In Japanese there is a word yoyu which means something akin to “wiggle room,” or “having extra leftover.” You might use it to compliment someone’s riding:
“You climbed that hill with yoyu!”
or to express concern for your budget:
“I never have any yoyu at the end of the month.”
Yoyu is critical to maintaining happiness and composure on your path. Whether you are trying to achieve peak performance as an athlete (me!), or just trying to make it from one day to the next amidst the various demands of work, social life, personal health, family, bills etc (also me), protecting your yoyu can be the difference between achieving your goals and crashing in a blaze of terrific splendor somewhere midway.
As an athlete I have to focus on my goals intensely every single day. This is even more critical because I am not a young athlete and can no longer afford the kinds of mistakes a woman in her teens or early twenties might make. At the same time, I am not just a hobby rider working towards a goal event. I am on a path to becoming the fastest woman I can be, so I need to remember that even while I am working my hardest every day, I cannot sacrifice tomorrow in order to achieve today’s goals. In other words, I am on a path and I have to make my choices in the framework of “how will I travel down this path?” rather than the framework of “how can I arrive at this destination?” On my easy days things are relatively straightforward, but what about when I am upping the intensity? Or going out for a long day or a hard week? Protecting my yoyu is how I ensure that I will be able to ride again tomorrow.
My coach back in Philadelphia (Ross from The Philadelphia Runner) gave me some great advice: At the end of every run, always try to feel like you could have done one more mile. That’s yoyu right there. We athletes, particularly endurance athletes, can get very confused about how much work we need to be doing. Endurance sports in particular have this funny inversion between pain and performance. The longer we work out, the more it hurts, but the more we become comfortable in the pain, the deeper we can dig when it comes time to pull out all the stops on race day. The trouble with training against your pain threshold is that you can easily lose sight of the line between good pain, and pain that is signaling that it’s time to back off. I am speaking specifically of overtraining here.
To an endurance athlete, overtraining is perhaps the greatest danger to achieving our best performance. The body can only adapt so quickly. Train too little and you don’t grow; train too hard and you tear down the progress you’ve built up. In daily life, however, we are no safer from overtraining than the athlete is. For most people, the relevant analogue of overtraining is overworking. The Japanese have a word for when you overwork yourself so hard that it kills you: karohshi, literally “death by overwork.” You might find yourself face-palming saying, “O, Japan!” but I would like to point out that this is, in fact, a legally recognized cause of a death in this country. Protecting your yoyu is the key to staying on the safe side of your peak performance and not cascading down into the depths of overwork and all the havoc it can wreak on your body, mind and soul.
Particularly if you were raised in the United States, you probably have internalized this idea that business is a sign of peak performance. Economics will even tell you that if you have resources left over, then you must have missed out on an opportunity to optimize somewhere along the line. This idea, however, really only applies to machines. People need their yoyu to be their best.
There are two reasons why we, as humans, need to protect our yoyu in order to achieve our potential. The first reason is that, unlike machines, we require recovery time. Whether you wore yourself to the bone in a workout or at your desk, as a living being you need to replenish your energy and repair the damage incurred through your efforts. Machines have mechanics to do the maintenance for them, and managers to depreciate and sell them when they are no longer useful. Humans only have the power of sleep, good food, and good company to replenish us. If our lives are relatively stable, then we can probably take our time and money to the edge and still be able to recover properly. However any amount of uncertainty, whether it’s an unexpected trip to the doctor, a last minute order at work, or even ending a romantic relationship, can drain us beyond our usual stores. It’s for times like these, and they will inevitably come to visit us, that having something in reserve will really save the day.
The other reason that humans need a buffer zone in their daily lives is because we are creative beings. Our minds developed so that we could share our knowledge and grow, and whether we intend to or not our minds are always working, always spinning, always seeking ways to make our lives better. If your daily chores take you to the edge all the time, so that you are constantly playing a game of tetris with your paycheck and family obligations, all that mental energy that could be devoted to discovering new and better ways to live will be absorbed into the act of just making today work.
A good friend of mine likes to say, “stop the glorification of busy!” I agree with him; there is nothing innately good about being busy. Moreover, just like with endurance sports, once you cross over your threshold of recovery and into the realm of overwork, the only way back is to do less than you were doing before. Every effort you make will only take you deeper into the hole. Think about it. If a forty hour work week just barely leaves you with enough time and money to pay the bills and feed yourself and your family, with nothing leftover for fun and rejuvenation, what’s going to happen when a surprise comes your way? You’re either going to have to throw more time at it, or more money at it, but this is going to put you over your edge. You won’t have enough for the next day and you’ll have to attack it at less than 100%. You’ll make mistakes, you’ll cut corners, you’ll end the day with even less than you started. Ultimately there is no way back than to just stop and do less, spend less, recover more. That’s why yoyu is so critical.
In my own life there are a few ways that I try to protect my yoyu, though I admit I still need to practice more as I often find myself chasing after deadlines and playing the dreaded Tetris of Life Things. One thing that I do that helps immensely is I disconnect, literally, every evening. I put my phone on airplane mode and I turn off my computer. I usually do this about an hour or so before bed. It’s amazing how rejuvenating just knowing that I don’t have to listen for or respond to, or even compose text messages is. This allows my brain to unwind a bit and it is usually in these moments that I have my clearest insights about how to prioritize my time over the next several days or so. It also has the happy side effect of preventing me from making commitments that will drain my energy. If I’m disconnected, I can’t say, “sure, I’ll come out for drinks!” Over time my friends have even come to understand that it’s useless to try to contact me during those times and have adjusted to my schedule.
Another thing I try to do is finish everything I start in one swoop. That means wash dishes after I’m done eating, put my bed away (I sleep on a futon) when I wake, read and sort the mail all at once, stretch immediately when I come home from my ride. It’s very easy with all of our devices and the Glorification of Busy to think that multitasking is the way to achieve our best, but in actuality multitasking is a great way to loose track of how much more we have to do until we are finished and to consequently run out of resources to do it. If, for example, I come home from Sunday practice too exhausted to wash my jersey, then I know I’ve used up all my energy and need a recovery. By making a point to not start anything new until I finish all of my post-ride tasks, I can create a buffer zone in my to-do list where I resist the urge to add new commitments that would use up my yoyu.
If you are a type A personality, or if you have spent years living paycheck to paycheck, working over time, and juggling your social life like a circus performer, you might initially feel anxious if you try to introduce yoyu into your life. We have this habitual need to be always doing something, always planning something, always clinging tightly to our wallets, and it can be incredibly frightening to let go of that, even when it is finally safe to. For one thing, imagine if you showed up five minutes early to one of your regular appointments. What on earth would you do with all that extra time? Would you get a coffee? Would you check your e-mail? Would you fix your hair? Would you just wait quietly, perhaps doing nothing at all? For many of us just trying to think of what we would do with a windfall extra five minutes of time is a daunting task. But all of that is ok. Business and money troubles are habits that become deeply ingrained in us. You won’t be able to break them over night, but I promise you you won’t ever regret trying.
Here is a bit of a preview. Imagine how you would feel if you finished your work a day before the due date every single time. Think of how much more fun it would be to watch your kid’s soccer game if you knew you didn’t have a pile of dishes waiting at home and a three page long list of errands to run. Take a moment and try to picture yourself deciding whether or not to buy that new sweater (or derailleur, or hubset, or bibshorts as the case may be), not based on whether or not you can afford it, but on whether you think it’s a good deal and if it’s the right color or not. This is what a life with yoyu feels like. Isn’t that something worth striving towards?
Where in your life can you create yoyu? Where would you most like to find it magically appear?