For years, I’ve lived by the rule “slow and steady wins the race”—a mantra that’s served me well on my journey to becoming a long-distance runner and losing 80 pounds in two years.
But it’s not always easy. Sometimes, realizing you’re on mile seven of a 13-mile run doesn’t fill you with joy or relief at being halfway done—but despair because you’re only. halfway. done. I’ve often felt the same way about hitting financial milestones. After all, my biggest goal—paying off my student loans—could takes years to achieve. That’s an exhausting thought.
But I recently had an epiphany that’s changed the way I think about making progress toward all of my goals.
In April, I started working with a personal trainer. He was impressed that I could run a half marathon without stopping—but not with my speed. To get faster and more efficient, he suggested sprinting, or more specifically, high-intensity interval training (HIIT). It works like this: I’d run at a comfortable pace for 40 seconds, then at full speed for 20 seconds. Alternate until I either fall off the treadmill or reach my time or distance goal.
The secret to HIIT is that you’re always moving forward—you never stop. If I sprinted for my entire workout, I’d gas out after five minutes. But if I switch between a six- and nine-minute-per-mile pace, I can go much longer. My 40-second “rest” helps me catch my breath, rest my muscles and get ready for the next sprint—allowing my body to do more than if I kept it steady at the slower pace.
As I got used to working out like this, I realized it was a pretty effective way to think about money goals, too. Often, the popular advice, especially amongst us millennials, is to hustle yourself to death in order to pay off debt, invest or save. But non-stop sprinting toward a money goal is a great way to burn out.
So I’ve become a financial interval trainer. I’ll go hard on wiping my loans for a few months—strictly limited my expenses and funneling savings toward debt—knowing that later, I’ll have earned a little more flexibility in my budget. Or I’ll freelance my heart out one month then scale back the next, when I’ll catch up when friends and decide whether it’s worthwhile to accept similar assignments again.
This strategy has yielded real results. Before starting HIIT, I ran a 10-minute mile; now I can do three in under 24 minutes. And financially, this strategy helped me bill $7,000 in freelance work in July alone. It was a crazy month, but I was able to shore up my savings and pay off one of my loans. Then I relaxed, guilt-free, for most of August.
Bottom line? Easing off the gas every so often can give you a chance to breathe. You’ll still be moving forward, but at a more sustainable pace. You might even learn something during these easier periods that will help you be more efficient on your next sprint.