Yesterday I signed up for my third triathlon. I did my first tri a few years ago and became hooked. I don’t have the time (or money) to do more than one a year but I look forward to these events with great enthusiasm.
To celebrate round number three, I’d like to write one of those cheesy “what my hobby taught me about life” kind of posts. So, here are 6 things that triathlons have taught me about instructional design and, well, life.
1. All big things are just made up of small things
I do sprint triathlons. They usually take about 2 hours for me to complete. But the thrill of triathlons though is that you can really take each part individually and each piece alone isn’t really that bad. And, when you’re training for that big day you get to start small and gradually big. In fact, just jumping into something so large can lead to serious injury so starting small is imperative.
So it is with instructional design. Sometimes our projects can take a really. long. time. But in the end, each piece is manageable if you have some small goals along the way. The key is to make sure that everyone on your team (SMEs, graphic artists if you’re lucky enough to have one, etc.) is aware of those small goals and can celebrate when you reach them. Not only will this help everyone feel like the work is progressing, but it builds camaraderie and can keep people on task.
2. Practice makes better
I don’t believe in perfect, but I do think the more we practice anything, the better we get. And it’s not just practicing the same routine over and over. Eventually your body (or mind) will get used to that one thing and your fitness will plateau. Practice means stretching yourself and trying new things. In triathlon training that means running sprints or hills, swimming quick drills and long distances, and biking new routes.
In instructional design it means continuously challenging yourself to innovate and then learning how to build out those fresh new ideas.
3. Practice with others makes much better
The best triathletes have coaches, as in any sport. I am not nearly that good. But I still need people to improve. A running partner who is a little faster than me. Someone to race up a hill on my bike. On some days I just need someone to give me the extra motivation to get in my workout.
I have talked at length about why community is important in instructional design and I mean it. You can’t get better at anything without others to push you, motivate you, and give you feedback. Better doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Sometimes practicing with others means reading books or blogs. Sometimes it means getting inspiration from other people’s projects. Sometimes it means collaborating or getting feedback on a project from someone else. It’s not nearly as important how you incorporate others into your practice, as it is that you just do it.
4. Flexibility is key
Two types of flexibility are important in training for triathlons – literal muscle flexibility and some life scheduling flexibility. It can be difficult to fit in the amount of training that is needed to practice three sports, and do some flexibility and strength training work every week.
Muscle flexibility is also important in instructional design – brain muscles that is. We need to make sure we aren’t getting too caught up in the rigid, power parts of instructional design (our models and theories). In the end, it doesn’t matter how much theory we know or how well we can apply a theory if those aren’t accompanied by some creativity, analytical thinking, and an influx of new ideas.
We also need to be schedule flexible. SMEs don’t always comply with our deadlines, technology issues can ruin a day, and sometimes life just happens. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stick to our deadlines, but rather that we should always build in a cushion when setting goal dates. I always love to under-promise and over-deliver, even on delivery dates.
5. Get the hardest things done first
In triathlons the swim always comes first. Why? Because you are more likely to drown if you are exhausted from biking and running. On the same note, the run comes last because, well, you can always walk.
I try to keep that in mind at work as well. I can be a terrible procrastinator, with the excuse that I work well under pressure. But recently I have tried hard to not put off the part you I’m dreading until that after-lunch-I-want-to-nap time. Use the time of day when you have most energy to get the hard things done. For me this is usually until about 11 am. In the mornings my mind is more flexible and everything seems a little easier.
6. The only goal that matters is the one I set for myself
Pressure to be the best is all around us and, for myself at least, often the worst of it is pressure we put on ourselves.
The thing is, I will never be a world-class triathlete, and that is ok. What matters is that I am constantly pushing myself to get better physically, mentally, and emotionally so I can handle the challenges thrown at me every day. This includes making sure I have time with my family and by myself to unwind every day. It means letting go when I have too much on my plate and working harder when life is a little more flexible. It’s about knowing when a project is good enough and not driving myself crazy trying to get to perfect (which is always impossible). I have learned to find confidence in being my best, not the best. It’s so cheesy, and I would have rolled my eyes at this not long ago, but true.
I hope that you have something in your life that challenges you to be your best self. What lessons have you learned? Why do you love your hobby? How does it pour over into your professional life?
And if you are looking for something to help challenge you physically and mentally, I would suggest starting with couch-to-5k program or a sprint triathlon if you already have s few 5k’s under your belt. Trust me, they are much more manageable than you think!