10 Things I’ve Learned from Putting on a Fitness Competition for Five Years

We recently ran the fifth iteration of the South Loop Games.

The event had 51 individual competitors and 126 team competitors.

Over the years, we’ve had many high level competitors participate (including quite a few CrossFit Games athletes as well as Sanctional and former Regional level competitors).

While the competition is probably not “worth it” from a pure numbers perspective, we get a lot of fulfillment out of running it and it’s a top priority for us every fall.

Over the years of running the competition, we’ve learned quite a few things and made quite a few mistakes.

Here’s a few of them that may be helpful to anyone else attempting to put on an in-house competition.

People really value an on-time event

The bar is set very low for local competitions. People expect the event to be disorganized and to be running 45-90 minutes behind schedule.

Keeping the event on time requires a pretty significant amount of upfront work, including – but not – limited too:

•Creating detailed heat schedules with specific transition times between heats and between events

•Planning and setting up all equipment transitions ahead of time

•Having the following roles in place for the day of the competition:

On floor event supervisor who is starting and stopping the clock. This individual can double as a head judge as well and observer the flow of the event during the actual events.

Athlete control supervisor who is responsible for making sure that every individual who is competing in the next heat is in the warm up area by the team the previous heat starts

Equipment transition manager who is keeping track of coming equipment transitions and staging all of the necessary equipment

Each of these areas will ideally also have multiple volunteers working with them moving equipment, chasing down missing athletes, etc.

Other things that we’ve learned that help keep an event on time:

-Having different transition times between heats allows for a bit of a buffer – and also prevents people standing around excessively between their heats

Short transition: 2 minutes

-This is ideal for transitions between events that require minimal resetting of the competition lane. An example would be a transition between heats of the same division where the only equipment is an assault bike and a dumbbell.

Medium transition: 3 minutes

-This transition works well for events where some equipment must be moved on and off, but there is not a huge amount of work to be done. An example here would be transitioning between two divisions with minimal equipment – for example, moving from an intermediate male division to an Rx male division where the only change is moving a dumbbell on and off of each lane.

Long transition: 4 minutes

-When we have events that involve a lot of equipment and significant resetting, allowing for a bit more of a buffer is usually wise. An example here would be some an event with some sort of max lift where athletes have loaded several plates onto the bar. Between each heat, the bars need to be stripped and reset for the next heat.

It’s also wise to leave a little bit of extra time between heats during the first events of the day. This allows a little bit of breathing room so you don’t start out behind schedule right away. Also, athletes will often settle into a rhythm after the first event and will start doing a better job of showing up on time, finding their lane, etc.

The best way to market your event is to repeatedly put on a high quality event.

This year was the best year yet for the South Loop Games – in terms of registration, revenue and spectator attendance.

We also probably did the least amount of promotion of the event this year.

(All of that said, it is still a relatively low margin event. We overshot a little bit by increasing the prize money this year more than we probably should have relative to our registrations.)

At this point, we’ve run the event five times, and people have some idea of what to expect. So, when we announce that registration is open, people are excited to participate and they sign up without much coaxing.

That’s not to say that some of the promotion that we did in the past wasn’t valuable since it probably helped build the profile of the event.

However, after running this multiple times, we now have the luxury of having an event with a solid reputation as well as a large list of competition alumni who are eager to come back and participate again.

I’m generally skeptical of “build it and they will come” marketing advice. But, for our competition, it seems that “building it” year after year has in fact resulted in people coming to the event.

It is much harder to program for intermediate and scaled divisions than to program for elite divisions.

The abilities of competitors in intermediate and scaled divisions are often much more variable than the abilities of athletes competing in an Rx division.

If you’ve worked with enough high level athletes, you probably have a decent idea of what a typical Rx competitor can do and what will be appropriately challenging for them. And, if you program for that avatar, you will probably get a good distribution of performances from the rest of the competitors in that division.

Intermediate divisions are a different story, though.

You will have some athletes who can lift just as much weight as any “Rx” athlete, but they struggle with high rep gymnastics, so they are in the intermediate division. You will have athletes who can do huge sets of pull-ups and can handstand walk for days, but are unable to lift the typical Rx weights.

Based upon this, you will find that intermediate divisions will inevitably have some events that are “too easy” for a chunk of competitors while another chunk of competitors can barely get through the workout.

On a related note, intermediate male division competitors – on average – are often much more comfortable with gymnastics than intermediate female division competitors. It adds complexity to have different rep schemes for different divisions, but this is something to potentially consider.

I don’t think there’s a perfect solution here, so just keep this in your mind when programming, and – as discussed in the next point – make sure to test the events extensively.

Testing events extensively is crucial – particularly for intermediate divisions.

Some of our biggest mistakes in programming have come from the intermediate versions of our events. We’ve usually tested everything in some form or another, but – especially with intermediate divisions – it’s important to have a wide variety of athletes try the event to see how it’s going to go.

