The habits of a pro vs amateur

I recently watched this bouldering video which addressed, among many other things, the question of what it means to train like or be a professional. I thought this is actually very important for the PhD life as well because this is the first time where I think you really need to approach things like a pro or you might not make it. So let’s dive into a crazy combination of boulder training and PhD advice. A list of actionable advice items follows at the bottom.


Andrew MacFarlane’s “Train like a Pro” challenges

Andrew MacFarlane is a guy who puts up bouldering videos on Youtube. Some of them I already mentioned when talking about training tips in the “What’s your *one* thing?” post.

Last summer, I did a little “training camp” inspired by his “Train like a Pro Climber for 1 Month” challenge during my fellowship. Most of the elements were training more regularly (I did three times a week), including antagonistic training (I did mostly pushups and some running for improved general conditioning), as well as eating well (low carb, lots of veggie and protein) and taking some supplements (protein, beta alanine and creatine).

When I saw that Andrew had done another challenge like this, I had the see the video straightaway. It’s an extension of his last project because 1 month really isn’t enough for drastic improvement, it’s just a 30 trial to see what will happen and whether you even like it. So now he did a “Train like a pro for 6 months” challenge to dive a little deeper.

He included more hangboarding training (and additionally took collagen supplements for better finger recovery) and a few more things. But what was most relevant for me in this whole video and also what I want to discuss in this post is a question which came up. And that is: “What does it really mean to train like a pro?” It means that you can’t make excuses because you’re too tired after work. That you always show up for training and give it your best with full focus at every single try. That you go the extra mile. And while I found this equally scary and motivating, I realized it’s also relevant for struggling PhD students.


What does it mean to be a pro?

Here are a few things I came up with. They are higly inspired by training plans (and common sense in those) but are just as valuable for any long term effort, like writing a PhD thesis and the like.

  1. No excuses. Unlike an amateur, a pro doesn’t make excuses even if they would have good reasons (too tired after work etc.).
  2. Always show up to give your best. A pro always shows up for training and gives it their best with full focus at every single try. They go the extra mile without having to be reminded that this is important. A pro always shows up to do the work as best as they can. An amateur gives up or half-asses it when they aren’t motivated. Don’t be an amateur.
  3. Put in the time (‘process, not product’). If you’re having a bad day, at least put in the time and give it your best. Don’t just skip the training / things you wanted to do. You’ll be glad you did it once it’s done. It might even turn out that you “warm up” to it while doing it.
  4. Have a (training) plan. That means a pro knows their goals, they know appropriate ways of tracking their progress to see whether they’re moving toward that goal and they know what they’ll likely have to do to make progress. If a planned technique didn’t work, they know straightaway because they continuously measure their progress. Then they come up with an alternative or tweak their approach asap in order to not lose any time.
  5. A pro doesn’t make desperate repair attempts, they have a plan for failure. It can always happen that you fall ill or an emergency comes up and you can’t train. Squeezing that training in the next day to make up for it, though, is a really bad idea. It will ruin your flow. So either reschedule the next week or, if you can, drop the lost todo item altogether. Transferred to work that means if you didn’t manage to squeeze in a task today, acknowledge that you miscalculated and that you couldn’t do it all. Instead of trying to squeeze it into tomorrow’s already full schedule, have a proper way of dealing with it. If it didn’t get done today, is it necessary at all or did you procrastinate on it because you dread the task? Re-plan accordingly: That means either face it now (if it’s sth you fear but needs to get done, you might have to skip what was planned for tomorrow in order to do so) or let it go (if it’s not essential). Hanging on to things you didn’t complete hurts your well-being and progress.
  6. A pro takes care of their health. That means streching regularly, taking care not to fall ill, eating well, etc.
  7. Take rest seriously. Avoid over-training like the plague. A pro has a plan (see 4) meaning that every training is deliberate just like the breaks are deliberate. A pro knows that messing with either one of those variables will greatly damage their success. So show up for your planned rest jus like you show up for your training. A pro knows that training harder than planned is not better training, on the contrary, it’s likely to ruin your weekly plan altogether. Don’t train longer than planned. You had your reasons when you set up that plan, don’t ignore it during execution time. If you have truly come to the realization that the plan was bad, plan differently next time but don’t deviate from the plan now. Teach your mind and body to stick to the plan. Meaning be strict with yourself in avoiding overwork (!). Consistent work every day is more productive than an all nighter followed by three unproductive days. There’s a reason why they say “When in doubt, leave one in the bar”. 
  8. Sleep enough. Make always being well rested and getting enough sleep a priority. Otherwise you cannot function at your best. Adaptation (for learning as well as for physical training progress) happens during rest, after all. 
  9. Keep a diary to track progress and collect data to measure success. If you want to train well, you need to be able to measure your success, identify criteria which damage your progress and so on. In order to have that sort of data, you need to keep track of your training in a training diary.
  10. Train in cycles. Have 1-3 month sprints where you work hard. Then take some time off where you have a real break for 2-3 weeks to recharge. Ease back into your training slowly afterwards.


So these were some thins I came up with. I hope you found some inspiration  and food for thought in this as well.



PS: Here’s Andrew MacFarlane’s instagram. And his Youtube channel. He makes really nice (and also beautiful) videos, so be sure to check it out.




  1. James, Clear, The Difference Between Professionals and Amateurs, this article is an excerpt from Atomic Habits, the New York Times bestselling book.

  2. Steven Pressfield, Turning Pro, Black Irish Entertainment LLC 2012.

Steven Pressfield’s book Turning Pro directs those of us who are stuck in amateur habits to consciously adopt a professional work ethic. Turning pro, he argues, is imperative to overcoming “Resistance with a capital ‘r.’” Resistance is the term he uses to describe the relentless force that’s determined to distract and indeed stop us from the important work it takes to achieve our dreams. Here are a number of distinctions the author draws between the habits of amateurs and professionals. (source)


OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Sarah Lang (April 5, 2020). The habits of a pro vs amateur. Epigrammetry. Retrieved July 17, 2024 from

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5 Responses

  1. Martin says:

    Then again, a pro is *getting paid*…

    • Sarah Lang says:

      That’s true but only partially true, I think. First of all, on the way to becoming pro and collecting the mastery needed, most pros weren’t paid yet. But they already had the habits. And also, for example Andrew MacFarlane says in his video that he wanted to make that excuse too, but then he realized that many “pro”-climbers actually do have a day job. Actually, this idea of pro = being paid is also in Steven Pressfield’s Turning Pro where he says that really, we just need to tap into that potential more when it comes to reaching private goals – because we already behave like pros in our day jobs (hopefully). I do get your point and it’s the “easy explanation” we all want to make for ourselves. I want to make it all the time too. But that also the same excuse which caused me to spend most of my days working on other people’s projects and then “letting myself off the hook” when it came to putting in time for thesis writing “because I was so tired”. The question for me now is – was that a good way of proceeding? ;D

      • Martin says:

        Which reminds me of the old joke: “As long as my boss pretends to pay me well, I’ll pretend to work well” 😉

  1. 17/05/2020

    […] the last post, I have already adressed the topic of the habits of the pro versus the amateur and also mentioned Steven Pressfield’s works (among others The War of Art and Turning Pro). […]

  2. 14/06/2020

    […] and other projects (self-development related) occupy my mind. Mostly, at the moment, that’s Steven Pressfield’s Turning Pro and the related philosophy. Which is probably fitting given that I’m entering the final phase of my […]

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