Against just putting in the time

Recently I saw a blog post by Scott Berkun that made me profoundly sad. He described not liking running on a treadmill but doing it anyway and watching the clock, and he turned around and praised this attitude.

I totally disagree with this with every fiber of my being, and here’s why.

For deliberate practice

First of all, I have to emphasize that I totally believe in putting in the time to achieve excellence and mastery of anything. The recently popularized phrase “deliberate practice” describes genuine practice (as opposed to just putting in the time) that aims at expert performance.

I try to apply this to every aspect of my life, whether when programming, running, playing music, strength training, cooking, meditating, or any other of the dozens of activities or chores that come up.

So my disagreement with “just putting in the time” is not a disagreement with the need for hard work and even drudgery. There is no shortcut to expertise and achievement. Insofar as Scott Berkun tries to make this point, I agree with him.

Mindless versus mindful


However, Scott describes an attitude toward running on the treadmill that is “mindless” rather than “mindful”. He writes, “As long as I didn’t think much at all, I’d achieve my goal.” (His goals was running four miles.)

I call this “mindless” because it implies zoning out and basically opting out of life while waiting for something to happen, like a bell going off that says “class is over!”

Think about it. Think about a time in a classroom in elementary school or high school or college, or a conference room at work, where you didn’t want to be there, hated being there, watched the clock, and just thought to yourself, “As long as I don’t think much at all, I’ll achieve my goal (of surviving until the bell rings and you get to leave).”

Did you enjoy this “being there”? Did you learn something? Or did you feel that you wasted your life?

After being done, did you feel proud of having achieved your goal of just plain sticking it out? Or did you feel frustrated or embarrassed or resentful?

I am more worried about the high school student who stuck it out and felt proud of it than of the student who maybe endured the experience but saw it for what it really was: soul-sucking.

There is no guarantee that the student who simply sticks it out through school has actually learned anything and graduates stronger in mind or body or spirit. In fact, sometimes sticking it out is so deadening that it would have been better to leave.

But although sometimes the student who didn’t stick it out, and maybe skipped class or dropped out, did the right thing, there is a third path: mindfulness.


There are many definitions of “mindfulness”. The problem is that many people have used it independently. There is the mindfulness from Buddhism, and notions in Western psychology, sometimes borrowed from Buddhism. Ellen Langer has written books on what she calls “mindfulness”, for example.

I’ll just use the term loosely to refer to a basic attitude of being attuned to what you’re doing, keeping your mind open and attentive, rather than dissociating, or blocking thoughts or emotions, or zoning out as though sleepwalking.

Classroom example

Here are some examples of how one could be mindful as a bored student in a class.

The student could at least, while putting in the time, do something with that time, such as doodle, write poetry, count the number of times the teacher said “umm”. Just doing something at all is better than doing nothing.

A step up: the student could try to pick up on little aspects of the class that actually interest him, and attend to those. Who knows, one thing could lead to another, and the class material eventually could actually becoming truly fascinating.

The student could realize that the two strategies above will not work so well, and decide to transfer to a different class, either in the same subject but with a teacher who is a better match in whatever way, or into a different subject entirely.

Other scenarios

Since I bring my lunch in to work, every afternoon there I wash my bowl, fork, empty Pyrex containers, etc. Once upon a time in my life, I dreaded washing dishes. I tried doing things like listening to music in order to take my mind off the unpleasantness. But then I discovered the power of mindfulness. It’s actually quite interesting washing dishes. The sensations of warm water, detergent. Stubborn spots on dishes, residual oiliness, slipperiness, wiping the curve of a spoon or the handle of a knife: everything is really an amazing sensory experience. Now when I wash dishes, I don’t listen to music or think about my schedule. During those minutes, I am simply washing dishes, as though that were my whole universe. It’s different every time. It’s not the same boring experience repeated mindlessly where all I’m thinking of is, “I hate this but it has to get done.”

Applications to the treadmill situation

Finally, let’s discuss Scott’s treadmill situation.

In the past, I have sometimes run on treadmills when winter weather discouraged me from running outside (of course, I do have suitable winter running gear, and am not a stranger to coming home from a run with icicles on my balaclava). But, like many people, I found the experience soul-sucking. In the end, I simply chose to walk away, but there were some strategies I used to improve the experience.

One was to simply vary the workout, by doing intervals or ladders of pace.

Another was to focus on my form and my body sensations in general. Are my shoulders relaxed? Am I overstriding? Are my hips tight? Is my left leg doing something funny so that my knee hurts?

In the end, I used a more radical solution to my treadmill dislike: I stopped using the treadmill. Either I run outside or I don’t run at all. This was my choice. It is not necessarily the best choice for everyone. There are other things I can do besides run. I tend to favor dance workouts when indoors, and strength training with body weight and balance balls and medicine balls. I’m not a running addict or professional who needs to run all the time.

Achieving a limited goal: so what?

Here is the irony: I don’t believe that the time I spent on the treadmill was that useful. I may have put in the miles, but so what? To some extent it may have kept me conditioned, but now I’m inclined to believe that mindless exercise is far less beneficial than mindful exercise, and so I would rather not exercise than do mindless exercise. The body is not just a mechanical machine that improves because it goes through the motions. It is much more than that. By treating our bodies as impersonal machines, we violate our sacred temples. We create imbalances and injuries.

And running on a treadmill did not prepare me very well for real running. It’s nothing like real running where you are pushing off the stationary ground, into wind resistance, getting from one place to another and seeing the world move past you. Foot landing patterns are different when running on a treadmill than running on the track or the road or the rocky trail.

So I would ask any treadmill runner: what is your ultimate goal, rather than the limited goal of going a certain number of miles in your workout, or watching the (misleading) calorie burning counter go up to a certain number? Is your time on the treadmill actually contributing maximally to your ultimate goal, or is it a deceptive tangent that benefits you less than you think?

Conclusion: avoid the fruits of mindlessness

Scott says, “Studying for a college degree, practicing the piano, going for a daily run, these are all ways to let time work on our behalf, if we just give in.”

But how many students just go through the motions, “study”, graduate from college, and find themselves not really having the applicable skills to do something useful?

How many people “practice” a musical instrument and are frustrated that after ten years, they are still nowhere as good as some friend who took only a month to get as good?

How many people do their daily run for ten years but again, are frustrated that they don’t seem to be running any faster at local 5K races?

I’m not suggesting that everyone should try to be the best at everything; there is not enough time or energy or talent for that. But, I know that a lot of people mindlessly put in time at something and expect a lot more to come from it that don’t. And some end up resentful of others who achieve more (usually using words like “luck” and “talent”) or feeling like they got cheated of what they “deserved” from having put in so much drudgery.

I’m suggesting that being more aware, rather than less aware, while doing something, is something we can all do, to improve not only our enjoyment of the process, but also the increased productivity and achievement and health that comes from being in tune with our mind/body.

comments powered by Disqus