Trusting the process

For the past 9+ weeks, I’ve been following a training plan for the half-marathon I’m running 2 weeks from this coming Saturday. The training plan is a typical one: each week has 4 days of running. One of the 4 days involves speedwork: intervals, a tempo run (i.e. “run at this pace for this number of minutes”), or hill repeats (run up a hill fast, walk down, do it again and again). One of the days is a long run. The long run gets progressively longer, as does the speedwork, as the weeks go by. And the plan ends with a “taper” period: after you’ve spent all this time building up your mileage and endurance, you cut back and let your body rest before the big day.

There are no guarantees, of course: the plan doesn’t guarantee that you won’t get injured or sick, or that you won’t wake up the day of the race facing 95 degree temperatures and 100% humidity and have to throw your time goals out the window. Rather, the idea is that if you put in the work and follow the plan, you put yourself in the best possible position to finish the race and meet whatever other (usually finishing time) goals you have.

It is easy, particularly as race day looms, for you to get cynical and to doubt the plan. How can you really be prepared to run 13.1 miles if your longest training run is only 12 miles? Why aren’t the long runs done at the pace you intend to race at, but rather at a much slower pace? How on earth do 6×400 intervals prepare you to run at race pace? At some point, you just have to trust the process, to know that each piece of the plan each week contributes to your execution on race day, and to go with it.

Trusting the process is something that I do often as a professor. When I teach, I trust that if I’ve prepared properly—digging up and digesting background readings, developing illustrative examples, working through in-class activities, anticipating likely questions and points of confusion—then class is most likely going to go well. I can’t guarantee this, of course—my students might come ill-prepared, or bring low energy to the class, or an activity might bomb in unintended ways—but most often, everything will be fine. In research, unexpected twists and turns often pop up, but if I follow the plan—think carefully and methodically, locate and read the relevant literature, weigh the evidence carefully, analyze and reanalyze the data, be super-observant and dig deeper into the data—eventually I’ll succeed, even if “success” is not how I originally pictured or intended it.

In a way, trusting the process is similar to taking the long-range view while paying attention to the day-to-day details. If you think too hard about the long-term goal, it can seem impossible to obtain. But if you get too caught up in the day-to-day, you can easily get discouraged. When you trust the process, you do the day-to-day while keeping your attention on the long-term goal. One motivates the other.

Trusting the process is something that’s often difficult for new researchers. New researchers may not know or understand the long-term goal. They may get caught up in the day-to-day, and possibly even overwhelmed by it. They may not see how the day-to-day and all the small, sometimes seemingly inconsequential tasks, all work to contribute to the end goal. This can be particularly true of new projects, where perhaps the end goal is still a bit fuzzy or in flux. And teaching trust of the process is tricky, because at some point, the person just has to buy into the idea.

This is definitely happening in my lab this summer, with my brand-new project and new-to-research students. So how am I teaching trust in the process? I’m not sure if I’m doing it well or even passably at this point. What I try to do is remind my students of why we’re doing what we’re doing and continually framing the problem and the research. I do it by being specific about the small tasks we need to do to get there. I remind them of what we’ve done so far and how what we’re doing next both builds upon that and gets us closer to our end goal.

So far the trust is not completely there, but that’s ok. They are skeptical, but game. They ask lots of questions, including lots of variations on “so why are we doing this again?”, which is exactly what they should be asking. They’re starting to figure out the “next small thing” on their own. I may not get them all the way to trusting the process by the end of the summer, but if I can at least get them partway there, I’ll consider that a victory.