Alberto Salazar is track coach and a former world-class runner who has held several American track records and has won both the New York City Marathon and the Boston Marathon. As a coach, Salazar looks for ways to blend the best practices in sprinting with those in distance running. One of his pieces of coaching advice for distance runners is to practice maintaining a high cadence (ideally close to 180 footfalls per minute) by running with an electronic metronome.
I read Salazar’s advice in an article and decided to give metronome running a try. As an amateur runner with a long natural stride, I’ve historically run with a low cadence that gets even lower towards the end of a run as I get tired. I assumed that my first couple of runs with a metronome would be slower while my body adjusted to a shorter stride and a quicker cadence, but the opposite was true; I ended up running some of my fastest times for the respective distances that I ran.
As I thought about the reasons for my improvement, it struck me that shortening my stride and improving my mechanics wasn’t the only benefit that I was getting from the metronome. The metronome was also simplifying the decision to keep my pace up. When I run without a metronome and I start getting tired, I’m faced with the frequent decision of whether to slow my pace to account for fatigue and, if so, how much to adjust my pace by. When I run with the metronome, I only infrequently need to decide that I’m going to continue to follow the metronome. In essence, the cognitive load of deciding how fast to run is reduced from high to low by turning a frequent continuous decision to an infrequent discrete one.
This is an incredibly powerful concept that isn’t limited to running. Changing behavior takes a massive amount of cognitive effort. In my experience, change is more likely to be successful if you look for “metronomes” that can reduce cognitive load than if you try to just brute force the change. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos describes this phenomenon in his famous quote that “good intentions don’t work, but mechanisms do.” Mechanisms like Salazar’s metronome reduce the cognitive load of constantly trying to follow a good intention and increase the odds of success.
To think about how this plays out in the real world, consider an example: one of my New Year’s resolutions is to improve mental health by spending less time on my phone. I’ve put several “metronomes” in place to increase my odds of achieving the resolution. For example, I’m blocking out time on my calendar and using a Pomodoro timer app to restrict access to my phone for several hours in the evening while I hang out with my kids, read, meditate, and get ready for bed. My wife and I also just planned our first quarterly phone-free getaway weekend for our family as a means to recharge and reprogram our brains. It’s early, but I’m already seeing these mechanisms beginning to drive positive change that wouldn’t be taking place otherwise.
What behavior are you trying to change right now and how could a metronome help?