When progress is slow but not steady.

When progress is slow but not steady.

An update about the house that’s only sort of about the house:

Over the past two weekends, we’ve made huge and somewhat unexpected progress on two rooms in the house that have been bugging me since we moved in. (That’s the May before last, if you’re new around here. Here’s more info about our move.)

Our two daughters share one bedroom; our two sons share another. When we moved in, the existing paint color was fine to live with for the time being—which was a good thing. We had plenty of other projects going on, sure, but we also had no idea what we wanted the finished spaces to look like. We had to figure out the color, the layout, the details—everything.

Progress came in fits and starts. After living with their rooms for a few months, we moved the furniture around. A few months after that, we tweaked some things and added a few personal details.

In the in-between time, the kids and I talked about their rooms now and then, casually. We never formally made a plan. There was no Pinterest involved.

Then this month, on two successive Saturday mornings, I knew it was time to commit to a paint color for the girls’ room. By some miracle, the girls and I all agreed on the same shade of blue, we rolled it on the wall that day, and it turned out great.

Inspired by that success, the boys and I chose a color the next weekend. We still have one big wall to finish (we chose a deep blue that requires multiple coats) but it looks fantastic.

A year and a few months after the move, we’ve made lots of progress on the house. I’ve been describing it as “slow and steady,” but while I was rolling yet another coat of Ben Moore’s Hudson Bay on my boys’ walls, I realized that wasn’t true at all: our progress has been slow, but it hasn’t been consistent.

In college, we talked about hares and tortoises: some students prefer to attack their assignments at the last minute; other types prefer to do the work bit by bit. Gretchen Rubin talks about sprinters and marathoners: one counts on the creative inspiration an imminent deadline inspires; the other prefers to work on projects steadily, over long periods of time. (Sprinting and procrastinating aren’t the same thing.)

The progress I’ve made this year—whether it’s on the house, or on my bigger writing projects—looks like a sprint, at least from the outside. It looks like long periods—weeks, even months—of nothing, followed by a burst of frenetic activity.

But in many ways, I’m a marathoner. I’m a slow processor. I need time to mull things over. I have a long runway.

Most of what I’ve accomplished in the past year happened in big bursts … but I couldn’t move forward until those ideas had been simmering for a long, long time.

I was explaining the differences between the marathoner and sprinter to Will, saying that I didn’t think I fit neatly into either category. I need time to ponder like a marathoner, but I thrive on the intensity of the sprint.

(Is it essential to figure out which label applies to me? Of course not! But I’m looking ahead to September, when schedules change and new projects begin. The more I know about how I work best, the better I’ll be able to structure my time.)

It took Will all of two seconds to recognize the logical fallacy: he pointed out there’s a giant gap between the sprinter and the marathoner. Maybe I’m a miler?

As I look forward to fall, I’ll be scheduling lots of time blocks for big bursts of activity—and lots and lots of time to ponder between them.

When progress is slow but not steady, finding your true work style will help you get more done.

Are you a sprinter, marathoner, or something in between? Do these distinctions help you structure your days?

P.S. I wrote a book about personality! In Reading People: How Seeing the World through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything, I walk you through 7 different frameworks, explaining the basics in a way you can actually understand, sharing personal stories about how what I learned made a difference in my life, and showing you how it could make a difference in yours, as well.

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36 comments

  1. We’ve been very slow to do house projects as well. For me it’s about finding time – first to plan and then to execute. It also requires collaboration with my husband or my son, so that slows things down sometimes as well.

    Your post inspired me to email the painter to see where we fall on his schedule. I picked out paint colors months ago, but he has a backlog of work, so this time the waiting isn’t on me. 🙂

  2. Beth Anne says:

    I may be a miler too. I get an idea, get inspired, and sometimes the big project is done in a month! Other times I work hard for a month, then set it down to ponder while I pick up something else or take a much-needed break. I definitely work in a flurry – 5 inspired hours in the evening and then maybe a day where nothing inspired happens. (I still make myself do the thing… but maybe just for 30 minutes…sometimes 10.)

    Funnily enough, even in the literal world of running I’m not a marathoner. If I decide I’m going to run a half-marathon – I train 8 weeks – no more. (It’s not advised.) I can’t have that level of focus and commitment to something for much longer than that. But it works.