It’s usually better to have an event be “too hard” for some competitors, rather than having it be “too easy” for the top of the division.

Particularly in intermediate divisions, there are a few different avatars of athletes who should test an event (ie “Strong but struggles with gymnastics,” “Good with gymnastics but struggles with heavy barbells,” “Good engine but struggles with both heavy barbells and high rep gymnastics”)

Similarly, for high level competitors, it’s important to have a network of athletes who are willing and able to test events for you.

You will still be caught by surprise – either by athletes moving through something much more quickly than you expected, or by athletes really struggling on something that you did not anticipate. However, having every event tested by at least two different athletes should give you a solid perspective on the difficulty of the event and whether or not the timecap is reasonable.

Something else to consider is the total accumulate volume of the day. People will typically move faster in a competition environment than they will in a testing environment, but being aware of the number of reps of similar movements (like squatting, hinging, pressing, pulling, etc.) that athletes have already done in the competition will potentially modify how long something will take.

Blending Scaled divisions and high-level individual divisions is very challenging.

Scaled competitors will usually be intimidated to come to a competition known to attract high level competitors. So, unless you’re running an event that is already quite large with a significant reputation, it probably makes sense to focus in on a specific demographic (beginners, serious competitors, “just for fun,” masters, etc) and include divisions for a few adjacent demographics.

If you try to run a competition that doesn’t already have a significant reputation that includes Rx, Scaled, Masters and Team divisions, you may end up with a mess on your hands. And you may also struggle with registration since none of those demographics feel like the competition is “for them.”

And, if you have too many different types of competitors at your event, you will potentially run into some problems during the event.

You will probably have a lot more issues with scaled competitors.

Many people would intuitively think that there are more likely to be judging complaints, emotions running high, and problematic athletes when you’re dealing with high level competitors.

Our experience is the exact opposite.

Elite athletes typically intuitively understand the flow of workouts, are used to being held to high standards in their movement quality, and have competition experience (so they understand roughly when they should warm-up, they’ve probably checked heat schedules online for an event before, etc).

Elite athletes also have often developed the skill of controlling their emotions in high-stakes situations.

And, they probably have some understanding that maintaining a good relationship with their judge and the event organizers is in their best interest.

Scaled competitors, however, they are often doing one of their first competitions. The events are confusing and opaque to them, they’re not great at sticking to movement standards, they have little experience competing so they struggle to understand the flow of heat times and lane assignments, and they have not practiced exercising in high stakes exercising situations so they are easily overwhelmed by emotion.

If you want to have scaled competitors at your event, it’s probably best to structure the event to focus specifically on that group. Otherwise, the scaled division can derail your event by consistently showing up late to their heats and having difficulty setting up in the allotted transition time.

Also, the judges are more likely to take a beating in scaled heats, since teams are particularly likely to become emotional about being held to movement standards or to create confusion about the flow of the event.

I see the same thing in the rec soccer leagues that I play in. While the more competitive leagues can certainly get intense, the lower level leagues are much more likely to feature complaining and berating of the referee, dangerous late tackles, and games ending in awkward shoving matches as people lose their tempers.

Try to minimize the number of moving parts for team events.

Even if you think the flow of an event is super clear, there’s a good chance that many competitors and judges will be confused by it.

Consider that most people are typically doing workouts on their own (even if they’re in a group class), so they’re familiar with all kinds of scenarios (AMRAPs, intervals, for time, “death by” workouts, etc).

However, people have much less practice working out in teams. So, they are going to be more easily confused by different work/rest scenarios and things like synchro movements.

If you can keep the amount of equipment needed to a minimum and make it very obvious how and when athletes transition, you will reduce the opportunity for confusion and dissatisfaction.

If you are not very specific with event flow, athletes will come up with crazy ways to do things – and judges will get confused.

We’ve learned that it’s important to specify the flow of events – particularly with teams – in great granularity.

Where do non-working athletes have to stand?

What happens to equipment that isn’t being used?

Where can athletes do specific movements – and which way should they be facing?

What order do athletes have to go in?

How do athletes transition from one movement to another?

While it can seem restrictive and “hand-holding” to force athletes to stick to some of these standards, it’s essential to maintain overall structure of the event.

If these things are not specified, athletes will find bizarre loopholes and crazy ways to do things.

If the flow of the event is very specifically laid out, judges will be confused by the crazy stuff that athletes are doing and start to make mistakes.

I’m generally not a fan of “slippery slope” types of arguments for being harsh and draconian with rules, but this is a situation where everything needs to be strictly and literally enforced.

If athletes see someone in a previous heat doing something, they will expect to be able to do the same thing – if not push the enforcement of the standards even further.

Judges struggle to count double-unders

If you are relying on volunteer judges (which you probably are if you’re putting on an in-house competition), you can anticipate that there will be some potentially serious miscounts in any workout involving double-unders.

