7 Things Physical Fitness Teaches You About Professional Success

7 Things Physical Fitness Teaches You About Professional Success

It turns out people can change

I’m sure you’ve seen those articles about the health benefits of physical fitness. They have headlines like “Researchers Find That People Who Exercise Live Longer.” You wonder if the study was commissioned by the University of the Obvious.

This is not one of those articles.

I’m not here to convince you that you need to exercise to be healthy, or to make you feel bad if you don’t get up at 4:30 every morning to go for a 10-mile run.  You already know exercising is good for your health, even if you have one of those bumper stickers that says “0.0.”

The point I want to make is that you can learn a lot about professional improvement by making a serious effort to improve your physical fitness. You could also “learn” these things from reading some self-help articles, but sticking to a serious physical fitness regimen teaches these lessons in a more concrete way that will stick.

So what will you learn?

1. Discipline isn’t always rational

You know it will take discipline to go from struggling to jog around the blog to running a seven-minute mile, but people often misunderstand the nature of discipline.

The problem is that we tend to think of reason and discipline as allies. After work, you would rather sit on the couch and watch Fresh Prince reruns than go for your daily run. You try to overcome your laziness by reasoning that you won’t reach your goal by the end of the year if you don’t go on that run.


But here’s the problem: you’re reasoning is wrong. From a purely rational perspective, skipping that one run will not materially affect your long-term goal. If you’re trusting your rational mind to get you to run, it will fail you.

You need to enlist passion on the side of discipline. Emotion says, “get off that couch, lazy!” You need an ethos of discipline fueled by pride, not by logic.

Make a schedule for when you’re going to exercise and get almost fanatical about staying on the schedule. Your friends, family, and co-workers may think you’ve joined a cult, but your new schedule will become a habit. And habit is stronger than reason, whether the goal is doing handstand pushups or getting more clients.

2. If it’s not fun you won’t stick with it

Unfortunately, your new obsession with discipline will only take you so far. If running isn’t fun for you, then you’re not going to do it consistently. I don’t mean it needs to be fun every time you do it, or that it should be easy and care-free. But at some level you have to enjoy the kind of exercise you do, or you won’t keep doing it.

baby in air

So if you don’t like running, then find some other kind of exercise you enjoy. Lift weights, do Pilates, play basketball, ride a bike, whatever.

The same thing is true in your professional life. Let’s say your goal is doing more public speaking, but after several attempts you still just hate it. Stop and reconsider. Maybe you don’t really need to do that. Perhaps there is some other professional goal you could pursue instead. Like learning to clear a paper jam.

3. Improvement is gradual

So now you’ve found a “fun” exercise program you follow like your life depended on it. In six weeks you’re sure to look like a fitness magazine cover model, right? Well no, of course not. You probably will notice some difference within six weeks, but reaching your goals will take longer.


Don’t get frustrated when you don’t see the results you want immediately. Celebrate the small victories and stick to the plan. Your fitness level will improve. It just takes time.

Professional improvement usually works the same way. If you have no management experience, for example, don’t expect to become a great manager overnight. Focus on improving your skills a little each day.

4. Don’t skip rest day

Once your fitness activity has become a habit and you start to see results, you may get a little greedy. You’ll tell yourself, “I lifted weights three times a week for two months and got stronger, so if I do it six times a week my results will be twice as good, right?”

Don’t get caught in that trap. Most good exercise programs have rest days. Lately I’ve been following the daily workouts posted by crossfit.com. It’s three days on, one day off. Sometimes I’m tempted to exercise on the rest day because I’m impatient to improve my results. But skipping the rest day is a mistake.

Koala sleeping

In physical fitness, the rest day has both physical and mental benefits. The physical benefit is obvious. Your muscles need that rest time to rebuild. But the mental benefit is even more important. When you take a day off, you come back the next day with greater mental sharpness.

Taking the “rest day” is just as important in our careers. We think that if we work more nights and weekends, we’ll get ahead faster. Sometimes putting in that extra time does pay off, or it’s just something we have to do. But don’t think your job performance will improve simply by working more. Routinely skipping your time off will cause you to lose mental focus, which will undermine your performance, not improve it.

5. Learn to deal with setbacks

Injuries suck. Not only does an injury physically hurt, it delivers a mental blow. It would be less psychologically damaging if injuries resulted from skipping a workout and taking it easy. But exercise injuries are the opposite. They are especially demoralizing because you feel like you did something to get stronger, and instead it made you weaker. And it may take you weeks or months just to get back to where you started.


Hmm. Has anything like that ever happened in your professional life? Maybe you took a new job hoping it would improve your career, but you got laid off six months later. Or you took on a new responsibility at work, only to be thrown under the bus when it went south.

