The other week I went out for a hike up this mountain (active volcano to be exact 🤷♂️).
The ascent to the summit was a 3-hour, 1000 vertical-metre climb with ladders, bridges, and plenty of boulders. After the first hour of walking, the steepness really picks up and you begin scrambling up the side of this mountain. Anyone who has done some hiking or cycling before will know what this means: switchbacks.
Switchbacks are a way to decrease the steepness of a climb, in exchange for increasing the distance. With switchbacks, you could turn a 100 metres strenuous climbing into 1000 metres of relatively easy walking.
However, that's not the real magic of switchbacks. The real power is psychological.
Switchbacks for the mind
While climbing a mountain isn't easy, it's rarely your fitness that stops you from making it to the top. The biggest blocker to climbing the mountain is your mental state. It's how much motivation you can muster when fatigue sets in to keep pushing on.
That's where switchbacks come in. Switchbacks break up a mountain into short sections that you climb one bit at a time. They obscure your view ahead, preventing you from seeing the end goal, and rather forcing you to focus on the next 50 metres.
You never mentally climb the mountain, but only ever to the next switchback.
Once you make it to the corner of the switchback, you can see the next switchback ahead of you. This means you have a short, ever-moving goal in-front of you at all times. You have to knowingly trick yourself into thinking that you are just going to the next switchback, and then when you reach it, you say the same thing, just this switchback.
Can you climb 1000m of vertical elevation? I don't know. Can you climb this next 10m? Definitely! Switchbacks force you to climb the mountain 10m at a time.
Making switchbacks in life
This applies to any challenge in life, big or small. When you look at the end goal from the bottom it seems so far away and difficult that you lack the motivation to begin.
However, when you create switchbacks to reach your goal, you are constantly focusing on the next small milestone. Doing this over and over means that you will make it easier to reach your bigger goal.
This technique of breaking down your goal into smaller chunks is nothing new, however, what it is key to make sure that the next increment is immediately obvious as soon as you complete the current one.
Here's a few ways I've been creating switchbacks in my life:
- When I do my morning stretches (I'm super inflexible), the thought of holding a painful stretch for 100 seconds is unbearable. But holding it for just 10 more seconds is doable.
- When reading a dense book, the thought of making it through the next 350 pages is tough, but making it through the next 20 pages is doable.
- When learning Japanese, the thought of making it through the whole course and to becoming fluent is ridiculous, but I know I can do this next chapter.
- I've been soaking in Japanese onsens a lot lately 🌊 Doing a full 12 minutes in the sauna is physically exhausting for me, but I've always been able to do just one more minute...
This switchback mentality is the latest thing I've added to my mental model latticework and has helped me a lot.