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  • Writer's pictureAsh Radford

People underestimate how long things really take & that matters with fitness

A 1 hour workout doesn’t take an hour. What the!? It’s not just the 60 minutes of exercise. There’s the getting dressed, the filling of your water bottle, the setting up of equipment. Afterward there’s the wearisome walk back to car/changeroom/inside, possibly the chat with training partners, trainer or instructor. To cap it off there’s the shower. You’ll be doing well to get the process down to 80 minutes. And that’s not including any travel. Door to door your hour workout can creep up toward 2 hours. It’s not just you and it’s not just exercise either. I just took 15 minutes for what I thought would be a 5 minute shower. Not unusual. So often, so many things take longer than you think.

Man checking if he has time to exercise
Photo by Hidde van Esch on Unsplash

Who this affects most when it comes to exercise

I’ve several friends who were mediocre at managing time before having kids. Now with the challenges that children bring, along with more responsibility with work, they’ve improved. They had to. While they’ve risen to the challenge of family and work demands, the hectic schedule hasn’t made it easy to stay in shape. They need to exercise, they want to exercise but finding the time is hard. That mid-life creep (AKA love handles) is hard to shift. What doesn’t help is that tendency to underestimate how long it really takes to do things continues. Allowing 45 minutes for exercise after work, and finding it takes well over an hour, won’t help with the family schedule. It’ll eat into family and relaxation time and prove impractical. Admittedly this tendency is easy to observe and point out when others do it. Yet it can feel beyond your control when it ‘happens’ to you.

An overcompensation solution

The obvious solution is to allow 15-20% more time for everything. It’s a tactic I use with travel between personal training sessions. Whatever driving time google maps estimates, I add that bit extra. Inevitably I arrive early and can set up in a relaxed frame of mind. It’s served me well. One thing I’m confident of is that clients, family and friends would describe me as punctual and reliable. A few years ago I learnt a more extreme strategy through a personal training client. What adds weight to the story is that she’s a lawyer- a job known for immense workloads. When a client asks her to do some work, she’ll figure out how long it’ll take, then add a day. So, if doable by Wednesday, she says it’ll be ready Thursday. The clients don’t know how long various legal tasks take, so she can set the timeframes. She explained 3 benefits to the method: 1. If something else comes up, she has time to deal with it and still deliver on time. 2. It means she isn’t always rushed and stressed. 3. If completed as quickly as estimated she can deliver it early. This exceeds client expectations and enhances her reputation. She didn’t mention it, but I suspect there’d be a 4th benefit. I imagine it’d result in higher quality of work and fewer mistakes. Some might think the method a little deceptive. I think however, it’s clever time and stress management. If your life is chaotic it’s a strategy worth considering. Ultimately it’s you who sets your agenda.

The HIIT time trap

High Intensity Interval Training is a popular new exercise method. Studies show amazing results from a short exercise period. With so many people time poor, the appeal naturally lies in how brief it is. While it is quick, it isn’t as quick as they say. The Tabata protocol is the method which propelled HIIT into the mainstream due to some remarkable results. It involves a mere 4 minutes of super intense exercise. However, the full protocol includes a 5 minute warm up and 2 min cool down, which of course adds up to 11 minutes. Similarly an ABC TV (Australia) program titled ‘getting fit in 6 minutes’ featured a variation that takes 20 minutes in full. Only the intense work periods are counted. In practice it takes much more than the few minutes implied. Not only that, the recovery needed after going so hard, adds even more time. All the little things involved in getting dressed, travel and showering etc also still apply. (If you do HIIT properly you will need a shower!) It’s certainly a useful and time effective option. However, don’t kid yourself that it’s only 4-6 minutes out of your day. It’s another thing that takes longer than you think.

An alternative perspective and solution

‘Work expands to fill the time available for its completion’ That is Parkinson’s Law. Say you intend on a workout consisting of warm up, strength training and stretching. If you’ve 40 minutes, you’ll find an efficient and effective way. On the other hand, given 4 hours you’ll likely dither and over complicate the process. It can also become daunting as you’ve the chance to ponder what lies ahead. The theory is that people allow things to take longer than needed because they can. It’s like filling a large home with stuff you don’t need, simply because there’s the space. Just as you could live with less, you can find ways of getting things done more efficiently if you’ve less time. You could take the idea to the extreme by trying to do a workout in 2 minutes. There are limits. A practical interpretation of the Law is that each activity has an optimal duration. And when you figure out what that period is, you not only do it better, but your time management improves too. Awareness of Parkinson’s law can help reduce that experience of things taking longer than you think. Simply by not allowing them to!

Looking back to move forward

Are you someone who’s struggled to allow enough time for things? If so, is it because you’ve been too busy and over ambitious with what’s achievable with your time? In that case adding that 15-20% more than you think needed would be wise. When it comes to exercise consider everything involved before and after, remember it’s not just the exercise time. It could be you need to cut the exercise period. You can achieve so much in 30 minutes, its’ definitely worthwhile. Finding a workout duration that’s practical and repeatable is critical. What if you tend to allow more time than you need? Do you tend to fall victim to the effect of Parkinson’s Law? Could you make your schedule more demanding and actually become more efficient and effective as a result? Putting strict deadlines on your workouts could raise intensity and efficiency. Seeing how much you can get through in a given period could bring new intensity and flow to exercise and life in general. Awareness of your natural tendencies is invaluable. Planning your future, while respecting your past, will increase the chance of success with regular exercise. Ultimately getting real about how long things actually take is essential if you want to get and stay fit.

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