    Decorating the house – it’s just as you described. A flurry of nothing but painting for an entire weekend or two, and then nothing for months. I have to say that when I read about your thought processes and habits, Anne, it makes me feel more “normal” It’s not just me 🙂

    • Jen M. says:

      I think of it more like baking a cake. The idea goes in, but I need a good amount of time to ponder the idea before it’s finished and I’m ready to commit. However, unlike you, I can’t do this sort of thinking on a schedule. I like to keep these ideas in the back of my mind and I take them out from time to time and mull over them or discuss them with friends,

    • Anne says:

      Will and I were laughing about that: I’m a slow runner so the only time I’ll EVER be a sprinter or miler is hypothetically speaking.

      And glad to hear you don’t feel crazy. 🙂

  3. Tiffany says:

    I always say I’m a slow cooker. There are bursts of activity (like getting the food in the crockpot and finishing up the meal when it’s done), but in between there’s a lot of time that looks like nothing is happening. Without that “cook” time though, there’d be no finished product.

  4. liz n. says:

    I had to smile at the “long runway” comment. When it comes to conversation, I will listen and talk to a person for hours if the conversation happens to take that journey. When it comes to explanation, I give the information as succinctly as possible, and am known to interrupt someone who veers into (what I consider) extraneous detail so we can get to the nuts and bolts of the thing. I don’t even have a runway; it’s more like a helipad! People like me need to keep in mind that we can be far more frustrating to deal with than you think you are, Anne!

  5. Hannah says:

    What’s interesting to me is that I was trained to be a marathoner because I’m a classically trained cellist. Achieving any type of success in that realm requires consistent, focused practice, and developing a tolerance for imperfection in the day-to-day. As I apply that to my writing, I try to make sure I have daily writing practice–and it’s often slow and kinda ugly. In that sense, I feel like a marathoner, a slow and steady kind of girl. But, on the other hand, a deadline does bring something else out in me, something that feels like terror but can produce different, more creative results. It’s just that I feel panic with my back against the wall, along with bursts of inspiration. So I honestly don’t know what I am, or if what we are is, at least in some regard, due to nurture and not just nature.

  6. Anne says:

    I will be interested to see how this works out for you. For example, would you leave at least one whole Saturday open for big house projects? Like once a month? I suppose that assumes you’ll have at least one big house burst of energy. I am definitely not a marathoner. I am a sprinter. Once I get my mindset on a project, I become intensely focused.

    • Anne says:

      Hmmm. I’ll be interested to see how this works out for me, too. 🙂 Right off the bat I know that we hardly ever do the same thing for one whole Saturday, so probably no to that. With writing, I plan my “bursts.” With house stuff, I wing it. It works out—mostly.

  7. Kristi says:

    I think this is something good for me to think through. My husband often gets frustrated at my lack of project completion. I know deadlines help me because I don’t want to fail. However, if I do miss a “deadline,” I tend to just give up because I feel like I’ve already missed it so I might as well miss it big. Maybe this will be a good conversation to have with his insight so he knows how to best encourage me and I know how to best motivate myself!

  8. Allison says:

    I feel ya! When I was making each of my son’s senior scrapbooks before their high school graduations, I never started before March or April… and each book spanned their whole lives! But each book was finished in about 3 weeks (and I wasn’t pulling stuff from other scrapbooks either. Each book was “from scratch”). However, I had spent the months prior keeping the projects in the back of my mind, mulling it over and imagining the finished scrapbook forever. By the time I was ready to actually create each one, on the OUTSIDE it looked like I had procrastinated, but I had actually planned the whole thing, start to finish in my mind. What looked like a mad dash was just me winding up a project I’d been working on for months!!

    • Anne says:

      “What looked like a mad dash was just me winding up a project I’d been working on for months!!”

      I completely understand. Great example.

  9. Thank you so much for this! It explains some things I’ve never understood about myself! I resonate a lot with what you described. I’ve always called my slow mulling procrastinating, where now I see that I can look at it as part of my planning process and a positive thing! I’ll definitely be using this new self-knowledge.

    • Danae says:

      I agree 100% with this comment. I’ve always written off my “slow mulling” as procrastination or decision fatigue. And while I do sometimes experience those, often I just need time to weigh the various options and approaches. The process is vital to figuring out my true goals and what I hope to achieve. Once I’ve got more clarity, I execute the project with intensity and speed.

  10. Kathy Ericksen says:

    I take time to process change, but when I finally make a decision I’m ready to go. Love your blog, one of my favorite things to read.

