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The Progressive Overload of Discomfort

Liston Witherill
Liston Witherill
2 min read

One of my late COVID purchases was a weight set. Not a set of dumbells stashed in the corner collecting dust, but a real weight set: olympic bar, squat rack, and 475 pounds of weights.

Back in 2014 when I quit the comfort of my day job to pursue my own business I had two minor panic attacks in the first few months. The stress was too much. So I folded in a regular exercise routine to help manage the stress. You can only do P90X so many times from your home office before it becomes deathly boring, so I tried weightlifting.

What I thought I understood about getting stronger was all wrong. When I began, I thought it was all about lifting until exhaustion, and doing that as many days in a row as I could.

Like many things in life, the key is incremental improvement. In strength training, the concept is called progressive overload. You lift today, eat well and rest, and then try to lift a little bit more next time. And when I say a little, I mean just that. Increasing a lift by just five pounds per week adds up to a 260 pound increase over 52 weeks.

Congratulations, you now know enough to start strength training.

The topic came up recently when I sat down with my friend Jason Bay to talk about confidence. It's a big topic in new business circles because there are particular moments in the sale when confidence matters. When talking about money, terms, your agency, and your belief that you can help your prospect.

I maintained that I couldn't make someone more confident, even with the world's best training and best trainer. Jason, on the other hand, thinks progressive overload applies to boosting someone's confidence. I agree with that, but it's still true that I can't make anyone more confident. At best I can be their guide.

I've been thinking a lot about agency acquisitions, and the importance of a well-formed sales team in supporting a high valuation. If you're starting from scratch, or close to it, use the same principle of progressive overload. Instead of trying to build the whole thing at once, focus your efforts on the incremental improvements that'll have the biggest impacts.

Introduce too much change and you'll be stressed out and non-functional. In weightlifting, you'd drop the bar on your face. Don't do that, by the way.

Not enough change or stress and you won't grow. The key is to introduce just enough stress with the proper conditions to be successful. Enough that you're challenged, but not overwhelmed by it.

If you're looking to develop your own sales skills, or a new business practice at your firm, the key is progressive overload. A little bit at a time, allowing you to build a strong foundation that gets incrementally stronger.

For individual improvement, that might start with nailing your talk on firm positioning, and culminate in being willing to walk away from a six or seven figure deal. For building your new business practice at your firm, it may start with regular account management and referral asks, then building a proper sales process, and culminate in ad spend or outbound selling.

With the glut of self-help bullshit out there imploring you to be "just 1% better," I get that this might sound sickening. So do this instead.

Do something that can generate revenue and makes you a little uncomfortable. Then do it again.

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