Down time, not dead time

Stop waiting around, and make the most of your idle time

For the first 11 years of my athletic career, I was dead-set on being an Olympian. I competed in weightlifting which is, without a doubt, one of the most technically complex and deceptively difficult sports featured at the games. Sure, I may be a tiny bit biased, but I assure you it’s far harder than it looks.

A hallmark of real strength training—and not just lifting weights to look good—is prolonged breaks between sets. Let’s say the workout consists of heaving 245 pounds straight from the floor, and in one smooth moment, catching it overhead.

This lift is called the snatch. It’s the most technically complex, and physically complete, lift you can perform. This is me snatching 245 lbs. at 17 years old.

The stakes are high during a lift like that. One imbalance, or momentary lapse in attention, and hundreds of pounds can come crashing down on you. The mental and physical effort needed to execute—especially when it’s approaching your maximum—is immense.

So after performing this lift, I’d regularly sit around for a long time before my next set of exercises. Sometimes these breaks would last a minute or two, and other times it could be five or ten. Which is to say, during my workouts, I had an abundance of down time. Time spent sitting, recovering, and most importantly, not lifting.

This time however, was not dead time, and that’s the critical distinction.

Waiting for life to happen

There have been months, and even years, of my life where I felt like I was just waiting around.

Waiting for the right time, and the right opportunity. Waiting to be ready. Waiting for answers to questions like: What should I do as a career? Where should I live? What is my passion? What do I value? How should I be using my time? Where should I be spending my money?

Time and again, I found myself waiting for clarity before making my next move—any move. And in this way, I wasted a lot of time.

But I never used to just sit around and wait as an athlete.

Study the nuance

As I would recover between sets, I would watch my teammates. Maybe watch is the wrong word. Study, or scrutinize, are probably closer to the truth.

Some of my teammates were athletes who had been lifting for a decade longer than me. Others, had only been lifting for a few weeks. I watched their movements for patterns. I looked for differences in their technique. I would think to myself, His hips shifted up too early or She slows the bar down before her second pull.

During a particularly taxing workout, I remember only performing five sets in the course of two hours. But during that same workout, I recall observing hundreds—by watching my peers.

I studied them with such regularity that I could tell if someone didn’t stretch well before practice, if they were going to hit an all time best, or they were on the verge of injury.

Through focused observation, I became a better athlete between the sets. I transformed idle time, into study time. I learned the unteachable nuances of lifting. Then, once armed with this insight, I began to apply it to my own technique, and my own movements.

Opportunities in the empty spaces

When were faced with the seasonality of life, the slow times, the downtimes, the times when we feel like we’re just waiting around, we can do one of two things.

We can sit, and do nothing, accepting our condition as fate—as dead time. Or we can do something else. We can observe. We can watch, we can ask questions, we can learn from people who are decades our senior, and the novices just starting out. We can become acquainted with the nuance of our craft, our sport, or our business.

Life requires recovery. After a hard push at work, we need a few days to celebrate and refocus. After fundraising for our startup, we need to back off and change gears. After running a marathon, we need to taper down and let our legs recover. But we need not sit on our hands.

Instead of wishing things were different, and continuing forward at full force, we can choose to respect the cyclical nature of life. We can take our time to recover, and in that time we can train our minds. We can learn to appreciate the imperceptible nuances that separate the amateurs from the professionals. We can become observers and critics.

We can transform our dead time, into down time.

—Zac

PS. If you’ve made it all the way down here and don’t feel that you’ve just wasted five minutes, consider hitting the Like button on this essay.

It helps others find it. And it makes me happy.

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