This isn’t meant to say that you can’t program them – just be aware that the potential for judges being off by not just 1,2 or 5 reps, but potentially 50-75 reps is there and program accordingly.

We had a big set of double-unders in one year of our competition, and we had some athletes who probably did over 100 extra reps and some athletes who probably did 100 too few reps.

Based upon this, we’ve avoided programming large sets of double-unders since we don’t want the very likely event of a judging error to significantly impact the outcome of the event.

Have contingency plans for judges

A monitor on an assault bike will freeze. A plate will break. Some crazy thing will happen, and an athlete will end up losing 30s of a workout. Something will go wrong with the clock, and athletes will end up starting their interval later than they should.

Empower judges to make quick calls as to what the best way to handle these issues are.

Have back-up equipment ready.

Give each judge a stopwatch so they can have their lane keep going on a separate clock if the clock gets screwed up.

Allow judges to use their stopwatch to add or subtract time from an athlete’s event if an act of God messes up the timing of their event.

Unlearning the Habits of a Bratty Teen

I’m taking a guitar lesson this week.

In high school, I thought it was “cool” to be self taught.

Who needs all that stupid music theory? Who needs some dork at a guitar store who probably listens to Joe Satriani telling you what to do?

To be fair to my obstinate and opinionated teenage self, I do think that the ability to self-educate is pretty rad.

And I did probably develop my ear pretty well by just sitting there and figuring out Slayer and Megadeth riffs.

But, I’ve wasted a bunch of time by learning a bunch of bad habits – then having to unlearn them.

(Like how I hold my pick. I think part of it is just my extreme hitchhiker’s thumb, but I definitely have had to do some serious practice to at least get my pick in a somewhat reasonable position.)

Also, as a person who has skills and knowledge that people pay for my advice in (fitness and business), I can see how much I can help my clients prioritize what’s actually important and get out of their own way.

With most of my coaching clients, my primary role is to either:

  1. Help them prioritize the actual thing that is super important that they need to work on – instead of whatever mess of half-baked tactics they’re worried about

  2. Teach them mental models so that they can make better decisions and problem solve on their own

I absolutely need someone to do this for me with my guitar playing.

Looking at how I live the rest of my life – especially with things that I’m interested in – I kind of can’t believe I haven’t invested in music lessons.

I did most of my practice and learning in a time period when I had a lamentable attitude toward “learning from experts.”

I also had a pretty unforgiving attitude toward “corniness” – which was basically anything involving jazz fusion or the pentatonic minor scale. This criteria unfortunately eliminated all guitar teachers in the entire world.

But now, I’m ready to bend some blues riffs with anyone who will teach me.

Top Down and Bottom Up Trust

Last weekend, I headed out to New York for a $2000 course that I didn’t really know much about – just that it was going to be a small group of 15 folks working on growing their businesses.

Why would I do such a thing? Especially when I barely knew what the course would entail?

Some of it was probably related to the application process – I had to record a short video answering some questions and was selected from an ostensibly large and competitive pool of applicants.

Ask any good social science researcher about effort justification in initiation rituals – there’s a reason fraternities have elaborate hazing rituals. The difficulty and discomfort inspires participants to create a narrative justifying their effort, which increases their buy-in once they’ve made it through whatever blindfolded, sexually charged initiation process they’ve been subjected to.

Also, Ramit Sethi – the proprietor of the course – has built tons of trust with me over the years through his blog, his email list, his books, and his online courses. We’ve implemented many of his systems and tactics for marketing and copywriting at South Loop Strength & Conditioning and seen great results.

So, it was a no-brainer to swipe my credit card for the course and book tickets out to New York, even though we have construction going on at the gym, and the South Loop Games are coming up in just about a month.

During the weekend, I had a breakout session on “How to stand out in a crowded niche.” Legion Strength & Conditioning – our online coaching company – plays in the saturated and overcrowded competitive CrossFit coaching space.

I’m often extremely frustrated by the nonsense from prestigious coaches in our industry that masquerades as solid training principles. I’d love to do my part to stamp out the misconceptions and myths that pollute our market – but Legion doesn’t have enough trust in the marketplace as a whole to be able to combat the bad ideas that are out there.

That trust that I have in Ramit? To fly to New York and spend thousands on a course that I don’t know much about? We need to figure out how to build that.

And, unfortunately, the dense, nuanced discussion of abstract ideas that I enjoy is not necessarily the best way to build that trust. Once you have trust – great. Go down the rabbit hole, get detailed, and get after it.

Until then, there are probably better strategies for establishing a foothold in the marketplace.

I had a 5-10 minute conversation with Ramit after the course that was worth the trip alone.

Side note: As someone who is often in a position where people are lurking around me and attempting to monopolize my time to ask me lots of questions (often while I’m trying to focus on something else), I’m very sensitive to trying not to do that to other people. So, I was hesitant to approach with my self-interested questions, but I’m happy that I did 🙂

We discussed this trust building process, and here’s my distillation of those lessons:

There are top down and bottoms up ways of building trust.

