Tackling Life’s Challenges, Like Cycling Across the US, is a Series of Small Accomplishments

Sometimes when we talk to folks about having cycled across the United States they comment about what an amazing athletic achievement that was. I want to ask those people, “Are you seeing what Joy and I look like?” As Joy points out, what we did is not so much an athletic achievement as it is a matter of perseverance and breaking it down into manageable pieces. It’s about tackling big things by turning them into a series of little things.

track-my-tour
Our TransAm route: San Francisco, California to York, Maine

Okay, so cycling across the US is a pretty impressive achievement (4,275 miles and 172,000 feet of climbing if you don’t do a straight line). But we didn’t do it all in one go. We tackled it like a giant project, figuring out milestones and doable small tasks (getting to a specific town, reaching a particular summit, …). And identifying and addressing potential issues (mostly) before they became a crisis.

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My office whiteboard, circa May 2015

People’s reaction (amazement/awe/etc.) to our TransAm ride made me realize that while it was challenging, it rarely felt overwhelming because we were applying project management skills and practices. And then it occurred to me that this model is applicable to real life problems, too. And, likewise, how we tackled our TransAm ride is directly applicable to tackling large, daunting work projects.

Here are a series of suggestions/thoughts about the corollaries between cycling across the US and tackling life’s challenges:

  • Even the largest, most complex of life challenges are really just a series of manageable hills and periodic desert stretches that eventually add up to something. Just as you can’t cycle across the US all in one go, you can’t tackle the whole thing at once. Instead, break the issue into a series of smaller challenges and tasks you can tackle a day or a week at a time. E.g., My goal is to get through today without a drink.
  • Having said that, you need a map. You need to know what your general route is across this challenge. You need to know where the mountains are so you can decide whether to go over them or go around them. And then pack accordingly.
  • While it’s good to map out your route, don’t adhere to it too rigidly. Unpredictable stuff like weather (or University Deans) will stir things up. Allow yourself some flexibility to explore alternatives or follow serendipitous exciting opportunities that make the whole thing that much more interesting and fun.
  • Make room for fun and rest stops. You need both physical and mental breaks.
  • It’s important to remember to look back and celebrate success. When you’re in the middle of a long “project”, it’s easy to focus on all the stuff that’s broken, isn’t yet done, or that you haven’t even started yet. That can be pretty demoralizing. But if you periodically stop and look at how far you’ve already come, it gives you confidence that you can tackle what’s ahead. This was particularly true when we were crossing Nevada (a series of mountain ranges and long low basins – valleys). After hours of cycling I’d start to get demoralized because the next set of mountains wasn’t any closer. But then I’d turn around and realize, “Damn, that previous set of mountains are pretty far behind us. Maybe we’re only half way to the next range, but at least we’re half way.”
  • There are going to be sections that are particularly challenging. Break those challenges into mini goals. When we were climbing particularly steep mountains, I would tell myself to keep pedaling until I reached something I could see up ahead – like a merge sign or a mile marker. And then I’d reward myself with a 60 or 90 second break and take the time stop to look back and praise myself on how far we’d climbed.
  • Remember that you don’t need to be in “fighting shape” when you start. You’ll definitely be in shape at the end. Similarly, you may not be emotionally ready to deal with the issue, but you’ll be more so every day. An important trick, though, is to track what you’ve planned and how you’re doing. This helps you be more effective and realistic about future planning and expectations.
  • Keep everything in perspective. You’re just bound to have a few shitty days when it’s cold and rainy, AND you get a flat. These are good opportunities to remember all the times you enjoyed downhill rides with beautiful views.
  • Always carry extra water and patches.  ‘Cause shit happens.

And as a final thought, to paraphrase Dori, “Just keep pedaling. Just keep pedaling.”

 


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