  11. Heather Anna says:

    I think of myself as a “look before you leap” type of person – and my husband is too. We’re also both quiet, need time to mull things over, and really keep the big decisions to ourselves while we ponder, mostly just confiding in each other and not to people outside our marriage. The end result is that to outsiders, we look like completely insane, foolish leapers! I have a dozen examples that look like this (which happened eight wonderful years ago):
    “What do you mean, you’re engaged!? You met him 9 months ago!”
    “Well, I’ve had 9 months to think quite seriously about it…”

    A lot of people I know are talkers-not-doers. They talk, talk, talk about something, and it never comes to pass. Nothing wrong with that; some people like to think out loud, get feedback, back away from unwise decisions, etc. But it does throw those people for a loop when DH and I appear to be rushing into something without having thought (out loud, at least) about it for a while.

    • Anne says:

      Very interesting thoughts on talkers-not-doers. I know a lot of people like this, too, and I’ve been thinking it over in the light of Gretchen Rubin’s obligers/upholders/questioners/rebels. These thoughts are interesting, especially the contrast with your own nature.

  12. Vanessa says:

    This is fascinating! I am definitely one to think about a project for a while and then be ready for action in seemingly no time. I’m afraid I catch my husband off guard sometimes because my process is so internal that I know I’ve gotten all (or at least most) of the details figured out, but he just experiences the shock of me leaping into the thing. Then I want to finish the whole thing in one fell swoop, even to the point of fudging things a bit as to have it completed. Fascinating. Thanks so much for sharing!

  13. PreK Teacher says:

    My husband and I are both long-term “ponderers”. We are on day 5 of a huge indoor paint project that we have talked about for almost two years. I am SO HAPPY to be getting this checked off our list!

    • Anne says:

      You’ve talked about it for 5 years and you’re actually doing it right now?! That’s fantastic! Congrats and I hope it’s finished very soon. 🙂

  14. Beth says:

    I have a friend who summarizes what’s needed for home projects perfectly.

    She says, you must have:
    1)time
    2)funds
    3)creative “ooomph”
    ….all at the same time.

    She adds that’s when raising a young family it’s rare to have that happen all at once.

  15. I’m not positive, but I think I’m pretty much just a steady plodder. I tend to do things pretty consistently and steadily, and most of the things I do are fairly planned in advance.

    I do have SORT of a flurry of projects in the summer, but I do a bunch of stuff then because I know we don’t have school for those months and I anticipate the free time.

    But even all of the projects are listed and planned. 😉

    I’m so glad your girls had an easy time picking a color. It took us eight paint samples and 4 trips to the paint store to finally find a color that satisfied both of them.

    • Anne says:

      I love your description of your working style.

      I think I just lucked out with both these paint colors. It took me four tries to get the lavender right in my girls’ old room! (And the fourth time was only successful because the in-house decorator at the paint store pointed me in the right direction. She was kind enough to tell me that “purples are hard.”)

  16. I found this really interesting. When it comes to projects, and the assignments I had in college, I am a sprinter…at the start! I’ve always thrived on starting something as soon as it is assigned and finishing it ASAP. I think it may come from a kind of fear or insecurity. While it works for me, I’m learning in my adult life to be a little more relaxed, because that allows me to better collaborate with others, something I’ve never been good at previously.

  17. Debra G says:

    I would say I’m a sprinter. Even though I get really stressed, I work best under pressure. I always have. In fact, I often don’t get much of anything done without some outside imposed deadline. I always have good intentions, but then life gets away from me.
    My example would be birthday parties. My husband and boys say I make awesome birthday parties, but they are usually put together within a couple of weeks for the actual party. This year, I put together the parties within a few days. Whew!

  18. I totally get the idea of being somewhere in the middle… I know I am a procrastinator… but I have trouble making a final decision on anything until crunch time… so it stalls my progress… and then at the end I’ll just make all the decisions at once and finish whatever project it is… I always thought it was just me procrastinating, but maybe instead it is me having to mull things over for a while before I can go ahead… Hmmm… some food for thought… Thanks!

  19. I finally have accepted that I’m somewhere in between too – so much so that I’ve given myself the permission to say in conversation with someone “I’m not sure, I have to process that and get back with you.” The amazing freedom to not feel the pressure to decide something in-the-moment has brought about more of what is me, and unburdened me from just saying what I think they want to hear.

    When it comes to progress and making big changes in my life – we too just moved and have taken on more projects than we can possibly finish in a year’s time – I’m finally learning how to break things down into small bit-sized pieces which has grown me into more of a marathoner, maybe? Stretching my capacity to one more quarter mile at a time?

    Also, I’d love your thoughts on why “There was no Pinterest involved.” This made me smile because I just wrote about making peace with Pinterest.

  20. Cassie says:

    I’m probably in between. I have the impulsive nature of a sprinter, but that normally doesn’t turn out well for me. So I try to be patient with big decisions or projects.

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