In the market of competitive CrossFit coaching, the “top down” model is coaching or working with “famous” athletes. This is a somewhat unpredictable process, since it’s not enough to coach athletes who are really good – these folks also need to have struck whatever je ne sais quoi results in them becoming “influencers.”

I liken the process of becoming a “famous” athlete to that of becoming a “famous” pop star. Quality is only loosely coupled with the actual success in the marketplace. Take a listen to Carly Rae Jepsen’s “I Didn’t Just Come Here to Dance” and tell me that isn’t one of the 10 best pop songs of the last decade. But, guess what – it only has 756k views on YouTube and wasn’t even released as a single. And CRJ already had built-in attention from her breakout breakout mainstream success with “Call Me Maybe.” What the hell!

So, anyone playing in the competitive CrossFit space should probably be trying to stumble into whatever serendipity they can that will push them over the tipping point into some sort of influencer status.

However, that’s a relatively unreliable business plan.

Fortunately, there’s another road that is probably more under your control.

This is the “bottom up” method of building trust.

To succeed here, you need to deeply understand your market and the problems that they are struggling with – and provide them very tight, crunchy, low-barrier to entry solutions to those problems.

Then, when they actually test drive the advice that you give, they have a quick win, are surprised at their success, and start to build trust.

In Ramit’s case, he opens his book I Will Teach You to be Rich with word-for-word scripts on getting credit card fees waived in the first chapter. This is a very low barrier to entry, tactical tip that will work almost all of the time.

And, once someone sees a late payment fee waived with 60s of work on a phone call, they start to build trust – and are much more willing to engage in the higher barrier to entry behaviors Ramit recommends like setting up automatic investment into an index fund.

This is tricky in fitness since most things that actually work are nuanced and take weeks – if not months – to produce results.

And, most of the things that people say they want are not what they actually want.

“Yeah, I’d love a meal plan.”

“A six week accessory work program would be awesome.”

“I’d like videos on proper form.”

Bullshit! All of them!

Not that these things aren’t valuable and some people don’t utilize these kinds of resources, but these solutions are way too ambitious for most people.

They love the idea of a accessory work and think it sounds nice, but there’s no way they’re actually printing off the PDF of their accessory program from some company they don’t really know about, taking it to the gym, and following it for six weeks. And, most people are lucky to consistently accomplish their main training goals in a given day. Very unlikely that they’re going to spend additional time in the gym doing accessory work.

So, how do you create a tactic that is low barrier to entry and gives nearly immediate results? And actually solves a problem that people know they have and that is a burning pain for them? I don’t really know but I’ve got some ideas.

(If you think of anything, please email me as well.)

Projecting Confidence as a Leader while Maintaining Intellectual Humility

I recently listened to an episode of my favorite podcast EconTalk focused on the concept of balancing intellectual humility with the confidence and authority that is expected of a leader.

The guest on the show was David Deppner, who is the CEO of Psyberware and an EconTalk listener – and the episode grew out of a Q&A session at a live EconTalk session.

Anyone in a leadership position will often get questioned or challenged about the future of their organization – especially if they are operating in a highly competitive industry or undergoing the turmoil and rigamarole of something like fundraising.

We had many dark moments throughout the history of South Loop Strength & Conditioning where we were just one bad break away from shutting it down – leases falling through, shady business partners, losing in the market to more established competitors, etc.

What should a leader say during the dark times when clients or employees are asking for reassurance?

Folks with a penchant toward intellectual honesty may want to acknowledge the fact that they’re kind of winging it and that, at any moment, everything could fall apart and the business could crater.

However, this message does not exactly inspire those around them to dive in, work hard, and keep pushing forward.

This kind of behavior is anathema to the type of person considered with intellectual humility we are discussing – and they probably couldn’t even pull it off if they tried.

So, what should they do instead?

I think the key distinction here is understanding why things seem uncertain to different folks.

For the leader, everything is uncertain and fuzzy because they have a very high resolution view of their organization, its strategy, and the threats facing it.

They likely think in probabilities and understand that – even with perfect planning and execution – there are all kinds of long-tail events that could completely change the course of their business.

They see the emergence and complexity in both the markets and in the layers of their own organization that magically results in their business staying afloat, and they recognize that much of how these systems organize is out of their control.

This high-resolution view is not terribly comforting, but most business leaders have probably grown comfortable with it since it’s a constant overlay of their reality.

For employees and clients, their uncertainty comes from a low-resolution view of the situation.

They don’t understand the strategy of the business.

They don’t have an awareness of the competitive landscape of the marketplace.

They don’t have comfort with the layers of management and accountability in an organization that magically keeps things chugging along.

So, a detailed and “honest” answer about the uncertainty of the business doesn’t serve them since they don’t have the framework to appreciate the nuance.

