“Like Playing Chess While Running a Marathon” – Comparing the Demands of Knowledge Work and F1

I can remember sitting and chatting with a very successful individual who had made his fortune in the world of banking and was interested in a coaching programme for himself. Although, he was looking rather disparagingly at me and thinking, “what does this guy from the world of sports know about my life as a high-flying corporate executive?”

I proceeded to chat to him about the elements that make up the life of a Formula 1 driver. Travel across 5 continents and up to 200 days on the road during the year. Long days of media commitments, meetings with sponsor practice, briefing and debriefing meetings with the team of engineers. Furthermore, managing the adrenaline of racing and the stress of high-pressure decision making in the car takes its toll. In addition to this, they fit in their regular physical training, personal business and finance management, good nutrition, and recovery, all whilst trying to juggle family life and time with friends.

As I described the demands and pressures on these high-performing individuals, his face changed and he said, “that’s just what it’s like for me in my job!” I didn’t want to tell him that this was not the first time that I had had this conversation.

Let’s explore and compare the demands of a Formula 1 driver’s life and that of a typical globe-trotting knowledge worker further and see how they measure up.

Physical demands

Being a knowledge worker may not have the same physical demands as being a Formula 1 driver. Besides, not many people have to sit in a cramped cockpit for 90 minutes to 2 hours in 50+ºC heat (120+ ºF) whilst driving over 300 kilometres per hour, withstanding 2-6g’s of lateral G-force in cornering, with a heart rate of 70-80% of maximum. And doing this burns 1200-1500 calories which is similar to running a half marathon.

However, we know that their strength and cardiovascular fitness doesn’t just help them in the car. It helps them to recover from travel and manage their energy over the long days of engineering meetings, simulator sessions or practice, qualification and racing over a Grand Prix weekend. We know that the fitter you are, the better you cope with all types of stress.

Furthermore, their commitment to looking after their posture and mobility helps them to manage issues like rounded shoulders, lower back pain and other postural issues which are common to knowledge workers alike.

Cognitive demands

Driving a Formula 1 car has been described as “Like playing chess while running a marathon every week”, but what is it really like from a cognitive point of view? The driver is required to multitask and change settings on the steering wheel using a combination of the 35 buttons and switches, whilst approaching corners at speed. All the while they need to be aware of the dangers of getting too close one of the other 19 cars on the track whilst choosing the optimum racing line.

This split-second analysis and decision making require rapid cognitive processing skills drawing on information that comes visually or orally through the race team radio. The driver is required to optimise the car for the track, adapt to the weather, be ready for changes in strategy, or make racing decisions in the heat of the moment.

These cognitive capabilities are not dissimilar to those required by high performing knowledge workers. Being able to take in large amounts of information, process it and make quick decisions are key to operating at a high level in business. Being able to listen to input from others and work within a team strategy also play a part.

In non-racing situations, drivers spend hours with their team of engineers trawling through thousands of data points from the car trying to understand the situation and make decisions to improve moving forwards. Does this sound familiar to some of the demands in the workplace?

These skills need to be practiced and honed and having the capacity to cope with this level of operating is vital for success.

Social demands

Drivers are not machines. They are real people with real lives and relationships. When there is stress and pressure from these relationships, it can have a knock-on effect on their performance. These relationships are with their team, sponsors, media, fans, their manager, family and friends.

To be a high performer in business, you need to manage the social demands on you and invest in relationships that give energy and not the ones that sap energy. You are not a lone ranger and cannot just focus on what you are doing. You need to work within a team, with your colleagues, as well as managing the relationships of those close to you.

Hintsa, UBS & Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport on how to optimise performance with F1 methods

Aiming for sustainable high performance

A driver can’t just deliver once a season, or a couple of times a season. They need to be able to get off the plane in Singapore, or Brazil, or the USA, and be on their best form week in, week out.

Because of this, they need a lifestyle that is sustainable to help maintain a highly productive and successful output. This means that they need to pace themselves to avoid burnout. They need to look after their own health and wellbeing.

I speak to my athletes regularly about ‘sustainable high-performance’. There’s no point being a superstar for a year or two. Working out how to sustain your high-performance is the key to being a true champion. On the race track and in the board room.

Ask yourself these questions

Maybe your life isn’t too dissimilar from that of a Formula 1 driver, and if that is so, maybe your approach to supporting that lifestyle should have more parallels. Are you regularly taking part in a balanced training programme? Are you getting enough sleep and being consistent with this when you can, and planning your jet lag management to minimise disruption when you travel?

Are you heading for a burnout, or have you worked out rhythms of work and rest to avoid monotony and to optimise your output? How are you periodising your training or your life, so that you build on previous work to get the compounding effect of progress, then pull back to recover when you need a break?

You may not be driving a racing car but maybe you still have to make decisions that have a big impact on the direction of your company or group. Are you managing the stress of this through a healthy lifestyle?