Stop Working So Hard and Do This Instead
How a series of painful injuries taught me how to improve my skills without breaking down.
An article I wrote in January for today. I think many of the ideas still apply.
I’ve been writing about how “hard work isn’t everything” for a long time, but it took me nearly a year to actually figure out an intelligent and sustainable way to implement my own advice into my life.
This fall, when I was training for the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world championships, I herniated a disc in my neck, aggravated another disc in my low back, and popped a rib all in the same week.
It broke me physically, but the consequences of that week also just about broke me mentally.
At the time, I was working harder than I’d ever worked. I was writing multiple articles every day. I was training 2–3 times per day. I was teaching Jiu-Jitsu classes and private lessons. I was working on my first ebook and writing copy for 11 different freelance clients.
Every day was a 16 hour day, and as a result, my body broke down on me like a roller coaster off the rails. Suddenly, I went from training like a professional athlete to sitting at home and eating Doritos for 3 weeks straight and thinking about how I’d fucked everything up — again.
I had to sit and learn from my mistakes. I could do nothing else.
In the time since my entire body fell apart in just one week, I’ve completely re-analyzed the way that I look at my training, my work, and my daily life.
This is how I changed my entire approach to work, life, and “the grind”.
My injury forced me to begin an experiment.
When I came back from my injury, I was still writing a lot every day.
Turns out, you can still write with a broken body.
I was also gearing up for some of the biggest grappling tournaments of the year, including the Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC) North American Trials and the final tournament of the year, the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation World Championships.
I was preparing for these tournaments, but because of my physical limitations, I had to completely change the way I trained. I had to find a way to make improvements in specific, isolated parts of my training in order to maintain motivation and discipline while also not getting hurt.
I had to figure out how to get my dopamine hits in a way that would also facilitate growth and skill development.
Over a few months, I learned to work toward highly specific goals. I created games within the game that I was playing (Jiu-Jitsu), and I became obsessed with becoming the best that I could at these “micro-games”.
I won small games with the hopes that my wins would add up to big prizes.
My competitions were a test of my new hypothesis on training, and after my first tournament back, I realized that my hypothesis was partially right.
Feeling prepared doesn’t mean you are prepared.
Going into the ADCC Trials this fall, I only actually sparred hard once or twice, but I still felt confident in my skills.
Due to my specific training and my mental training, I felt a lot more prepared than I actually was.
There was just one problem — feeling prepared is only half the battle. Anyone can train their mind to be prepared, but not everyone can be physically prepared. The inverse is also true. Because of my injuries, I was mentally prepared but not physically prepared for the tournament.
I gave it my all, but I was still underprepared.
The result of this lackluster preparation was a lackluster performance. I lost in the second round of the 128 man bracket in a close match to a competitor who did really well in the event.
This loss was a lesson that meant that going into my next competition, I had to change the way that I prepared — again. I had to find a way to balance hard training with smart training. I had to find a way to do both.
In the fall, I took the leap and started working less hard, and since then, I’ve started to implement hard work into my training as well. It’s working.
I’ve never been more confident in my skills in all areas of my life.
Smart work will improve your skills, but hard work will give you the grit to succeed in adverse environments. You need both to do things exceptionally.
Push yourself to your absolute limit — sometimes.
One day per week, I train as hard as I possibly can.
Usually, this comprises of just one training session in a day, where I go “balls to the wall”. I leave it all out in the gym. I seek my physical and mental limits.
I take no rest rounds. I do every round at the hardest pace I can.
I didn’t invent this strategy. I stole it from Olympic rower Adam Kreek’s Ted Talk titled “I Seek Failure”.
Once per week on the mat, I seek failure.
I also occasionally seek failure with everything else in my life that I’m trying to improve at, usually less frequently than once per week.
I want to be able to do more pull-ups, so every once in a while (every month or so), I try to do as many pull-ups as I can. I do this with bench press, back squats, deadlifts, and every other aspect of my fitness routine.
I also do it with writing.
That’s an entirely different battle, but I’ll run through it with you here.
Once per week, I go on a writing bender.
Normally, I publish 1 Quora answer every day without fail. I write a Medium article just about every day. Some days, I double up and write 2 for each, or I write something for my premium newsletter.
But one day per week (usually Friday, Saturday, or Sunday afternoon), I try to hammer out as many words as possible. I work on my upcoming ebook or the book I'd like to publish this year.
Sometimes during these writing sessions, if I get a super good flow, I’ll hammer out 5000 words. Today is actually one of those days.
No, the work I do these days is not finished and ready for publication, but the work is something that I can work with and edit later. Crappy drafts mixed with disciplined revision are what create masterpieces.
Some of these articles and answers and book chapters (as many as half!) are absolutely terrible might never get published, but it’s not about perfection for me. It’s about reps. It’s about practice.
It’s about the big picture.
Sometimes in Jiu-Jitsu, I’ll get in the gym and bang out 100 takedowns or leg lock entries or guard passes.
I’ll do the same move close to 100 times in a row. Writing 4 articles in a day is the writing equivalent of this obsessive drilling, and many other writers use similar strategies.
I write a little bit every day because I like writing and it doesn’t feel like work for me, but I don’t “write hard” every day.
I write hard once per week. I push my limits as a writer once per week. I push my limits as an athlete once per week. I push my limits, but I don’t do it all the time anymore.
I’m only 24, but I’m already too old to push myself all the time. The brink of your breaking point is no way to live.
In high school, I used to cut 10 pounds of weight off my body every single week. In college, I used to train martial arts for 4–6 hours per day while also attending classes. In my first year as a solopreneur, I almost ruined my career before it began by driving myself into the ground in the name of “quick success”.
I want a new beginning. A sustainable beginning.
Stop working so hard and learn how to work within your physical and mental limitations.
Learn to bend, but not break.