They see low-resolution uncertainty and would need to have a high speed upload brain upload to learn kung fu appreciate the high-resolution uncertainty view.

So, it is totally fair to communicate to someone at the level that they’re at. You don’t need to lay out all of the conditionals, all of the threats, all of the long tail events that could either make or break the business.

This doesn’t mean being a bloviating huckster peddling an unrealistic vision – it just means adjusting your communication to be appropriate for your audience.

The Delegation Doldrums

Many people who are growing their businesses have some understanding that they should be “delegating.”

Maybe you’ve read The 4-Hour Work Week. Maybe you’ve read The E Myth. Maybe you’ve heard some dork on Instagram talking about how you need to work “on” your business not “in” your business (which is from The E Myth anyway)

While delegation is, in fact, key to any sort of growing business, it’s rarely as simple as people think it is.

When you delegate something, it’s not like you suddenly have massive amounts of free mental bandwidth with which to create new ideas, work on more important tasks or engage in excessive leisure.

Instead, even though you are no longer responsible for explicitly completing your taks, you are now responsible the myriad of creative ways that your employees will find to do the task incorrectly or otherwise miss the point.

It’s insufficient to simply have a standard operating procedure and to assign the task to someone. Instead you must:

•Have mastery of the task yourself
•Have a documented and repeatable procedure to complete the task
•Document regular troubleshooting issues and contingency plans for when the task goes wrong
•Develop some sort of quality assurance process for the task to make sure that it is not just being completed – but that is being completed at an acceptable level
•Ensure that it’s not just the “letter of the law” that is being followed, but also the spirit
•Give regular performance communication and feedback to the person to whom you’ve delegated the task

In many cases, delegating the task is in fact more work than simply doing it yourself – at least for several weeks (if not months).

However, once you’ve made it past the tipping point, you will find that employees will start to offer insight about better ways to do things.

Through delegation, you are also creating opportunities for employees to be engaged and learn. So, even if it is a hassle to attempt to delegate and have things constantly go wrong, you are also increasing the buy-in and the teamwork of the organization by spreading responsibility amongst multiple individuals.

Why the quest for efficiency makes people inefficient

I’ve learned that our quest for efficiency is often one of the things that makes us the most inefficient.

Many people in management or coaching positions often get sour on the folks who they work with – claiming that they’re lazy, unmotivated slackers.

While this can be true, I’ve found that people are often putting forth a solid effort and doing the best they can, but are victims of two types of errors:

•A confused and improper focus on “efficiency” (which results in cutting corners, relying on willpower to create behavior change, and failing to set up long-term systems that are actually sustainable)

•A lack of skills to deal with obstacles, barriers, or questions that come up when attempting to engage in a new behavior.

I will discuss these issues from a management perspective, since I often find myself getting much more frustrated with employees than I do with coaching clients. (I have a healthy emotional distance from coaching clients, while I often regularly take mistakes employees make as a reflection of me in a way that is not always helpful).

In running a gym, I’ve found that one of our biggest issues as we’ve scaled is that – at each tier of growth – we have to relearn and refocus on the basics of each role within the organization.

This could be the basics of coaching a class (Give everyone in the class at least two pieces of individualized feedback – and use their name while doing so), the basics of setting someone up with a membership in our system (Please please please take their picture and have them fill out a membership agreement), or the basics of coaches communicating schedule changes for class coverage (Until the class is formally taken off of your schedule, it is your responsibility to make sure that someone shows up for it).

As we add employees and members, we tend to lose the thread of executing on these fundamental building blocks of our business. There’s more clients in the gym so classes get busy. There’s more front desk staff with a tiered management structure, so the way that we communicate and hold staff accountable is constantly shifting. There’s more to do in general, so it’s easier for things to slip through the cracks.

Over the last year, I’ve focused most of my effort on creating systems to make sure that we are not missing out on the fundamentals.

These include systems that track new members so that we can follow up on them consistently.

These include systems that track the recurring front desk tasks that need to be completed during each shift.

These include systems to make sure that all new members have all of their information entered into our software correctly.

And, as anyone who has tried to roll out systems like this in an organization, a lot of people just flat out don’t use them. Which results in a constant stream of mistakes, forgetting and oversight which can drive a high conscientiousness individual mad.

It can sometimes seem like people are actively ignoring my efforts to clean up all of these messes in an attempt to be “lazy.”

But, I really don’t think this is the case.

From conversations with employees and partners over the years, I’ve found instead that people are often searching for “efficiency” and a better way to do things.

Many of the solutions that I’ve come up with can seem overly optimized and like a waste of effort.

It can seem easier to “just remember to do it” than to create a to-do list system.

It can seem easier to “just remember your appointments” than to keep a detailed calendar.

It can seem easier to “just scan your email periodically throughout the day” rather than having structured times to handle your entire inbox.

And, in fact, it is easier to do each of those things. In the moment.

