My best insights about productivity usually arrive in the context of my physical practice: on the trampoline, in flying trapeze class, on the yoga mat, or in the gym.
Here’s a recent challenge I had and a new approach I am taking that can apply to any type of work.
In my CrossFit classes, we are in the middle of a Wendler Cycle.
In brief, a Wendler cycle is a multi-week program that maps out a series of progressions for weightlifting. Each week, you do a given number of sets at increasing loads.
The loads for each set are based on a percentage of the amount that is 90% of an athlete’s One Rep Max (1RM) of that lift.
For example, we are currently in the second week of the cycle, and each strength training session this week follows this formula:
- Set 1: 3 reps at 70%
- Set 2: 3 reps at 80%
- Set 3: 3 reps at 90%
- Set 4: 3 reps at 90%
In each set, the percentage is calculated from the number that is 90% of my 1RM for that lift.
If this is making your head spin, you now understand the challenge:
Nobody Wants to Do Math at 5:30 am
It’s a lot of math. Especially for 5:30 am, which is when I do CrossFit.
But that’s not where the math ends.
We’re not using a weight machine where I can just put a pin in a plate.
After calculating the total load for any set, I must do barbell math, which requires calculating:
- Added Weight: the weight to add to the bar (total weight minus weight of the barbell)
- Weight for Each Side: the weight to add to each side (total added weight divided by 2)
- Plates for Each Side: the exact combination of weights I will need to add to each side.
That’s a lot of calculating and thinking to do, in addition to the actual work of lifting the weights.
We generally have about 10–12 minutes on the clock to get through all four sets plus any warm-up sets. Doing the math, getting the plates, loading plates, and switching out plates eats up a lot of the time between sets — time that should ideally be allocated to rest and recovery.
It also is a heavy cognitive load: a lot of thinking, calculating, and strategizing.
Cognitive load is physical load: the more energy that gets expended to thinking, the less energy available to lifting.
In addition, taking the time and energy to these calculations and load the bar between sets makes me feel rushed, which puts my nervous system into a threat-response state.
In that state, my system starts to shut down and I can’t do the lifts effectively — or at all.
And, it doesn’t feel good. I want my heart rate to elevate because I’m working hard, not because I feel like I’m racing the clock.
My coach is always telling me to “eliminate the thought process” and “be a robot” in the gym. This is hard to do when there’s so much thinking involved.
The Obvious Solution: Do The Math In Advance
The obvious solution here is to plan ahead. My gym posts the workouts in an app, so I know going in what percentages we will be lifting in a given week.
In Week 1, I calculated the totals for each day before class started, so I could go into class knowing where I was going.
In fact, I subsequently discovered several sites with links to spreadsheets that have the entire cycle programmed. Put in your 1RM and it will calculate your total loads for each week of the cycle.
I don’t even have to do my own calculation.
This helped, but it wasn’t enough.
Even though I knew where I was going, I still felt rushed.
I was still spending too much energy figuring out the right combination of weights to load on the bar, especially for my bigger lifts.
Between going back and forth to get more plates and loading the plates, I hardly had time to pause between sets.
If this seems to you like making a big deal out of nothing, I’d like to remind you that this is occurring at 5:30 am.
So I went next level.
The Next-Level Solution: Get Specific
For Week 2, I got more specific. I used the energy of Mercury and Jupiter in Taurus to get more specific with my plan.
After calculating all my loads for the week at the given percentages, I broke it down for each day’s lifts.
I created a chart with the total load at each percentage, including warm up sets.
And I added the exact weights of the plates to add to each side of the bar.
Here’s what it looked like:
This was a game-changer.
Energy is Time
When I showed up to class at 5:30 am, I didn’t just know where I was going. I also knew exactly how I was going to get there and what I needed for my journey.
I didn’t waste time going back and forth to the stacks of plates.
More crucially, I did not expend energy calculating how much weight to load on each side of the bar or what specific combination of plates I needed.
Doing all the cognitive work up front — and putting it into an easy-to-reference chart — gave me a clear structure. That structure gave me the freedom to show up and implement without engaging in thought process.
Instead of feeling rushed between sets, I had time to rest and recharge. I conserved energy from thinking that I put into the physical activity.
I set new PRs for reps at heavier loads, and I felt better about the process of getting there.
Wins all around.
3 Key Take-Aways:
The key principles here can apply to any type of task.
Productivity is essentially how we use the constraints time, energy, and space to do what we need to do most effectively. What applies to physical practice also applies to cognitive work. In fact, the idea that they are even separate is an illusion.
Here are three take-aways that you can apply in your work and life:
(1) Mental Energy is Physical Energy
Energy is energy. The energy we spend on thinking about things and making decisions depletes the physical energy we have available to implement our actions.
Whenever possible, it helps to separate the process of thinking from the process of doing.
(2) Energy is Time
When people say you can’t get more time, they are partially correct and also incorrect.
You may not be able to add more minutes to a day, but you can create more time by optimizing your energy.
Although I didn’t get more time on the clock, by freeing up my cognitive energy I experienced the same amount of time as being more spacious and relaxed, leading to better performance.
(3) Clarity is Power
When it comes to making a plan, specifics matter. The more structure you can give yourself in a plan, the easier it is to implement it and more freedom you’ll feel in doing so.
The more specific you can be with your plan, the more clarity you have about what you need to do.
And clarity is power — both in the gym and in the world beyond it.