The Endurance Trap

What it is and how to avoid it



Article Author John Willcox

John Willcox is Fairisle Consulting’s Lead Consultant

We often run events with clients who are planning big changes. The changes are positive – making things better for themselves and their clients. But we sometimes get the sense there was as much trepidation around as excitement.

It became clear that some people felt that making changes would always be painful, difficult and draining. We dug into this a little bit and began to see this was down to a conflation of two quite different things: Endurance and Resilience.

To illustrate why there’s an important difference, let me share a short anecdote.

A (minor) example of endurance

A few years ago a friend and I took our respective children on a walk. It was early spring – cool but bright, with a clear sky. We set off, the adults chatting and the children playing happily together. Everything was fine until one of the children pointed to the sky and said ‘Hey, look at that tiny black cloud over there.’

We adults made light of it, but we knew what was about to happen. We marshalled the children and set off briskly towards home, thinking we could somehow outpace the British weather. But we were fooling ourselves. The sky went dark, the wind picked up and the rain came down. Not a light drizzle but a full-on, out on the bare hillside with no shelter, deluge. Our aim became simply to get home. All thoughts of playing frisbee, or flying kites, or just relaxing were gone. It was a question of just getting our heads down and putting one foot in front of the other.

It was a minor example of endurance. The weather was against us and our only option was to endure the circumstances and just get through the experience.

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Sometimes circumstances can seem equally challenging in the workplace. Deadlines are tight, resources are thin, senior managers are impatient. Before you know it you’re trudging through the days, working late and at weekends, losing sight of your goals. You’re enduring your circumstances. But unlike our unhappy little party on the wet hillside, you usually have other options, including choosing resilience over endurance.


As with so many words in common usage, the original meaning of the word resilience has become a bit obscured. So at the risk of sounding pedantic, I’m going back to its roots.

Flow chart showing the origin of the word 'resilience' showing that it means 'to bounce'

The origin of the word is from the Latin re meaning ‘back’ and salire ‘to jump’. This evolved over time until, in the 17th century, the word emerged into common usage. At this time it meant literally ‘the act or rebounding’.

So resilience is about the ability to bounce back. Endurance, on the other hand, is about bearing something difficult, painful, or unpleasant. You have to endure when there is no other choice.

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The Endurance Trap

I think a lot of people go straight to endurance when the going gets tough at work. And once you’ve done that a couple of times, it becomes your default for coping with difficulty. And so the cycle goes on and you lose the ability to see better ways out of the problem you’re facing. This Endurance Trap can end up making working life a bit of a misery.

So what does building resilience mean in practical terms? Here are a few pointers.

Dealing with overwhelm

When you’re caught in the Endurance Trap, you tend to lose the ability to prioritise. Everything that needs to be done becomes equally important, and you start to trudge from one task to another automatically. Or attempt to squeeze as many tasks as possible into an unrealistic time frame.

A quick and simple exercise that we’ve talked about elsewhere is the Now, Next, Later technique. Write down the ten or so tasks you know you need to do. Choose the most urgent one and mark it ‘Now’. Then choose the next most urgent one and mark it as ‘Next’. Everything else, mark them as ‘Later’, and put them to one side.

 Once you’ve finished the ‘Now’ task, pick up the ‘Next’ task and work on that. When that’s done go back through the remaining items, add any new ones, and update them all with ‘Now’, ‘Next’, ‘Later’ as before. You’ll find that simply by taking control of the priority of your tasks, you’ll start to see a way ahead more clearly. You’re making the choice to not simply endure an overwhelming workload, but to exercise the agency you need to be resilient.

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Reflection and learning lessons

Make an appointment in your diary to review how well things are going. Make sure you keep the appointment and ask yourself:

    • What’s working well?
    • What would be even better if…?
    • What should I stop doing?

You can jot the answers down in writing if you like. This simple framework will give you perspective on how you work, and some hints on how to make things better. On the ‘What should I stop doing?’ question, try to identify things that are really unnecessary. You may well be surprised at how many there are. And it’s incredibly liberating to know that you have choice over how you choose to work.

Make your next appointment with yourself and repeat the exercise. This way you are making the choice to reject unhelpful working patterns, rather than reflexively persisting with them. Also you get some perspective on what is working well, and the opportunity to build on it. This way you’re giving yourself the forward momentum, the ‘bounce’ bit of resilience.

Self care

This is probably the most important part of resilience, and also the hardest to define. That’s because what works for you is going to be different from somebody else. It could be to make sure you run regularly, or that you make the time to read your favourite author. Whatever it is it should be something you enjoy, you look forward to, and leaves you with a feeling of satisfaction. It’s incredibly easy to sacrifice these simple acts of self care when you’re stuck in the Endurance Trap. But it’s a mistake to do so, because to keep going with resilience, you do need to nurture yourself.

I hope you can see how just by carrying out some fairly simple exercises, you can build resilience. It’s essentially about emphasising your own agency, and realising that you do have alternatives to simply trudging on. Talk to us to find out more.


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