (e.g. strength, flexibility, endurance, etc.), instead of locking into the “always improving” framework along a single dimension.
  • “Remember the fun“: I wholeheartedly believe that “absence makes the heart grow fonder” applies to training. This has held up for habits I’ve kept on longer timescales (the tail-end of habit formation isn’t discussed enough). By minimizing time in the gym, I missed it and reminded me of the often-forgotten fun involved in routine activities.
  • Don’t chase the end: One of my favorite cues9 my coach has given me is “not to chase the end of a set.” Typically, this will happen when he throws out a target rep-range, say eight to ten, and notices that I mindlessly start rushing towards that mile marker. Taking a mental step back to focus on each repetition and time under tension helps make workouts more sustainable, as opposed to a series of dashes.

Earned fatigue—and the investigation of what induces it, defining “enough,” and inadvertently ignoring that definition—has made this summer a focused period of social, mental, and physical growth. I hope these ideas can help you grow in both expected and unexpected ways next season. “Sleeping better” is easier on the other side of tired.


Special thanks to Kate and Justin for reading early drafts of this post.

Footnotes

1: Ryan commonly refers to this as the ”other side of tired.” Additionally, this is predicated on allocating enough time for sleep.

2: GIF equivalent of this

3: In the absence of quarters and semesters that university provided, I’ve tried to impose structure on my years through seasons. It helps avoid “Forever Projects” and allows efforts to be directed for finite periods of time.

4: I hope the literal definition of “humbling” makes a comeback. Not the faux-bragging version that’s used in “I’m so humbled to receive this reward…”

5: I’ve come around to better understanding why top-performers often don’t train with music. When actually ensuring “time under tension” in strength work or keeping form during intervals, audio can be distracting (and even affect perception of time).

6: Of course, noting that this might not be an actual pattern, but instead a result of the self-selected pattern amongst my close friends.

7: Nikhil phrased this question well in his thread on interview questions.

8: Further research on the combination

9: Amongst many. If you’re interested in a more-detailed post on his cues, let me know!