Pacing Yourself – It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

This is the third in our blog series with Business Psychologist and Coach, Charlotte Sheridan.

Running a business is hard work – if it was easy everyone would do it. And the stark truth is that most new ventures don’t make it. Statistics from Small Business Trends (USA) show that of the small businesses that set up in 2014: 

  • 80% made it to the second year (2015)   
  • 70% made it to the third year (2016)  
  • 62% made it to the fourth year (2017)  
  • And only 56% made it to the fifth year (2018)  

By 2019 this would be a fail-rate of about 50%. These are difficult figures to read if you’re an entrepreneur. But you believe in your product, right? You think your service is worth pursuing? If that’s a yes, then what can you do to succeed?  

How you beat the odds and make your business succeed

One useful area to watch is how your pace can impact your performance. Years ago I did a half marathon for charity. I hadn’t run for years so I got some help from a personal trainer. One of the first things she taught me was pace.  

But I had a hard lesson many years before. I was 11 and it was Sports Day. My mum and dad had high expectations – my grandfather had run in the Olympics fifty years before. I wasn’t a good runner, but I was competitive and wanted to impress them. So, I set off at an incredible speed and was quickly at the front of the pack.  

My parents were clearly excited and I knew their imaginations would be going wild – podiums and ribbons were in sight. So I pushed myself even more and the gap got wider. Would this be the fastest I’d ever run? The cheers went up. Just a handful of parents, but it felt like a stadium roar to me. And then I hit a wall. I completely ran out of steam. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t run, my legs turned to jelly and the roar was now in my chest. Three minutes into the race I just gave up and stopped.  

Back in the 1970’s there was little training. We wore tennis shoes for running and didn’t drink much water! No one told me about pace. It didn’t understand what stamina was – I just thought you had to go fast. And I was a hare, not a tortoise. 

Finding the right working pace

In my earlier career, just like on that Sports Day, I was always throwing myself into a task and giving up too soon because I ran out of energy. It’s something I’m still working on today. Trying to find a pace to matches my enthusiasm but one that’s sustainable. 

This is one way I keep track – I imagine a project or task as a race.  

Short sprint (or when a deadline is looming):

Research has shown that an optimal pace when you’re sprinting is to go slightly faster at the start (3% quicker than normal). It’s OK to push a bit harder and work extra hours – but only for a short time. If you drive yourself too hard for too long, you’ll reduce your performance. In fact, when runners run 6% faster than normal they fail to finish the race at all. 

So don’t over-do it. If you’re pulling late-nighters for weeks on end your work will suffer. So will your health. Keep an eye on how you’re doing physically. Pay attention to your eating, exercise and sleep. Here are two people who didn’t – one nearly lost a leg and the other had a life-changing seizure.

Marathon (or when you have months of hard work ahead):

Pacing for a marathon is the opposite. Successful marathon runners pace themselves 3% slower for the first few miles. Inexperienced runners talk about “putting time in the bank” – running faster at the start to make up for going slower at the end. But this has the reverse effect. World record holders always run the first half of their race slower than the second.  

I’ve been interviewing 100 people who have left or are leaving their paid jobs behind. One of my interviewees used to push himself incredibly hard. Previously I just got in the boxing ring and I kept going until the fight was over.” Nowadays he does things differently, “I get into the ring and say, ‘I have to break this up into rounds.’ So I give myself short breaks. We have more nights away. We go to more concerts. I’m breaking up the difficult parts of the job with more interventions that are restorative.” 

Being an entrepreneur is a marathon. You’ll need to put in months of hard sweat to get your business up and running. Then, if it’s successful, there’ll many more months of hard graft to keep it all going. So you pace yourself in a sustainable way. Remember which race you’re in. 

Pressure: friend or foe?

The second area is the impact of pressure on your performance. When you’re working on something you enjoy, when the challenge is high, it’s exciting and interesting and it will stretch you. Then you’re in a state called “Flow.” You won’t notice the time passing and you’ll feel full of energy. But to get into this state you need to manage the pressure and effort.  


PsychologistsRobert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson developed the Yerkes Dodson law. It says that performance will increase as effort goes up, but only up to a point. Test yourself too much too quickly and your performance will go down.

Different people will have different points of boredom, flow and burnout. It depends on your skills, experience and what you enjoy. Try and keep as much as possible in the Flow state. Do this by monitoring the pressure you’re feeling. If you’re edging towards the stressful end, make sure you give yourself breaks so you can rest (both physically and mentally).  

Try to stop thinking for a while – take time out to do something relaxing, enjoyable or just completely different. Our brains use up a large amount of energy. They make up only 2% of our body weight but use up 20% of our energy.  

Calming a stressed mind

Another of my interviewees works in a very high-pressured environment. He uses mindfulness and breathing techniques. Those moments when other people might panic, I just step away, take a deep breath, visualise what it would feel like to be awarded the business… that’s really helpful at 11.30 the night before, when you’ve got another three hours of work.”  

Meditation, exercise, being out in nature are all good as they increase alpha waves in our brains. This helps us to feel calm and relaxed, reducing stress and anxiety. But when you don’t have time for these, just get up and stretch your legs for a few minutes. Sometimes this can be enough.  

Conquering boredom

If you’re at the bored end, add in some pressure. 

Set a timer to give yourself a mini deadline or stretch yourself more in the kind of work you’re doing. Some people find working on a number of projects means they can keep themselves motivated. By rotating across the projects, they keep engaged. But don’t confuse rotating through projects with multi-tasking. 

Keep focused on one project at a time and do only that. Then move to another task and do only that. Psychological research shows that too much multi-tasking is actually just constantly switching. This is very tiring and can affect your memory, increase your stress and distractibility, and it can impact your intelligence longer term.  

So overall, pay attention to how you’re feeling. Keep yourself motivated by rotating projects. And most of all, remember to pace yourself as you’re in a marathon not a sprint. To find out more about these topics read this.

Charlotte Sheridan

Charlotte Sheridan is a Business Psychologist and Coach. She’s also been through the highs and lows of setting up several businesses. Click here to find out more about her project where she interviewed 100 people changing their career or becoming entrepreneurs.