Coming back from an injury teaches you something about overcoming setbacks. You learn that it takes even more discipline and determination to recover from an injury. But if you stick to the plan, you will come back stronger than before.

6. You’re not too old

First the bad news. If you are an NFL running back, you are probably “over the hill” by your 30th birthday. Your body has taken such a pounding that it just can’t do what it used to do. Having “lost a step,” you can’t burst around the edge for a first down the way you used to.

Unless you’re Emmitt Smith, who ran for an incredible 18,355 yards over a 15-year career.


But the good news is that most of us are not NFL running backs, or any kind of professional athlete. Unless you were an elite athlete in college, you can probably get in the best physical shape of your adult life in your 40s, 50s, and beyond. Yes, it gets harder, but it can be done.

And if age doesn’t prevent you from improving your physical fitness, then you know it can’t prevent you from improving your other skills. There is no reason getting older should stop you from becoming a better public speaker, a better salesman, a better manager, etc. You can even learn how Twitter and Periscope work.

Which leads me to . . .

7. People can change

If you have a daughter in the 10-18 year age range, you probably know the line “we aren’t saying you can change him, ‘cause people don’t really change.” And if not, you’ve still encountered the sort of pop psychology that says after a certain age people don’t really change.

By around 25 years old, most people have a hard-wired worldview that shapes their views on controversial issues. This is of course a big topic in politics. It’s also a big issue for people like me in the litigation business, where jury views are important. And there is a lot of truth to the idea that people don’t change their fundamental views past a certain age.


But physical fitness teaches you this isn’t necessarily true about skills and talents.

Recently I had the honor to co-chair a charity fun run for the Houston Bar Association. After all the preparations were done and the starting gun sounded, I decided at the last minute to run the five-mile race. I quickly safety-pinned my number on my shirt, and off I went. I didn’t win any awards, but as I ran the course, I realized running five miles without doing any specific training for it was pretty easy for me. (This is what the kids call a “humble brag”).

Here’s the cool thing. Ten years earlier, it was a challenge just to run three miles without stopping. But since then I had done a lot of running, biking, strength training, you name it.

That’s when it really hit me. People can change. And they can learn a lot in the process.



Zach Wolfe is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation. His firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC has offices in Austin, Houston, and The Woodlands.

Rumors that he recently injured himself attempting to clean and jerk his own body weight are exaggerated.

The Five Goal-Setting Mistakes You Must Avoid in 2017

The Five Goal-Setting Mistakes You Must Avoid in 2017

Confessions of a Recovering “Goal-aholic”

“What are your New Year’s resolutions?” When I hear that question, I want to say, “I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, I just set goals.” That would ring true, but it would also make me sound like kind of a jerk.

Better to quote a gentleman who was most definitely not a jerk, but highly successful. Tom Landry was the “Dean of NFL Coaches” in his day. He had a record-setting 20 consecutive winning seasons and took his team to five Super Bowls. He said this: “Setting a goal is not the main thing. It is deciding how you will go about achieving it and staying with that plan.”

I can’t improve much on that goal-setting advice. You can Google all kinds of material explaining why setting specific written goals is generally a good thing. Breaking down the goals into specific action items on a monthly, weekly, and even daily basis is even better.

But I will be the first to admit that setting annual goals and making specific plans to achieve them doesn’t always go the way you planned. It can leave you feeling discouraged when you repeatedly fail to meet the goals you so painstakingly outlined.

I should know. I’ve been there. You might even say I’m a recovering “goal-aholic.”

At one time I was almost obsessive about keeping detailed goal spreadsheets broken down by category, month, and week. It didn’t really work out. Too many times, my frazzled self would just put off that week’s goals to the next week, or just ignore them. At one point I got frustrated enough that I just stopped bothering with the written goals entirely.

But my goal-setting mistakes can be your goal-setting lessons. Here are my top five goal-setting mistakes and what you can learn from them.

1. Setting too many goals

Specific, measurable goals are usually better than general goals. So, rather than making it a goal to “get in better shape this year” you might make it a goal to “do 15 pull-ups in a row,” “run a mile under 8 minutes,” etc. You might even break these down into smaller goals, like “do 10 pull-ups by April 1,” etc.

When you set too many goals, you lose focus

But when you make too many specific goals, you lose focus. I got to the point where I had so many different goals in different categories that it diluted my mental focus too much. I got burned out on the goal setting and tossed the whole list.

Now, for 2017, I’m rebuilding with a more focused list. Experts say don’t weigh down your list with goals you don’t really care about. My own list is still longer than any sane human being should have, but I have tried to eliminate anything unnecessary or unrealistic.

