On bus benches and park benches
I’ve been intending to write this article for some time, long before COVID19 sent the world into chaos. I’m now on my second day of work from home and trying to settle into a new kind of normal, one that seems like it’s going to be with us for some time. This describes one mental model which I’m finding useful right now.
Dan John is a strength and conditioning coach that I have learned a lot from as I have worked to fix old injuries, combat middle age spread, and generally take better care of this body of mine. Although he works with the elite – pro American footballers and special forces soldiers – he also offers refreshingly reasonable advice on strength and fitness for average folk.
Dan John notes that there’s two kinds of fitness regime: the bus bench and the park bench. On the bus bench, you have clear expectations of what success looks like. Your aim is to be at the same bus stop at the same time, every day. If you miss the bus, your day is ruined. Athletes preparing for a big competition are on the bus bench. They know what they want to achieve, when they want to achieve it, and every step they need to take to get there.
On the park bench, on the other hand, you have no specific expectations and time doesn’t matter much at all. Some things might be the same as yesterday, but if they’re not you’re not terribly concerned. You may not even be at the same park bench from day to day. Dan John argues that for most people’s fitness needs, a park bench program of moderate, varied exercise is more effective, more sustainable, and better for us than a bus bench workout.
In addition to following this advice with regard to exercise, in the last couple of years I’ve learned to apply similar a similar mental model to my PhD and professional work. Sometimes I have a firm deadline and a key deliverable, like a report due to my boss, a manuscript draft due to an editor, or an ethics application. I need to be clear on my goals, develop strategies for getting the work done, and apply self-discipline to manage my time and attention. For me, like most people, being on the bus bench too often or for too long is incredibly stressful and exhausting, especially when working to someone else’s timetable.
Recently I have learned the importance of time spent on the intellectual and professional park bench. Reading out of curiosity rather than necessity, roaming around the boundaries of my work, or re-visiting things I read a long time ago. Keeping a journal, writing reading notes, jotting random ideas down, putting down fat outlines. Playing with a new tool or experimenting with a new method. Casual chats with friends and colleagues, or sitting in the campus coffee shop and seeing who happens by.
Without being too romantic about it, the park bench is where I have made connections that I didn’t notice when I was full of anxious energy at the bus stop. Where I have more time to pursue an avenue of thought that I know has promise but isn’t immediately important (though sometimes it actually is). Where I am, put simply, more relaxed and more receptive to deep thought.
Of course, there’s a thin line between the park bench and procrastination, wandering and getting lost. It took me some time to calibrate where that line sits with me, but I’m getting there. I find myself revisiting Dan John’s articles on the bus bench and park bench and reflecting on where I need to be now and at certain times into the future.
With COVID19 causing unprecedented havoc, the bus bench is where many of us need to be as we plan and prepare to cope with this serious global disruption. We’re trying to look after our families and communities but also to transition, some more rapidly than others, into a new way of working. Many are using the phrase “business as usual” but really, the current situation is anything but. We need to remind ourselves that a missed bus or two is entirely understandable and of course inevitable if the buses stop running at all. The stress this causes will take a toll on our mental and physical health which will only get worse as time drags on.
We need to make time for ourselves and those around us to spend some time on the park bench during all this, especially if we are in leadership positions where we can influence the schedule others are trying to work to. Look after yourself and those around you. Let your colleagues and students know that you care about their health and wellbeing more than you do about the details of their work.
Resources for looking after your headspace
Looking after your mental health during the coronavirus outbreak (Beyond Blue)
Coronavirus COVID-19: How to look after your mental health when working from home (ABC)
Coronavirus: psychologists offer advice for maintaining positive mental health (Australian Psychological Society)