Learning to run your own race

I don’t enjoy competing against others.

When my competitive instincts kick in, I feel like a desperado. It’s an old feeling from childhood where I feel like I’m constantly falling short (not good enough or smart enough).

Over the past few years, I’ve trained myself to focus on running my own race. I’ve had to learn to do things my way. As it turns out, when you live this way you feel better about yourself and less anxious too.

When I was 17 years old, I was struggling to figure out what I wanted to do with my life (“Should I be at Law school? Should I quit and get a job?”).

To keep depression at bay, I forced myself to exercise in the park every Sunday.

That’s where I met a wise woman who happened to be a family lawyer.

Over the course of a year, we became friends exercising in the park. I confided in her that I was struggling at university.

“I’m not sure if Law school is the place for me”, I said.

I also mentioned to her that I had failed my first test but I stopped short of telling her my mark (only 5%).

It must have been obvious that I was in need of a bit of a confidence boost because the following Sunday she rocked up to the park with an old record in her hand.

The track was called I’ve gotta be me.

She said “This is for you. Listen to it when you get a chance”.

Back in those days, there was no Spotify or music streaming services. In order to listen to this record, I had to go to Cash Converters (a secondhand pawn shop) and purchase a clunky stereo system with a record player.

I listened to the song hoping to have some earth shattering realisation about what to do with my life. And when it never came, I listened to it again and again. Still nothing.

“What is she trying to say to me with this song?” I cried.

Looking back, it’s so obvious what she was trying to say (“Be yourself! Follow your dreams! Don’t give up!”).

The problem was I was treating listening to this song like it was an assignment to analyse a poem or a piece of abstract art. I was overthinking it.

Looking back, it didn’t matter that I didn’t fully understand the lyrics. I was really touched by this lawyer’s kind gesture.

Law school felt like such a cold and competitive place at times. Coming from a working class family, it was easy to feel like you were invisible and didn’t belong there.

Yet here was this woman (a successful family lawyer) encouraging me to be myself and keep going. That meant a lot to me.

Two decades later as I listen to the track, I get it.

It’s powerful to live life on your own terms.

What they don’t teach you in school is it’s far more rewarding to collaborate and cooperate and forge your own path forward in life than it is to compete against others and follow the herd.

It’s also a lot more fun and energising to run your own race and focus on your own progress.

How to live life on your own terms

It’s possible to run your own race, even if you have shaky confidence. In fact, running your own race will help you to build rock solid confidence. So the sooner you learn to do this, the better.

Here’s how you do it . . .

Instead of competing and comparing yourself against your friends or some other poor soul in your class or workplace, start competing against yourself. Compare you to you.

A simple habit you can develop is tracking your wins each day in a notebook. I do this just before going to bed (my notebook is on my bedside table).

This simple practice helps build momentum. As Dr Benjamin Hardy says “[When you cultivate this habit] you feel like you’re always winning and making progress.”

If you write down three wins every day, by the end of the week you’ll have 21 wins down on paper. If you keep this practice up and look back over your entries, something shifts. Instead of feeling like a desperado, you’ll be feeling like a champion.

You versus the Digital Timer

If you must have some opponent to compete against, make your opponent an electronic timer. Challenge yourself to compete against the timer.

“Can I empty this laundry basket (putting away my clothes) in under 5 minutes?”
“Can I vacuum the house in under 12 minutes?”
“How many words can I get down on the page in 25 minutes? Let’s go!”

When I’m lacking motivation, this is one way I get moving with various tasks. Timers can also help you stay focused on a task for a period of time and time your rest breaks.

You versus the Song (or Playlist)

Another way you can challenge yourself is with music. You can create a 25 minute or hour long playlist and use it to time your work sessions. If it’s a small task you need to complete (under 5 minutes), use an upbeat song to help you get it done.

In The Ultimate Time Management Toolkit Risa Williams recommends selecting songs with no lyrics and that don’t have any sad emotions associated with them. When it comes to your schoolwork, try to keep the music light and upbeat without being overly distracting.

Don’t push yourself too hard

The biggest mistake people can make when it comes to achieving their goals and creating new habits is to push themselves too hard.

I’ve been sitting at this computer for over an hour and I’ve ignored the last two timers that have gone off. Why? Because I’m in a flow state. When I started writing this blog, it was slow and painful. But now the ideas are flowing and I’m into it.

But I know I need to stop soon. If I don’t, I’m going to fry my brain.

As Greg McKeown says:

“You’re trying make sure that you don’t use up more mental energy than you can recuperate each day and each week. You want to be able to sustain the pace and get the job done. This is in contrast to being intermittent in your effort when you go big for a couple of days and then you can’t even work on it after that because you fried your brain, and you can’t get back to it.”

In a nutshell, think of this race you’re running as being a marathon (not a 100 metre sprint). Pace yourself.

Watch out: Social media can take you out of the race

Spending too much time on social media or following the wrong people online is the equivalent of pulling a hamstring when you’re out running your own race. It will mess with your mind and take you off course.

One of the problems with social media is it is designed to have you engage in upward comparisons. It puts you in a state of mind where you are constantly seeking approval from others.

Instead of focusing on what you need to do to move forward with your goals, you’re wasting time and energy following what others are doing. You get pulled into the outrage machine. Very quickly you can lose sight of your goals.

When you spend too much time on social media, your perception of reality also gets warped. Being exposed to envy inducing perfect pictures and posting only the best parts of our lives can make us forget that life is indeed very messy! In the book Disconnect Jordan Guiao explains:

“It is travel without the sixteen-hour flight, the fit body without the six-days a week workout regime and birthday parties without the crying babies. These approximations of reality start to become our new normal. As we edit out the messiness and ugliness of real life, we begin to forget that this messiness and ugliness exists for others too.”

Guiao recommends asking yourself whether the people you are following add value to your life. He says:

“Periodically reassess who you follow on social media and why. Is an influencer offering valuable advice and insights or just posting pretty pictures that make you feel bad about yourself? Do you think about their content when you’re offline? Does it serve you to comment on others’ posts if you are only doing it to seek their approval? What are you gaining from these interactions – and what are you losing?”

When you decide to ditch the pretty pictures and unfollow the influencers, you’ll notice a dramatic shift in how you feel about yourself and how you’re tracking in life.

To sum up

If you’re like me, competing against others will leave you feeling desperate, insecure, and chaotic. So, why not start playing your own game?

Stay true to yourself. Do it your way. Set your own rules and path.

Using a timer or a song can be a simple way to get moving with a task. Reducing time spent on social media will help you to stay focused on what you truly want without getting distracted by all the noise and drama that’s playing out online.