Are You a Marathoner, a Sprinter, a Procrastinator? Weigh In.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post, Are you a tortoise or a hare about work?

It was about the question of whether you’d prefer to work fewer hours over more days, or more hours over fewer days.

I’ve been thinking more about this distinction. First point: I’m re-naming these categories “marathoners and sprinters.”

A larger point: one reason that I’m a marathoner is that I really dislike deadlines. I really, really, really don’t like to have work hanging over me. For instance, when I was in law school, I had two major writing requirements to fulfill by the end of my third year, and I completed them both by the end of my first year.  (Sidenote: perhaps my eagerness to write big papers could have been perceived as a sign that I would rather be a writer than a lawyer, but that’s another story.) I know I could never be a journalist, because I wouldn’t be able to take the deadlines.

Having a big deadline at the end of a very long period–as with a book–is fine, because it gives marathon-me plenty of time. I like to do a little work over a long period of time, with a lot of opportunity to reflect and research and refine, and ample margin in case some emergency prevents me from working.

However, I know that many people need deadlines to work. Sprinters, am I right in assuming that deadlines are important to your process? Is it too much of a stretch to call you deadline-dependent–that is, you won’t start your sprint until the deadline looms?

Also, it seems to me that there’s a difference between sprinters and procrastinators. Agree, disagree?

From my observation, sprinters deliberately wait for the pressure of a deadline to help clarify their thinking. For instance, a friend told me, “I never prepare a talk until right before I have to give it–I mean, people are in their seats and I’m standing waiting to go out to a podium. It drives my staff crazy, but that’s when I get all my ideas.” Another friend has a book to write, but she won’t start until a few months before it’s due. She likes to sprint, and she knows how long it will take her to write the book, so she doesn’t want to start until she’ll feel the deadline pressure.

This  approach seems different from procrastination. With procrastination, people feel as though they should be working, and they wish they could work, but somehow they can’t make themselves.  They aren’t choosing to hold back; they can’t force themselves forward until the deadline is so urgent that they must act. (Want tips to stop procrastinating? Look here.) How do procrastinators feel about the marathoners and sprinters? Many procrastinators seem to wish they could be marathoners, but maybe that’s not a good fit for their natures.

I’ve just started to consider these distinctions, however. What do you think? Marathoners, sprinters, procrastinators, or any combinations of the three, please weigh in.

  • peninith1

    I think that being a quilter is definitely a ‘marathoner’ hobby–you know darned well that you can’t make ‘a quilt in a day’ [no matter what quilt maven Eleanor Burns tries to tell you]. A quick coverlet can be thrown together in a weekend if there is a sudden need, but the real thing takes planning, and can take many weeks, months, or years to complete. Some very elaborate quilts, by masterpiece makers, take thousands of hours, which those quilters happily record in their logs as they work night after night and month after month for the ‘someday’ completion of their quilts. This is why I love to quilt. My quilts do not require thousands of hours, because I don’t have skills at that level. But I can start dreaming of a quilt now that won’t be finished for more than a year, and will lie fallow for weeks. I started piecing quilts long before I learned how to machine quilt, knowing that I would acquire the skill and finish the job. Someday DOES arrive. Sometimes I work towards a deadline. But I do not like to work under the gun. I like a good long time. When I was working and writing to deadlines, I often felt that I did my best work when the deadline was near, but I fear that truly was procrastination. No, I’m a marathoner at heart, and retirement allows me to indulge that way to be.

    • gretchenrubin

      This is an interesting point – that people may be drawn to activities or careers that play into this part of their nature – the way I would never be a journalist.

  • CoKat

    Definitely a procrastinator. Despite all my best efforts. Most of it due to being in a job that bores me. I was more of a marathoner and sprinter until I changed careers. In things I enjoy, I’m mostly a sprinter now. Give me too long to do something and I’m more likely to simply not do it If I went back to college, would likely be a marathoner once again because the quality of work is so much better in most instances.

  • Christy King

    Marathoner, for sure. I hate deadlines and try to do all my projects, whether work-related or around the house, a little at a time. I’d much rather spend a month painting my kitchen a little at a time than in one long weekend.

