Why thinking like a triathlete could help you be more effective

Do you ever get the feeling that you don’t know where your time goes? You wake up with great intentions about how much you’re going to get done, and then suddenly it’s evening and you haven’t achieved half of what you planned. Students often feel like this during revision time when there are few lectures, and you are fully in charge of your own work timetable.

I’m empathising with you all at the moment, because my partner and I are both on sabbatical from our universities. We have wonderful long days to get on with our writing projects, but we have to structure the time ourselves. We decided to monitor our working hours to make sure we stay on track, but something odd happened; somehow even though we started and finished work at the same time each day, my partner would always log more work hours than me.

At first I assumed he must be cheating (obviously!) but we realised that he was just much more effective in transitioning from one activity to another. He would work until lunch, have lunch, start work again. In contrast, I would work until nearly lunchtime, mess about on Facebook for a while, have lunch, check my twitter, get distracted by an interesting article, and then start work after that. These distractions were never for long, but tracking my hours made me realise how much these small inefficiencies were adding up into lots of wasted time.

Triathletes, of course, already understand the importance of efficient transitions. As well as training hard to be fast swimmers, cyclists, and runners, they are acutely aware of the importance of moving quickly from one activity to the next. They know that you can pick up vital seconds in this transition period. When I did a couple of triathlons in the past, I remember practicing this process, so that I knew exactly how I would get out of my wetsuit, or in what order I would put my cycle helmet and shoes on.

So what can we learn from triathletes? Well, they plan in advance what they will do when they arrive in the transition area, and lay out their equipment to facilitate this. Transferring this approach to academic work, I’m trying to use the last few minutes before a break to make sure that my work is in a useful place to start up again. This could be opening up the document that you’re going to work on next, and perhaps putting a note about exactly where you’re up to and what you do next. I’m also trying to remember that no triathlete stops during their transition watch a little YouTube video of baby elephants in a paddling pool!

This doesn’t mean that you don’t have rests or breaks from work; both triathletes and academics understand the importance of downtime. Instead, I am also trying to transition properly into rest as a dedicated activity too. Rather than still sitting at my computer wasting time, I’m trying to get in the habit of leaving my work at a good place to restart, moving away from the computer, having some proper rest, exercise, or fun, and then going back to work wholeheartedly again.

It’s not easy breaking these habits, but so far, I’m finding that thinking like a triathlete and being mindful of time spent “in transition” is helping me to be more efficient and get the most out of my working day. Let me know in the comments below if it works for you!

Don’t forget to also check out my posts on revising without any notes and using scruffy cartoons to remember research papers!


  1. I really enjoyed reading this post, and entirely recognise the description of your day! I’ll be trying to think like a triathlete for the rest of this week. Great advice for students too – will share.

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