Want to be more productive? Think like a mountaineer.

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I recently went on a 5-day mountaineering adventure in the Swiss Alps. The trip kicked my butt. When I got home, I had giant bruises on my legs and a rib blockage. Everything hurt. And yet, I was beaming. Like other significant endeavors we undertake--writing a book, developing a new business model--mountaineering is as rewarding as it is painful.

With my recent trip fresh in mind, today's post is about what mountaineering can teach us about productivity.

1. Purge the excess

In his book "Extreme Alpinism: Climbing Light, Fast and High," Mark Twight recounts how he and his climbing buddies learned to whittle down what they carried to the bare minimum. Unlike mountain tourists who pay others to take their stuff, cutting-edge climbers carry everything on their backs as they ascend steep and remote cliffs and glaciers. Twight recounts trimming handles off toothbrushes and foregoing bowls (instead, eating out of helmets). Mountains will not tolerate flotsam, jetsam, or the Sunday paper. In mountaineering, streamlining is the key to attaining great heights and breathing rarefied air. 

Similarly, when you start on a big project, be it finishing your book, making a movie or designing a new product, it's essential to focus on the task at hand and purge the non-essentials from your calendar. It's not forever. Just until you get the job done. I teach my clients to regularly ask themselves the 3 Ds:

  • What can I delete?

  • What can I delay?

  • What can I delegate?

Asking yourself these three questions trims the fat off your calendar. It clears the space and time you need to make substantial progress on your important projects.

2. Keep your eye off the prize (mostly)

Obviously, you need to decide which mountain you want to climb. And sure, every once in a while, you'll need to take stock of how far you've come and how much further you still need to go. Sometimes you even need to readjust your goal. But a glance at the summit and the map from time to time is enough. Mountaineers will tell you that for the most part, you should just focus on your next move or step. 

When it comes to work, productivity experts talk about focusing on the lead measure versus the lag measure. The lag measure is the outcome (the mountaineer's summit); the lead measure refers to the tasks required to get there (each step or climbing maneuver). To use the example of an illustrator: Her lag measure is to finish the illustrations for her book. Her lead measure is to do four hours of concentrated, distraction-free drawing a day. Her focus on drawing (and not on finishing the book), will keep her on track and help her bypass any doubts and anxiety she might have regarding the magnitude of her project and the looming deadline. 

3. Master the art of the break

Mountaineering days last anywhere between 12 and 18 hours. Consequently, climbers have to be experts at managing their energy.  Breaks are essential to getting through a long and arduous climb.  

But there is an art to the break. Take a break too early, and you'll lose momentum. Take a break too late, and you'll risk depleting your energy stores. If your break is too short, you won't adequately recover. But if it's too long, you'll waste precious time and have a hard time starting up again. Turns out, a deliberate break routine is as essential for success as the output you achieve in your moments of activity.

Analogously, my clients do well when they engage in spurts of concentrated effort and then take nourishing breaks. A good break is one in which you move your body, eat, drink, and redirect your focus. Watching videos on YouTube or checking Facebook may feel like a nice break, but it's actually nothing of the sort. And you also want to experiment with how much time you need to feel replenished without losing too much momentum. A well-executed 5 to 15- minute break can do wonders. And like with mountaineering, once you hit your target for the day, it's time to relax and recuperate, so you're ready for the next day's challenge.

Are you ready to finish your thesis, movie, book, or business plan? Do you have some other big project on the horizon? Try out these three simple tricks and let me know how it goes!