  • Christina

    I am someone who would much prefer to cram all my work in as short a period a time as possible… and then go do something else more fun. It’s more like I’m an “instant results” person– having to work on things twice (or more) annoys me, and things that don’t have perceptible, measurable progress bore me to tears (or worse, I quit them). In college, this sensitivity to time took the form of procrastination. It was not very pleasant to have constant deadlines in the back of my mind. These days, I tend to work on short things immediately to get that sense of accomplishment (and get them off my plate), and chunk up larger work into definable small pieces so I can still achieve the accomplishment feeling.

  • http://convergenceinthecommons.com/ Deborah Owen

    I LOVE that you finished your 3-year writing projects by the end of the first year! That is so like me! My kids think I’m crazy when I tell them that I always handed in my college papers one full period early (which usually meant 2-3 days early). It was partly brown-nosing, I admit, but also because I wanted to get it off my plate. Thanks for sharing these great stories!

  • Margaret M

    I like deadlines. Throughout school, though, I was always a true procrastinator with almost everything In my first year of full time work I really do understand why schooling really can’t substitute for work experience. In the workplace I don’t find myself really procrastinating, instead, I like to have a ton of things to do and then prioritize and just keep chugging along. I set my own deadline to the end of the day for my checklist of usually relatively small tasks. Does that make me a sprinter though?

  • Ashwin Sundaram

    Sprinter for sure. And yes, I agree that procrastinators are different from sprinters. Specially because, I like to wait till the deadline, not because I can’t start work, but because I like the pressure. For one, it helps in improved clarity of thinking, another is that it helps productivity largely.

  • Linda

    I’m a sprinter too!… I find the impending deadline helpful to my creative process… Especially when I’m blocked… I’m thinking of the project all along … But it jells with the pressure. Yes, it drove past bosses crazy, until they realized I always came through! they would just shake their heads and say… “don’t know how you do it… but it works!”

    Now… I do have issues with procrastination as well.. That I have worked on, and am much, much better! As soon as I put something off because I don’t like that task… I tell myself to knock it off! and get going. It’s a constant battle…but I’m winning it!

    (I’m suppose to be doing my tax assessment right now… guess I better Knock it off and get going!)

    • gretchenrubin

      It’s so interesting to read comments from the sprinter perspective. As a marathoner, I just DO NOT feel this way! Very helpful to understand this very different point of view.

  • priya

    A thoroughbred procrastinator! While you spoke of procrastinators wanting to be marathoners, I could so relate to that. The funny thing is that I do make an attempt each day to stretch myself…only to fall back!

  • patben1

    I’m a bit of everything depending on what the subject is! But I suppose the main thing is that I get there in the end!

  • Jill Brown

    Definitely a marathoner, but one with daily/weekly deadlines so I often have to write quickly. I try not to procrastinate, although I do sometimes. One of my credos on my manifesto is: Do it properly. Do it now. That helps!

  • Silvina Zitto

    A procrastinator :(
    and I don’t like it at all (I’m going to read your tips right now to work on that)… Your description is me…
    I think I could fit more as a marathoner than a sprinter.

  • Cristina Musat

    I am usually a sprinter – but i divide work in two categories – work with required external deadline and work without external deadline. For the first category, I am a sprinter – but I like to think that I am positively influenced by just-in-time methodology in doing so, not that I act as a procrastinator. For the other type of work, I am definitely a marathonist.

  • Mag

    Here’s a twist: I’m pretty sure I was a marathoner at work but after many years of marriage to someone with ADD (brain chemistry definitely makes him a procrastinator) and three children (one with ADD), I now operate — albeit uncomfortably — as a sprinter…. trying to get everything on my plate done as well as everything others are not doing all done by deadline. The balls are all in the air and on the way down and I am struggling to get to each. A related thought: Do true marathoners set false/early/interim deadlines to get the work done (like chunking down a task)… like you and your law school papers? OR, is that a sprinter functioning as/pretending to be a marathoner? Or maybe that’s how a procrastinator goes about changing his ways?

    • Megan Gordon

      As a marathoner, I absolutely set interim deadlines – the chunking thing. I figure out what needs to be done, how many days I have to do it and then break down what I have to do each work day to complete the task. I also set my deadline a couple of days early so I can let my work “marinate” overnight before I do final edits (I’m a writer), then have the work completed the day before it’s due. I build in that one contingency day in case something bizarre happens. (I’ve actually had some weird things happen that interefered with getting things done on time so I’m a bit paranoid.)
      I get antsy having a project hanging over my head, but I find that I if I schedule a certain amount to get done each day and meet that goal, I’m fine.

