Why Improvement is like a 1000 Piece Puzzle
At some time in your life, you’ve probably done one of those 1000+ piece puzzles that sucks you in and takes up your life for a week or so. When I was a kid, my family would do them together, and to start, we would look at the picture on the front of the box and each pick a specific section to work on. This way, usually, we managed to finish the puzzle in a number of evenings so we could leave it on the dining room table and admire our work for a few weeks before starting our next 1000 piece project.
Training to improve your health or performance is similar to putting together a 1000 piece puzzle in that there are many factors that have to be put into place to make you your best athlete or best self – so many more factors than are immediately obvious. Consequently, improving your health and fitness can be more energy-consuming and require more mental engagement than we initially expect or prepare for.
If something isn’t clicking for you in the gym, on the court/field, or on the scale, take a step back, consider the puzzle as a whole, and pick one section to focus on with undivided attention. Look at that picture on the box – in other words, look at your goal, your ideal self or performance – and then look back at the puzzle, with all its pieces scattered across the table. Which section needs your immediate attention? In fitness and training, we often refer to this as the “lowest hanging fruit” – the easiest change you can make that will produce the most dramatic results.
If you’re set on losing weight, this might be cutting out soda. You’ll lose weight by just cutting that one habit, no questions asked. If you’re an elite cyclist trying to boost your training volume, maybe it’s addressing a lazy glute that has been plaguing you for months but you just haven’t given it attention. Focusing on rebuilding that strength might take awhile, but it will allow you to train at a higher level.
Both of these scenarios – whether you’re breaking a deeply ingrained soda habit or retraining a damaged muscle – may take weeks, months or even (if you’re an athlete) an entire season. You might be asking, why would I focus on just one piece when I could work on improving them all? Well, try tackling that 1000 piece puzzle all at once, and let me know how it works out.
I tell the distance runners I work with that if they’re seeing a lull in their performance, we’re going to analyze the puzzle and pick a weak section to work on, no matter how long it takes. Likewise, if you’ve got a habit that is holding you back from becoming your healthiest self, maybe it’s time to pick up those specific pieces, carry them to another corner of the table, and give them your full attention so that you can one day finish the puzzle.