What if I asked you out on a run and said we’re going to do four solid miles. We push the pace a bit, but settle into a rhythm we can comfortably handle for the distance. Now imagine that as we pass the three-mile mark, feeling strong and in control heading into the final mile, I said, “Just kidding, we’re actually doing 10.”
How would that same pace feel then? How tired would you feel compared to how you felt a few seconds ago when you thought you were nearly done?
Considerable research shows that how we experience fatigue isn’t just based on biological signals from our muscles, but is a complex system of evaluation designed to prevent bodily harm and ensure optimal performance. One of the key elements of that evaluation is duration; by knowing the finish line and how far we have to go until we get there, our brains calculate how fast we can go and tell us how tired we are.
But what if the finish line is unknown? Studies show that, lacking an end point, not only does the same effort feel harder than if we know how far we’re going, our bodies will also reduce the level of effort we’re able to put out in order to conserve energy for that unknown possibility. And, in a study that replicated the “what if” scenario above, when runners who were told they were going to run 10 minutes at a set pace, then, when the 10 minutes were up, had to keep going for another 10 minutes, their perceived effort during the second 10 minutes was significantly higher than when they knew from the beginning that it would last 20 minutes — even though they were running the same pace for the same distance both times.
Paralyzed by Uncertainty
Our lives these days resemble that diabolical study: Like the rest of the country, on March 16 my company announced that we would work remotely for two weeks. On March 25 that finish line was moved back three weeks to April 17. Before we reached that date it was moved back another six weeks. We’re still operating remotely, still running this strange race with no end in sight.