  • mab

    A marathoner in some things, a sprinter in others? A marathoner who turned into a sprinter? In college I had strong marathoner tendencies — when four papers were due at the end of the semester, I staggered them over a month. I think I prefer to work that way. But somewhere along the way I learned that sprinting to produce under deadline worked, too — and not badly. So I sprint a lot to external deadlines. I have a harder time being a marathoner to internal deadlines. Perhaps this overlaps with your obliger, upholder, rebel or questioner categories? Is one type more likely to be a sprinter and another a marathoner?

  • ciaofa

    One helpful aspect of being a marathoner, especially when you work on projects which involve other people (which may not quite qualify for defining one’s true m vs s nature), is that you may start a task, find part way in that you need something from someone else, so you can ask for that and then work on other things while waiting for that answer. If you had waited till closer to the end, then you would be feeling much more pressure having that delay!

  • Ed

    I am a proud Tortise and Marathoner (for long term goals)! Slow and steady (or consistent) wins the race. Though in life with children and deadlines for the short term goals (say, cutting the grass or cleaning) its almost always the opposite. Though you can plan all you want you will always find yourself in a sprint at some point in time. Its a balancing act!

  • ella

    I’m a marathoner, and I have found that it is very important to my happiness that I be able to indulge my marathoning tendencies. When I was a junior associate, I worked at a firm where the partners wouldn’t look at anything until the night before it was due and then you’d be editing the brief up until the hour before it had to be filed. I found that miserable. Now that I’m usually in charge, my mantra is that we must “frontload the pain”: we’ll work late two weeks before the brief is due so that it can be perfect several days before it’s due, but I don’t ever want to be editing something at the last minute. I have also found that marathoning is the best way for me to balance children and career: it allows me to avoid many (not all) emergencies and create greater predictability at home.

    • http://www.ScheduleMakeover.com/ Elizabeth Grace Saunders

      I completely agree with your philosophy. I try to give myself personal deadlines before the actual deadline so if things take longer I don’t need to work late to make a deadline.

      To your brilliance!

      Elizabeth

  • Sadye

    I think I’m a mix of both — I don’t think that it takes a looming deadline to get me to go, but I do absolutely LOVE deadlines, and after five-plus years working in journalism, I can’t imagine having a job that isn’t largely centered on a daily deadline.

  • Annie

    I think there is overlap between this marathoner/sprinter distinction and what i call people who like and need to plan and people for whom the future is vague and mist covered and only the present is in vivid technicolor.

  • Megan Gordon

    I’m a marathoner, and I love deadlines. It’s really hard to plot your moves when you dont’ know what the end game is – having a deadline takes the pressure off for me. An open-ended project will have me acting like a sprinter, which I do not care for.

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes, deadlines are necessary to provide a frame for action, but do you find the PRESSURE of deadlines to be helpful? Or more the idea of a distant deadline? I agree, it’s helpful to have an endpoint, but I hate to be working close to that endpoint, I like to be done well in advance. Sprinters depend on the pressure of deadlines.

      • Megan Gordon

        Decidedly not. The pressure drives me crazy, hence the planning. If I have a plan and just focus today, I can forget that there’s a deadline looming.
        I can’t help but wonder if you are really some subtype of sprinter – the fact that you like to be done well in advance. Marathoner calls to mind someone who goes slow and steady, not someone who’s rushing to finish.

  • Jennie

    I think I’m a mixture of both marathoner and sprinter. I’ll make a start on a piece of work soon after it has been given to me, then I’ll leave it to near the deadline to complete.

  • PS

    I have had difficulty putting myself into any category. It depends on the task. Clean closets? Procrastinate. Work on exciting work project? Marathon. Presentation on a topic I know very well? Sprinter.
    However for the purpose of my job: I used to have a manager who would ask for a detailed report at 4:00 in the afternoon and tell me it had to be done by 10:00 the next morning. I got really good at cranking out those reports. And I also got really good at asking her WHY the late notice (I figured if I was going to work all night, she at least owed me that). Turns out her boss was a procrastinator and would ask for the reports at the last minute.
    Procrastinating on my personal stuff is one thing, how it impacts the downstream effect of employees working under me is certainly something else. The idea of “front-loading” as described in another post is a great strategy.

    • gretchenrubin

      My sister told me a great saying, “Your lack of planning is not my emergency.”