However, it’s not actually easier in the long run – neither for yourself nor for the organization that you work for.

Most people never make it past the initial difficulty of using a new system or a new protocol since it is often slower and less efficient the first several times you do something a new way.

It can still be purely self-interested behavior to develop systematic, repeatable ways of doing things. If you don’t have to remember how you did something last time, if you don’t have to rebuild the same email template every time, if you’re not constantly scrambling and cleaning up messes from things that you forgot to do…you tend to be a happier and more productive person.

And, if you do care about the organization that you’re a part of, developing systems has multiple benefits:

•The things that you’re doing can be more easily taught to a colleague – allowing you to focus on other areas, or allowing someone to cover your responsibilities if necessary.

•Systems make it easy to communicate throughout the organization what has been done and what needs to be done next.

Lets use a seemingly trivial example.

I’ve made a Google Sheet for our front desk that has a variety of recurring tasks on it – things like “fold towels, refill chalk buckets, empty trash on main gym floor, etc.”

Each task is categorized by the shift that it’s supposed to fall under.

The tasks also link to an internal wiki article that explains how to do the task.

The checkboxes automatically uncheck themselves on regular intervals relative to when the task needs to be repeated.

Tasks use conditional formatting to show when they’re due, overdue, and complete.

This ostensibly makes it very easy to keep track of what needs to be done – removing the the pain point of confusion between desk employees regarding which tasks are done, which are not done, and which need to be passed off onto another shift.

What’s not to love?

Well, it’s taken quite awhile to get front desk employees in the habit of consistently checking tasks off the list – even if they’re done.

It seems easier to just do them. Who cares if the tasks are checked off if they’re done?

It seems easier to just remember what tasks need to be done during your shift and take care of them. Why bother looking at the task list – it’s not that hard to remember to fold towels.

But, it’s not actually easier.

That’s a false sense of efficiency gained by skipping over the task list that is really a tax on the organization whenever a task is repeated prematurely or left incomplete past its due date – and it’s also a tax on your future self since you are often spending mental energy remembering what to do and how to do it (that could be externalized to a system) as well as spending time and energy cleaning up the messes that your lack of systemization created.

Or, more likely, one of the other employees or managers ends up cleaning up after you.

So, quit looking for efficiency in the wrong places. You don’t get more efficient by doing less.. You get more efficient by doing more work upfront so that you can trade in the mundane problems of forgetfulness and miscommunications and actually work on something interesting.

Do your email newsletter subscriptions stress you out?

Do you like subscribing to email newsletters…but hate having a cluttered inbox?

Do you like reading your e-mail newsletters – like mine hehe – but hate when you’re just trying to soak up some #content and you’re getting hammered with work e-mails?

Well have I got a solution for you:

Just make a new e-mail address only for newsletters.

A lot of people have some sort of throwaway e-mail address (like an old AOL account or something) that they use to sign up for stuff that they don’t want to receive.

But, why not have a separate e-mail address for things that you do want to receive?

This way, you have an e-mail inbox that’s almost like an RSS reader – just content that you want that you actually subscribed to.

I typically use the Gmail mobile app on my iPad to read my stories. I don’t have my other email accounts signed in on my iPad, so there’s a high barrier to entry to impulsively start checking in with work stuff. This works out very nicely for me. Hopefully this helps you, too.

Do you get tired of checking your e-mail constantly?

I’m probably not the only one in the world who has an e-mail problem.

I’ve experimented with a lot of different e-mail workflows over the years, and there’s been one consistent problem that I’ve never been able to solve.

Here’s my dilemma:

Checking my e-mail is a stressful time waster. 

Everyone who has read anything about productivity understands the value of batching tasks.

They also understand the energy-wasting dangers of constant task switching (beginning to write an article, then checking your e-mail, reading five messages, responding to two, then checking your to-do list, then going back to the article that you’re writing, then remembering you need to reschedule a meeting so going back to your e-mail, then responding to a few more e-mails that have come in…)

The idea of “batching” e-mail seems like a no-brainer. 

“Only check e-mail at allotted times,” cry the productivity experts. Every time you go into your inbox, clear out the entire thing – either by responding, archiving, or converting the e-mail into an actionable task in your project management system.

Sounds great.

However, I often need to access information in my e-mail while doing something else. 

I need to look up something a podcast guest sent me, download an attachment, or confirm a scheduled time.

So, what happens?

I go to my inbox and immediately get stressed out at the inbound communication. I either start reading and responding to e-mail (which means I’m not doing what I was supposed to be doing).

Or, I remain disciplined and only briefly pass through my inbox on my way to the information that originally brought me on my expedition through the digital hinterlands of my inbox.

However, in either case, I now have a corner of my brain devoted to thinking about all of the unread e-mail I just witnessed – foreboding subject lines, surprising senders, or files that I’ve been waiting for to complete some of my projects.

