Perfect Exertion

I’m back on a lap-swim routine.

Simple. ½ a mile a day, staggered laps. Accomplished in about 20 minutes.

I can pretty comfortably swim a mile. But ½ a mile seems the perfect exertion. My body feels thoroughly worked out. I get the satisfaction of watching my shoulders broaden after each swim. Tangible results. Great joy.

½ a mile is an enjoyable push. A mile is a less enjoyable push.

When I work out with my fitness trainer we put in an hour at a time. Isolated body parts. Terrific for my body. Chris’ job is to have me working on my edge, all the time. High exertion.

Tangible results, yes. And at times I just don’t feel like doing it. Hard work, not enough joy.

Last week, 18-time gold medalist Michael Phelps returned to swimming competition, after several DUI arrests and a stint in alcohol rehab. Gearing up for another Olympic run.

“I smile in my work-outs,” Michael Phelps asserts in USA Today. “I am fully engaged in everything.”

Very high exertion, no doubt. Phelps has clearly been figuring out how to keep the joy in high exertion. Because exertion without joy quickly leads to crash-and-burn.

I think of this as I tour a manufacturing facility on the outskirts of Cincinnati. The world’s leading producer of chemical dispensing equipment. Jeff, the supremely engaged operations manager, takes me to the various work stations where the dispensing products are assembled. More importantly, Jeff explains to me the back-end processes that are in place to help folks in the work stations function without unnecessary distraction.

I marvel at the sense of clear focus, easy engagement, steady productivity that I see everywhere during my walk-though.

Perfect exertion. Not high exertion.

Especially in a manufacturing site, perfect exertion equals exertion that can be sustained over an entire shift.

The perils of muddling perfect exertion and high exertion? An article in last week’s New York Times points to a proliferation of ADHD drugs such as Adderall in the workplace. Adderall is an amphetamine that has long been used illicitly by college students who wish to study all night. When abused, it may cause a rapid heartbeat, profuse sweating, sleep loss, high anxiety.

A quest for high exertion gone wrong.

Left to my own devices, I will choose perfect exertion over high exertion. Every time.

Perfect exertion = sustained effort + joy.

In the world of hugely competitive athletics, that may not be enough. For the rest of us, it likely is.

I will let Michael Phelps figure out how to find joy during sustained extreme exertion. I invite you to contemplate the following question for yourself:

What does my perfect exertion look like?

Hint: A perfect exertion for this question = enjoy the contemplation.