Small Chunks and Little Victories

They can only mess with you so much before lunch

As I was out running this morning, I got a call. After I got through the discombobulation of my podcast being interrupted and a disembodied voice on my bluetooth headphones, I finally was able to identify with whom I was speaking. It was a young man who was our neighbor until recently. He just graduated high school this spring and had joined the U.S. Marine Corps.

He was calling to tell me that he was shipping out today and wanted to say goodbye. I am not known for hold in my opinion back and offered him one piece of advice, “Just remember one thing, they can only mess with you so much before lunch.”

When I was in basic training for the army (so long ago I hate to think about it), I remember that I was counting every minute until it finally ended. But it seemed so far off. I was literally counting the days and weeks. I sat there miserably thinking, “I have to deal with this for another 6 weeks, 5 days and 3 hours. Ugh.”

That’s when another soldier introduced me to his philosophy. He said, “I just figure they can only mess with me so much until lunch. It’s a lot easier that way.”

That really hit home. It changed everything for me both there and in life. I realized that he was right. In basic training, they can only deal out some much stress in a couple hours and I could survive that. I changed my focus and thought only about the next thing, breakfast, lunch, dinner (meals were the highlight of basic training, we were always hungry) and lights out. Usually when I was under the most stress, I was within an hour or two of one of these events.

After I changed my focus, time flew by. Before I knew it, it was graduation week and we were looking back at everything with nostalgia (but not willing to do it again). Which brings me to this morning.

After I finished my run, my neighbor was waiting on our block and ran up beside me. He had his spiffy new haircut and was meeting his recruiter in front of his old house. Since often the new person in a young man’s life is held in higher esteem as far as wisdom, I took the opportunity to confirm my advice with the young staff sergeant (is everyone young?). He agreed what I was saying and added, “yes, take things in little chunks and have small victories.”

I was taken aback. I realized immediately that I apply this principle to much of my life but didn’t really tie it back to the lunch concept.

There are times that things are tough. They can be nearly unbearable. As runners and athletes, we see this manifest itself directly in both the physical and mental — we workout, it hurts and we are tired.

How do we get through it? We may be less than halfway on a 10 mile run. If we are already exhausted, how do we get to the end? We break it into smaller chunks.

Depending on how knackered we are, we can determine the chunk. If we are 4 miles into a 10 miler, we have about a 10K left. We can focus on the next 5K. When we finish that, we notch up a victory and go for another 5K — another victory.

When we are really hurting, we can reach deep within ourselves and say, “need to at least get halfway done. Then I can stop if I absolutely have to.” Or, “I will run to the next corner, or the next telephone pole.” Any smaller objective will work. Then when we get there, if we still have energy (we most likely will), we pick the next target and repeat this process all the way until we have finished.

This is a major victory, and I for one never feel worse after completing a run than when I started (other than virtuous fatigue).

By breaking things up and focusing on a nearer, more achievable goal, you will very likely be able to achieve more than you ever expected. Just keep striving. There may be some science tied into this concept. Consider the Tim Noakes Central Governor theory that the brain will regulate exercise to keep the body safe. This was discussed in his Endurance Planet podcast appearance – EP’s Most Popular Show of 2013: Dr. Timothy Noakes on Nutrition, Central Governor Theory and More.

When you choose a nearer target, you give the brain a reason to release the energy necessary to complete the task on hand, much the same way you may get a burst of energy once a finish line is within sight. Of course, you will be doing it again, but that’s between you and your brain — my brain and I are often at odds.

We all have the ability to overcome great obstacles and succeed. Just consider the General Creighton Abrams‘ quotation; When eating an elephant take one bite at a time.

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Eric Hunley

RRCA Certified coach. Started to change lifestyle in 2012 when weight was up to 283 lbs. Eventually started running later that year and racing in 2013. Has run in dozens of races and has been featured in some podcasts. Full Bio on About Page.
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