Turns out, a lot of people have this problem, and so folks have crafted some creative browser extensions to help. One of the better ones is the “Inbox When Ready.”

And it works great.

Your inbox is blocked when you go to it.

Only problem is that all you have to do when you visit your e-mail is push a single button to view all of your messages.

When you’re exposed to powerful, variable rewards like an e-mail inbox, it can be nigh impossible to avoid the impulse to push that button and see what’s hiding.

And, once you’ve pushed it enough times, you start to develop a habit so that your mouse is moving in the direction of the “Show Inbox” button no sooner than you’ve finished typing “.com” in your mail’s URL.

While my inbox is ostensibly hidden, I still view my unread messages just about every damn time I go to my e-mail anyway.

So, here’s my solution (which has been working fantastically):

I have “Inbox When Ready” installed on two separate browsers.

I use Chrome for most standard web-based tasks. In this browser, I set an “Inbox When Ready” lockout timer to last all day. 

I can still go to my e-mail to search for messages and find information that I need, but I’m blocked from clicking the “Show Inbox” button.

When I actually intend to process e-mail, I use Firefox (but leave it closed the rest of the time).

So, in order to actually check my e-mail, I have to fire up and entirely separate browser.

This is enough of a barrier and a hassle to prevent lapses in judgement or willpower resulting in getting lost in e-mail. And, my synapses are far less often occupied with admin tasks that are not exactly urgent but are time sensitive (updating client’s memberships, rescheduling appointments, etc.) that are best handled in a solid block of time a few times per day.

I’ve been really happy with this change in my workflow – and hopefully this helps someone else out as well!

The Repugnant Conclusion and why it Violates our Moral Intuitions

The “repugnant conclusion” is an uncomfortable bit of philosophical reasoning first presented by Derek Parfit.

For a detailed discussion of the repugnant conclusion, check out this article from Stanford philosophy.

Here’s a quick summary.

Consider a population where we can measure “well-being” which aggregates everything that makes life worth living into one, rolled-up measure.

(People often get tripped up here, so consider that this includes everything in one aggregate measure. This measure is not quite the same as “happiness.” Pain, loss, sorrow, profundity, fulfillment, pleasure, etc. are all included here – as are the trade-offs between doing something unpleasant to achieve a positive outcome, etc. Any sort of Malthusian population dynamics are also accounted for in this aggregate measure of well-being, as are any amounts of individual dissatisfaction based upon inequality. You may dispute that a single measure can capture all of this information, but, for the sake of this thought experiment, assume that it can.)

Assume we have a population A with a given well-being (the height of the rectangle is the total well-being, and the width of the rectangle is the population).

Then, assume we have a population A+, which is the same as population A, except we are adding an additional population with lower well-being than population A (although everyone still has a relatively high well-being).

Population A+ seems obviously “better” than population A (or at least not worse), as there are more people with positive lives – and the total well-being of the entire group is higher.

Then, assume that there is a population B with the same number of people as population A+.

However, their well-being is averaged across the population such that the total well-being is the same as A+. Rather than having two groups with different well-beings, we now have one group with the same well-being.

This seems to be better (or, again, at least not worse) than A+, which is better, or at least not worse, than A.

If we continually perform this operation, we end up with a population Z with very low well-being (but still net positive lives). 

So, we’ve show that a very large population with lives just barely worth living is preferable to – or at least not worse than – a smaller population with a much higher well-being for each individual.

Feels rather repugnant, doesn’t it?

There have been a lot of attempts to reason around the repugnant conclusion, but many of these attempts themselves result in bizarre conclusions themselves (termed the “sadistic conclusion” and the “absurd conclusion” – see the Stanford article for further discussion.)

I think that the best way around the repugnant conclusion is by questioning the additive properties of well-being. This is touched on here in the Stanford article.

If you asked how many ants would have to have perfect lives to make it acceptable to kill one human being, most people would say “none.” In effect, they are saying that no number of ant lives is worth one human life.

If we frame this in terms of well-being, we can say something like, “Some amount of ant well-being is probably worth sacrificing some amount of human well-being. However, there is a threshold of human well-being below which no amount of increased ant well-being can justify the trade-off.”

I think we can have a similar understanding of the “well-being” of human lives. A single life above a certain threshold of well-being is worth “more” than any number of lives below that threshold of well-being. Below certain thresholds, we cannot simply add lives to get a better outcome.

Think of this like Class A and Class B voting shares in a corporate structure. We could theoretically create an organization such that, while Class B shares are able to vote, they cannot change the outcome of a decision if the majority of Class A shares vote in a certain direction.

We can imagine “tiers” of well-being that are created based upon something like diagnostic criteria for complicated syndromes and disorders. Something like the Beighton score for joint hypermobility – if you have 5 of these 9 criteria, then your life and well-being cannot be offset be anyone with less than these numbers.

While I think this is sufficient to avoid the repugnant conclusion in a philosophical sense, I don’t think that this is why most people find the repugnant conclusion so repugnant.

