Stop Saving Yourself For Later

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

— Dylan Thomas (1951)

In college, I played Division I volleyball.

This meant that, often, game-simulating drills had some kind of punishment on the line for the losing side.

The punishment would vary, but one go-to exercise was appropriately labelled ‘suicide sprints’.

For the uninitiated, suicides involve sprinting up and down the court, touching each line of the court progressively until you’re touching the opposite baseline and sprinting its full length.

They’re miserable.

With each sprint, there was a countdown timer on the scoreboard that we, as a team, all needed to beat. It was challenging, but not impossible — mostly just to keep everyone accountable, so that we didn’t all conspire to run slowly, together.

If we didn’t make it within the time limit, we would run again. Simple.

Uncertainty Changes The Calculus

Except, there was one thing we all knew which changed the dynamic, entirely. Every so often, our coach would insist that we run again, anyway.

Perhaps it was an attempt to ‘keep us on our toes’. Maybe he was just unhappy with our performance that day, and thought we could use another sprint. Maybe it was more positively motivated, and he simply wanted us to be fit for the upcoming season.

Whatever the case, it had an unintended effect.

The uncertainty of punishment meant that we would invariably save something in the tank with each sprint, just in case we needed to go again.

What did this mean?

It meant that most days, when the additional effort wasn’t needed, we would finish the session with a little (or a lot) in the tank.

Photo by Robson Hatsukami Morgan on Unsplash

Now, maybe that’s fine. Maybe that’s a healthy approach, and your body will thank you for always keeping something extra in reserve.

But even with just 10% held back each day, I noticed it began to add up.

During the drills, even, my body would subconsciously hold something back, knowing that the possibility of sprints are on the table. Going into the sprints with zero energy is, for lack of a better word, suicide. There’s no point killing myself on the court, only to find there are sprints waiting for me at the end of it all, anyway. Right?

These calculations are subtle. It doesn’t need to be a conscious decision to hold back — it’s simply an attitude that develops over time as your body and mind learn what is, or might be, in store for it.

Perishable Resources Shouldn’t Be Saved

The takeaway is simple.

In many life circumstances, we hold something back. We keep a little in the tank, just in case we’ll need it for later.

When it comes to financial savings and assets with a long half-life — holding back and saving up is rather wise.

But when it comes to perishable resources — energy, attention, effort, etc. — the half-life is short, and ‘saving up’ is often a poor strategy that leads to excessive waste.

Saving physical energy likely made sense in ancestral times. You never knew when a marathon chase would be required, and so holding back most days might have just paid off on the one day you needed it — even if it meant making steady, minor losses for weeks at a time.

We don’t live in those environments any more, though.

If we hold back one hour of productive effort every day, we don’t get to ‘save’ and cash in those 30 extra hours at the end of the month — those hours are gone. That energy is lost.

And so, the point is this.

When we save our best efforts for laterfor a time when it might be needed in some Herculean sprint or feat of effort — we tend to deprive ourselves of our daily best.

  • “I’ll start that blog later this week, I have a long day tomorrow and will be better rested by Friday.”
  • “Now isn’t the time to begin a side hustle, I’ll wear myself thin — let’s see how things are looking next year.”
  • “Last time I stayed up late planning my podcast, the boss dumped a pile of work on my desk the next morning — I’m never doing that again.”

Yes, there are risks to giving your all each day.

Occasionally, you’ll be punished for putting in extra, then finding yourself on empty in a moment when you wish you had some more energy reserved.

But in the long-tail, the gains add up. When each day is saturated and squeezed and satisfied to its limit, we give ourselves a chance at putting our best into the world consistently. And when we can do that, the odd days we’re unable to meet a challenge are easily forgiven for all the progress we’ve made in the interim.

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


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