Goalsetting patterns - sprints vs. marathons

Looking back at past content of this blog, I’ve analyzed plenty of my productivity and time management techniques. These skills have helped me complete countless goals in extremely short periods of time. For example, I’ve detailed how I passed the CFA level 1 exam in 6 weeks, something that, based on general consensus, requires an average of 300 hours (~9 weeks if one studies 5 hours every single day).

There have been many other posts in the same vein, where I do a lot in very limited time, such as wrapping up my master’s degree studies at the University of Toronto while working full time.

Said posts contrast with the slower approach that I take with several of my current projects, for example, the act of writing posts for this very blog. All I do, is set aside a block time to author one post a week. This is much less of an intense, condensed “sprint”, compared to some of those productivity techniques I have written about in the past.

The types of productivity methods I used to help me carry out these goals were wildly different. The intense goals are more like sprints, and the relatively leisurely, long term goals are like marathons.

The productivity methods that work for one type, might not work for the other. Hence, in this post, I will examine the patterns of those two types of goals, so to apply a suitable mindset toward them respectively.

Sprints

Disclaimer: I am using the word Sprints out of convenience, and the fact that it is a word that fits the type of goal I describe. In this post, this is independent and unrelated to Sprints in Agile, although perhaps sharing similar traits here and there.

Sprint type goals are those with a definitive deadline, often with an external deadline instead of a self-imposed deadline, with some exceptions. Common traits are time pressure, and a well defined criteria for success, such as passing or failing an exam.

For the purpose of categorization, I’d say sprints in this case isn’t simply a “short-term” goal, but rather has the additional difficulty of an aggressive timeline.

To be honest, some of the projects I’ve documented in the past are more like aggressive mad dashes than paced sprints…

Examples

• Exams, assignments
• Online course modules with time limit
• Side project you’d like to complete before applying for jobs, so to include on a resume

Strategy

For sprint type goals, it truly is the cumulation of self-discipline x time management x focus. For my CFA level 1 exam example, veering a day or two off track could make or break the goal.

Self-discipline: In cases of sprints such as taking a master’s degree course while working full time, I used strict time blocking methods and pomodoros to build a study schedule for evenings and weekends. Perhaps slacking off for a few days occasionally wouldn’t have caused me to fail, but anything more than a week or two, would most definitely do so, since midterm and final exams don’t wait. Neither would the project deadlines at my full time work.

Time management: For sprints, to complete all that’s required in the limited time frame is a matter of math, and Tetris-esque scheduling. Again using the CFA level 1 example - if the goal is to study 300 hours before the exam date, there will be a limit to how close to the exam I begin studying, otherwise it will be physically impossible - humans need to sleep! It’s important to be aware and spend time planning, to maximize the likelihood of success.

Focus: As an added layer to the previous two points, focus is achieved with self-discipline, such as not being distracted by games and social media, as well as time management, such as allowing time for breaks and sufficient sleep. To achieve the best focus for a sprint goal, we should keep diminishing returns in mind - oftentimes, studying or working for 5 hours/day for 10 days is better for memory retention than 10 hours/day for 5 days.

Marathons

Marathon type goals are accomplished over an unknown period of time, and are usually open-ended. For example, this blog, susanshu.com, is more of a marathon type project, and thus I cannot really write some post with a cool title, such as “Created a blog with 24 posts in 6 weeks”. In this case, is 6 weeks long or short? Who knows?

I do not want to be pedantic in my definitions between marathons and sprints, and acknowledge there are overlaps or combinations. For example, one’s education path can be more of a marathon (open ended, long and winding), but consisting of many exams and assignments, which are sprints.

Strategy

The difficult thing about marathon type goals is that they are relatively long term and ambiguous. The goalposts frequently change without warning.

Identifying direction in uncertain situations is essential to managing marathon type goals, and requires much more self-reflection and self-awareness than sprint goals, which often have externally defined timelines. Frankly, I am still learning how to deal with uncertainty, and how to continue on a marathon goal after a small goalpost has been hit.

Continue to open doors and create options despite times of doubt. This approach has served me well to manage uncertainty, because even if I don’t know the exact probability of success, I am doing everything in my ability to at least increase it.

Intrinsic motivation is crucial, because marathon goals often have no specific end in sight. For example, being “profitable” could be an initial goal of a video game studio, but once that is achieved, then what? I must not accidentally grow complacent and feel that the marathon goal as a whole has been accomplished.

In addition, to continuously work toward marathon goals, one still needs killer sprint goal skills, self-discipline x time management x focus, since marathon goals can actually be broken up into little sprints. For example, on the game dev side, even though I have a marathon goal of overall studio growth, I also have the skill to scope and prototype incredibly quickly.

Summary of comparisons

Overall, sprint type goals appear quite naturally in our society’s educational and professional systems. These include exams, certifications, and project deadlines.

I feel that marathon type goals are often ill-defined. For example, most people likely have a desire to “be healthy” and “earn money”, but it is a minority that has a well-defined and consistent plan of how to continuously make progress on that goal. This requires frequent self-examination, as well as creating one’s own goals in the midst of uncertainty.

In my case, I started off with a heavy skew toward sprint goals, especially during my university years. Subsequently, getting started in the data science field was a mix of both. I somewhat had flexibility in when I applied to jobs, but when interviews were scheduled intensely, the preparations were more of a sprint.

Now, I think I’ve found a good balance! The current mix is skewed more toward marathon type goals than it ever has been in my life - I have mostly loosened my sprint goals to be part of my marathon goals. An example is that I have a loose timeline of creating my follow-up game projects, which is due to balancing my energy and stopping and smelling the roses. If I slack off for days or weeks, it doesn’t matter that much, as long as I continue to be consistent.

In conclusion, what motivated this post was looking back at my past goals and the different techniques and mindsets that I had to accomplish them. Some patterns emerged, which are the categories sprints and marathons. This retrospection also helped me notice that the mix of my current goals has changed drastically, since then.

I hope that some of these thoughts were helpful. As usual, you can find me on LinkedIn or hello@susanshu.com to discuss this post.