Instead, I think our intuitions follow something closer to a desert-based approach to human well-being.

Simply by virtue of being human, each individual deserves a certain quality of life.

So, imagining all of these people with net positive lives that are just barely worth living violates our intuitions.

Here’s a more detailed explanation in the Stanford article.

This approach, however, doesn’t quite avoid the repugnant conclusion. Instead, it just moves the line for what we would consider a “net positive life.”

So, now we just have a different threshold above which lives must exist in order to be “positive,” and we can still run through the operations to generate a repugnant conclusion.

However, instead of imagining a huge population of people existing on “potatoes and Muzak,” we are now imagining a huge population existing on – I don’t know – slightly burnt toast, watery coffee, slow WiFi and Trapt.

While maybe not quite as repugnant, I think we now just have a “distasteful conclusion.” Still, I do think this is why most people’s moral intuitions are immediately violated when they first understand the repugnant conclusion.

Coaching the Complicated vs Coaching the Complex

As coaches improve their skillset, they become more adept at pattern-matching and quickly being able to diagnose flaws in someone’s movement or approach to a training session

They also develop more “soft skills” in communication, approaching clients, dealing with emotions, and generally navigating the interpersonal issues surrounding coaching.

We often talk about “best practices” – meaning that there are in, in fact, “best” ways to assess our clients, prescribe a program, and engage in ongoing communication.

However, after reading a bit about Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework, I think that the domain of “best practices” is not necessarily appropriate for thinking about coaching.

When a coach is getting start, they must go through the process of learning how to handle “simple” scenarios. 

If clients are rounding their backs on deadlifts, tell them to stop rounding or go lighter. If clients are going out too fast on long workouts, tell them to back off and slow down. If clients are struggling to put their arms over their head, have them foam roll their upper back and do serratus wall slides.

Each of these scenarios can be put into a basic flowchart of decision-making.

However, everyone who has been coaching for awhile recognizes that this kind of simple decision-making is often inadequate and, in some cases, can be counter-productive.

A lot of these scenarios are “complicated” – meaning that there is a right answer somewhere, but it may be difficult to get to and often requires deep knowledge and expertise. 

And, there’s often more than one way to get to a correct answer.

Why can’t someone get their arms over their head. 

Let’s dig into their breathing patterns. Let’s have them do a variety of different scapular motor control exercises. Let’s have them work on repositioning their ribcage. Let’s have them get soft tissue work to release facilitated and inhibited muscles. Let’s have them try both unilateral and bilateral movements.

The underlying issue could be any of these things, none of these things, or some combination of all of them.

An expert is able to conduct a thorough assessment and come up with a plan that will ideally end with the “correct” outcome for the individual.

A lot of movement correction falls into this bucket.

But, as we move up the layers of abstraction into coaching an individual rather than just fixing a specific movement issue, we are now playing with complexity

Rather than thinking of the human body as something like a Ferrari where you have a schematic and you can figure out the “broken” piece and repair it in order to get everything back on track, we are now have a dynamic system with emergence, bidirectional causality and many layers of competing systems.

There is no schematic, every change you make to the system causes multiple different feedback loops to kick in, and there are huge contributions of randomness and chaos to the actual outcome of coaching someone.

So, what is our role as a coach in such a complex system?

How do we help individuals stick to a workout routine and change their behavior surrounding nutrition?

How do we help athletes maximize their potential in sport – especially when the competitive landscape is constantly changing?

How do we navigate the self-sabotage, lack of consistency, deception, and self-deception typical of working with both every day people and high level athletes?

So, coaches need to “probe” through conversation and try out different prescriptions to see what is working and what is creating buy-in, then attempt to execute on that.

Coaches must also enlist clients to do their own probing to figure out what works for them and to more accurately characterize the obstacles that are holding them back – not just from an exercise perspective, but, more importantly, from a behavioral perspective.

And, when we make changes, we must also recognize that inputs into the system change the system itself, and that there is also always the lurking specter of black swan events like injuries, overtraining, and large life events outside of the gym.

So, some coaches live in flow charts:

Don’t round your back when you deadlift.

Eat one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight.

Push your knees out when you squat.

Some coaches live in nuanced assessments and detailed program design:

Here’s your two week testing period to figure out your relative strengths and weaknesses.

This is a 12 week squatting progression with accessory work meant to strengthen your upper back and improve your front squat relative to your back squat.

These are your macros. Make sure you weigh and measure all of your food, and we will check on that every week.

But, the highest order coaches combine the flow charts with nuanced assessments and detailed designs – and also enlist the clients themselves to probe at what is working and what’s not working so that the real challenges can be uncovered and solved through bottom-up behavior change rather than top-down design.

The Delegation Doldrums

Many people who are growing their businesses have some understanding that they should be “delegating.” Maybe you’ve read The 4-Hour Work Week. Maybe you’ve read

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