We’ve all been there. You wanted to go to the gym but your meeting ran late. Or maybe you packed your sneakers for that business trip hoping you’ll put them to use but they only end up taking space in your limited carry-on luggage. A few times is ok. A few weeks or more is sign that you need to re-think your workout to fit it in your schedule.
My advice if you’re caught in this situation: run your workout just like you would run a business. A business needs a strategy, strives for operational efficiency, and prepares for risks. Applying these three core principles will help you increase the return on the time and effort you put in the gym.
1. Define your strategy. What are you trying to achieve? How are you going to achieve it?
This step is vital not only for busy professionals but for anyone in the fitness world. To define your strategy you need to take a holistic view of not only your workout but of everything that has an effect on a (un)healthy lifestyle.
To do so, follow the The FITNES Framework, which I introduced here. In a nutshell, you need to (i) define your goal, (ii) identify how you’ll get your nutrients, exercise, and sleep, and (iii) have a plan on how you’ll make sure you make your fitness lifestyle last and improve. Bear in mind that deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do. Finally, just like a business has monthly, quarterly, or annual reviews, you need to constantly revisit and change your strategy to match your current environment.
2. Achieve operational efficiency. How can you make the most out of your time? Where are the inefficiencies and how do you eliminate them?
This step is vital to define your long-term success if you are to juggle your busy professional and personal life with your workout. You need to apply a lean approach to your day and, more specifically, to your workout and nutrition.
Broadly speaking, there are three types of activities involved in your day: wasted time (subtracting value), time needed to prepare (necessary to create value), and time actually working out (value-adding activities). To illustrate this, let me show you a real life example on how I managed to free 50 minutes of my day.
Initial scenario: Out of 100 minutes dedicated to my workout, only 35 minutes were doing cardio or lifting weights. The rest were dedicated to preparation or were plain waste. Also, the 35 minutes working out were not at the top of intensity.
Minutes dedicated to working out by type of activity – Initial scenario
Actions taken: I took steps to eliminate waste, reduce time of preparation, and increase intensity of my workout.
Driving. To avoid wasting time in traffic, I joined a gym near my house rather than driving to one closer to the office. I instead jogged, thus reducing the waste to zero.
Waiting for equipment. I could’ve either bought my own equipment or go to the gym when it’s pretty much empty (5:30 A.M.). I opted for the latter.
Reducing preparation time
Rest between sets. There’s an easy way to optimize this: doing supersets that involve different muscles. This way, you can work out one muscle while the other recovers.
Getting changed and preparation. Changing my workout to the morning made this process smoother. On top of that, I started getting my clothes and breakfast ready at night, when my energy level is low, rather than wasting energy in the morning.
Weights. I needed to find the exercises that gave me the best return on my time. I did it by assessing the intensity and time to complete for different exercises in each muscle group. For example, doing an alternate dumbbell press takes around 80% more time to complete than the regular dumbbell press and it only delivers about 20% more value, so it’s not so great if you’re time-strapped.
Final scenario: The result, 50 minutes freed up between eliminating waste and reducing preparation, and a more intense workout.
Minutes dedicated to working out by type of activity – Final scenario
3. Prepare for risks. What should you do when you don’t have enough time to workout or eat properly?
Not having enough time to workout, even when you have a winning strategy on paper and an efficient workout, is the main risk you have of not achieving your strategy. What I found useful: having “rules of thumb”.
Whenever I have work weeks so long that eat into my gym and meal-preparation time, I have several rules in place that helped mitigate the risk, both related to exercise and to nutrition. You could develop your own according to your needs.
Rules of thumb for ultra-busy weeks
Rules of thumb should be easy to remember and implement. These are not meant to get you to your goal but rather to help you avoid losing too much progress. Therefore, when rules of thumb are kicking in too often, it’s time to revisit your strategy (point 1).
None of this matters if fitness and a healthy lifestyle are not a top priority for you. And they should be. Investing in a healthy lifestyle is akin to investing in R&D – difficult to see the return on investment in the short term but vital for your health in the long term. Therefore, you should treat your workout, nutrition, and recovery the same way you would treat other top priorities in your company. You would not cancel an important client meeting, then why should you cancel your workout?