2. Setting goals that are really just things you have to do or like to do

Speaking of unnecessarily cluttering your goal list, I realized that one problem with my goal-setting was that many of the goals I would routinely check off as accomplished were just things I either had to do or liked to do.

For example, I like exercising. It’s actually fun for me. (Don’t hate me, there are probably productive things you like to do that I don’t like.) So making a goal like “do CrossFit five times a week” is not that helpful for me. It’s something I’m going to do anyway.

There are other things I don’t necessarily like to do but must do whether I like them or not. For example, “respond to all discovery requests on time” is certainly a good practice for a lawyer who handles litigation, but it’s not the kind of thing that belongs on a list of goals. I know that one way or another, I’m not going to miss a deadline like that.

So get rid of things on your goal list that are just things you like to do anyway, or that you already know you have to do. Because the main point of your goals is to help you stretch to do things you wouldn’t naturally do. To get out of your “comfort zone,” as they say.

3. Setting goals that are not realistic

While I have sometimes gone wrong by padding my goal list with tasks I know I’m going to accomplish anyway, I have also made the common mistake of setting unrealistic goals.

It’s easy to do this, especially with self-help gurus telling you to dream big, shoot for the stars, etc. The idea is that you need something grand to inspire and motivate yourself. Don’t get me wrong. I like the idea of setting a bold, audacious goal as much as the next guy. But the hard reality is that there is a big difference between a dream and a goal.

Don’t ignore reality when setting your goals

You want to set a goal that is difficult enough to require some striving, like “invent the flex defense.” But you don’t want it so unrealistic that it becomes a joke, like “securing the border” or “winning the war on drugs” in politics. If your football team’s record was 1-15 this year, setting a goal of winning the Super Bowl next year is probably not productive. How about setting a goal to have a winning season next year? Still difficult, but not impossible.

So go ahead, hold on tight to your dream. But don’t confuse your dream with your goals. Look at your goals as the building blocks for achieving your dream.

And don’t beat yourself up when you don’t meet every goal. I bet you performed better than if you had set no goals at all.

4. Not setting aside time to work on your goals

So many times I would come to the end of the week or month and find I had neglected many of my goals. The problem was that I did not set aside time to work on those goals. This mistake is the most obvious, but also the most common. Like that song says, “the hardest to learn was the least complicated.”

I like my advice of setting goals that are not things you already have to do, but one downside of this approach is that it allows you to procrastinate. If your goals are discretionary—if they are things you are not required to do—then it will be easier to put them off when you get busy. And you will always be busy with something.

Achieving goals takes work, and work takes time. If you don’t set aside time to work on your goals this week, you will probably put them off until next week. And then next month. And so on.

So take some time each week to review your goals, and block out time on your calendar to work on them. Simple, right?

5. Setting goals that are largely out of your control (?)

This one has a question mark by it because I’m still on the fence. But I’m leaning to one side.

A perennial goal-setting dilemma is whether to include goals that you can’t really control, or to stick to the things that, even if they are difficult, are largely under your control.

I say “largely,” because God has a way of reminding you that nothing is totally under your control. Like John Lennon sang, “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

I got this reminder big time in 2016 when I was briefly hospitalized (it turned out fine). Sometimes people have to take time away from work to care for a sick child, or an aging parent. They get laid off. Someone accidentally trips you as you were about to cross the finish line and qualify for the Olympics. Your B-17 bomber runs out of fuel over occupied France. Stuff happens.

Focus on goals you can control

But most of the time you can set goals, even ambitious ones, that are largely under your control. If I set a goal to “do a blog post on Five Minute Law once a week in 2017,” it may be a lot of work, and it may be difficult, but barring a major crisis it’s an action I can control. On the other hand, if I set a goal to “get a new client every quarter in 2017,” there is a lot I can do to make that result more likely, but I really can’t control it.

Similarly, if my goal is “exercise three times a week,” I can usually control that, but if my goal is “do 10 handstand push-ups in a row by the end of the year,” that’s harder to control. Genetics and age may limit my results no matter how hard I work.

It comes down to the difference between process goals and results goals. The process is largely under my control. The results? Not so much.

So I say focus on the process, and the results will tend to take care of themselves. Smarter people who have actually researched this stuff agree with me (see Big Goals Can Backfire).

But that question mark still lingers. If I don’t pay attention to results, how will I know if my process is working? If I don’t set some results goals, what is my motivation to do the hard work to meet the process goals week in and week out? So maybe a few result goals are ok. I don’t know. I wish I could ask Coach Landry.



Zach Wolfe is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation. His firm Fleckman & McGlynn has offices in Austin, Houston, and The Woodlands. His long-term goal is to play the lead role in a production of “Hamilton.” Or maybe that’s more of a dream.