  • TJ

    I have always described myself as a procrastinator, but really only with tasks that have a lot of pressure (like writing). I hate deadlines. Invariably, if there was too much pressure, I would shut down. The minute the deadline was past, I would zoom ahead and finish easily. So, perhaps there is another factor at play with procrastinators than just how to manage time?

  • aleishacd

    I am a procrastinator. I think one of our issues is that we tend to want to think of ourselves as sprinters and tell people/ourselves we work best under pressure when it’s not necessarily true. It took me a long time to understand that it’s just the fact that I procrastinate and my work is really about the same whether I start way ahead or wait til the last minute. I wish I could do a little each day on a project like a marathoner but I’ve found that I get bored and tired of a project that seems to go on forever. So, instead, I’ve basically forced myself to sprint even though I don’t really like that either and end up regretting not starting earlier.

    • gretchenrubin

      Hmmm… perhaps procrastination is a separate issue, that hits marathoners and sprinters alike.
      If so, if you’re procrastinating, it would be very helpful to know your inclination, because you’d know how better how to work on the procrastination. E.g., if you’re a sprinter-type, fighting procrastination with a marathon plan of action might be very unsuitable.
      Or what do people think??? Procrastinators, weigh in.

  • KatieB

    When I am performing at my optimum, I usually have lot of things going on at once in a somewhat hectic, sprinter fashion. Seemingly I am doing all of the work at the end near the deadline, but in actuality I have been working internally (mulling things over in my head, planning, analyzing) for months and months. When I feel like I have got everything in order in my head, I get to the actual work of getting it done. I kind of resent those from the other side (my husband) who sees the pre-tangible work as not working. When I do get to the work, it just flows in a quick fashion like a sprinter.

    For example, we moved into our house 3 years ago and haven’t landscaped the wood chipped ridden yard at all. I just didn’t know what I wanted to do. I talked about it and planned and talked and did nothing, much to the chagrin of my mother-in-law. We just got started about a month ago and now everything is just falling into place.

    I have a hard time “chunking” up my work. Maybe I see things more holistically? Maybe I hate to start doing something for fear that it won’t be perfect, so I have to wait until the time crunch to force me into imperfection?

    I am the kind of person who has 12 tabs open in her browser when working. I have 20 boards on pinterest with thousands of pins in each board. I haven’t done very many of the projects, but I like to gather, gather, gather ideas. I don’t like to do something that was someone else’s idea. I work hard, but might appear to others to be wasting my time.

    I wish I was a marathoner though. I am never on-time.

  • Faith A. Colburn

    I’m retired now, so I have no work deadlines. I’ve just published a memoir about a family striving over generations to find happiness and I’m writing a novel based upon the lives of two people from that memoir. BUT, I get distracted by all the other things I love to do. I think I miss deadlines, not the up close, in-your-face kind of deadlines, but the marathoner kind. Having no structure just makes it way too easy to put off the work you want to do and I fear I’ll run out of life to do them. Bottom line: I guess I’m a marathoner.

  • Jen

    There is a third group called “incubators”. Several articles have been written about incubators: people who work fast at the last minute but submit superior quality work. They use the lead up time to mentally formulate a plan for the task.

    • gretchenrubin

      That is a sprinter in my vocabulary.

    • peninith1

      I think I am an ‘incubator’ about decisions and research. To others, I appear to make lightning fast and rather impulsive decisions. When I myself look back, however, I usually see that my ‘snap’ decision has been rolling around in the back of my head gathering momentum and detail for a long time. Then it just appears to pop out of nowhere.

      My friend on the other hand does a lot of conscious research and lines up all the details. I think he finds it very entertaining. I would find it really stressful.

  • phoenix

    The names seems counter-intuitive to me. I work for very long time periods, and yes, I do like deadlines. However, in law school, when we did the cramming at the end for long periods of time, we call them “marathon study sessions.” Yesterday was a 17-hour day for me–what we refer to as a marathon day. Working long days requires a lot of endurance but you have no chance to rest. I don’t feel like the work is being done “fast”–it is probably at the same pace. (In writing, one can only type so fast.) However, when one works/runs/etc for long periods of time, there is a mental preparation you need in order to keep going and going and going. A sprinter works through short bursts. In sprint training, you stretch, warm up, sprint, rest, repeat. It is the ability to rest in-between that really distinguishes the two. However, I’ll use the terms as you define them.

    To me, I am not sure there is a distinction between procrastinators and sprinters. There are definitely times when I wish I was more like a marathon-runner–that I could work as effectively if I put in a set number of hours each day on a project and simply keep that up and complete the project. But, I find when I do so, my ideas are not fully fleshed out or I second-guess my reasoning and I’m not nearly as effective. In other words, I wish I could work like that, I’m not choosing to be a sprinter. I’m not effective in working in that manner. However, because I know I’ll just have to re-do the work if I begin too early before it is fleshed out or I’ll end up in a quagmire of self-questioning, I am highly unmotivated to begin early and it makes it quite difficult. And I know that in the back of my mind, while it looks like I’m not working on it at all, my mind is turning it over and once the deadline hits, I’ll be ready. Most people who state they procrastinate are not doing nothing–they are engaging in other tasks and often thinking on the project they are “procrastinating.” The deadline is the catalyst

  • http://www.existation.com/ Rachel

    I think a lot of people are a combination of the three. I would say I’m definitely a procrastinator…but if I do manage to get started on something, I’m a pretty good marathoner. In college I was definitely a sprinter, because I fully believed I could only get good work done if I was under pressure (the world will never know if that was actually true, because I never tried it any other way). I would love to hone my marathoner tendencies, not just for deadlines but for life…I usually get stuff done in fits and bursts, and the rest of my time ends up being restless and unproductive. I want to stop putting things off and just do them bit by bit. Baby steps.

  • Olivia

    These sound very similar to the Meyers Briggs aspects Judger/Perceiver.

  • Kristen

    I think procrastinators as you’ve described them are sprinters that don’t recognize themselves or wish they weren’t. To me, a procrastinator category would be someone that puts off the work they actually do need to be doing–because the deadline is so close that NOT working will result in missing the deadline altogether. Or, possibly, a procrastinator is a marathoner that pretends/thinks they are a sprinter and attempts to wait until the last minute to get things done. I feel like this group is relatively small.

    I’m a procrastinator by your definition, mostly because I don’t enjoy working to deadlines. I do, and I need them. But I still find them stressful. I WANT to be a marathoner. I’m a procrastinator by my definition, sometimes, because this dislike for deadlines or the stress of them has, on occasion, resulted in me putting off the work I need to do to the point where I can’t make up the time anymore.

    That said, if there isn’t a pressing deadline I won’t get anything done at all.

  • varadaraja sivaramasubramaniam

    I am a marathoner. I enjoy every task of mine through every stage leading to the result. I take the longest time to prepare myself using all the possible sources to make a good start. I do not mind rethinking, restyling or waiting for some time to get the required information to move on at any stage of my work. I work to satisfy my conscience first.

  • Michelle Herbison

    I’m definitely a marathoner – can’t stand the pressure of deadlines. But when I work, I work hard. So I would rather do fewer hours cramming lots of work in – on my own terms, well before the deadline. Maybe I’m weird?

  • happychoice

    I’ve made the transition from sprinter to marathoner and am much happier as a result. I think sprinters do want to be marathoners but don’t know how to, also may be a brain chemistry issue with the delay, delay, delay, and then the jolt to the brain when they finally have to do what needs to be done. I made the transition in a long process of reorganizing my life. Changing my goals, making them smaller and more achievable. Reading books – nonfiction for self help and some philosophy, and even poetry and quotes online – like zen quotes for inspiration and to challenge my mind. Meditation also helps. You can teach yourself to be more focused and to attend to what needs to be done in the moment. Reorganizing your mind and your life takes time but it can be done. I don’t think sprinters are really happy with the way they are but they find it too hard to change.

  • fred

    Sometimes, the work is too repulsive, and other things are too attractive, so every attempt to begin the work is soon de-railed by a distraction.

  • Ltpar

    Like the author, I too was a marathoner. Didn’t like to be boxed in by deadlines but always finished my projects early. I was blessed by my gene pool in being a good writer which helped when I was doing reasearch work or writing grants.

  • Sara

    Sprinters often do a lot of prep beforehand (thinking, figuring out an outline, making notes, transcribing interviews), but save the actual sitting-down-and-writing part until the very end. For me, adrenaline helps the words flow, but they flow best when the ground has already been well prepared. Of course, this makes me look like I’m slacking off until the very last minute…

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