What We Can Learn From Impalas and Zebras

Impalas and zebras avoid being dinner for cheetahs and lions – at least most of the time – and it’s not by running faster. How do they do it? By doing just the opposite. They slow down. Read on to find out about the three “Ss” of the slow-down strategy, and how you can apply them to your work life.



Imagine you’re the zebra.

You pick up the image of the lion behind you already running at top speed, and your thoughts immediately narrow down to one essential idea: escape!

Zebras do escape lions – the most powerful cats in Africa, just as impalas escape cheetahs – the fastest cats in Africa. It happens all the time – more times than we would first think given that both cats are stronger, faster at accelerating, and faster at decelerating than their respective prey.

Researchers in Botswana were determined to find out how impalas and zebras avoided being dinner – at least most of the time. In a long-term study, the researchers observed more than one thousands hunts, following predator and prey with precision, as they had fitted a number of each animal with GPS tracking collars.

Why impalas and zebras were able to best these two apex predators came down to one word: smarts.

Over centuries, impalas and zebras had learned the hard way: they simply could not outrun cheetahs and lions in an all-out sprint. The predators were simply too fast. Turning defiantly to face their attackers wasn't an option, so they had to come up with another tactic that would at least give them a fighting chance to escape.

And that tactic was to slow down. Slightly.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but slowing down slightly gave the prey animals a momentary advantage: the ability to pivot. At least most of the time, a sharp turn or two was enough to avoid the carving utensils quickly closing the gap behind them. The cheetahs and lions could not turn as easily because they were running too fast.

What we can learn.

Imagine for a moment that you’re the “prey,” only it’s not lions and cheetahs closing in behind you; it’s your ever expanding list of self-inflicted, or assigned tasks that you’re attempting to juggle or tick off your list, one at a time. It’s all those activities you have on your plate at work and at home. Driven by the need to succeed on all fronts beyond some subjective standard – or merely to survive – you run faster, harder.

But the list seems to get closer and closer.

Your insidious inner voice chastises you for trying to do too much, and or, for not trying to do more! Maybe you make a comparison to a colleague or neighbor who appears to have it all together, momentarily spurring you to try harder. But parity always seems just out of reach.

All of this activity may feel like movement, right? After all, you are getting stuff done. But it’s really a form of “stuckness” – you’re caught in the grip of “never enough hours in the day” and “unable to manage it all.”

Fatigue sets in. You become demoralized – temporarily disengaged – before you catch your breath and take up the sprint again. And again.

In a worse case scenario, it is not uncommon for some individuals to feel isolated in the process even if surrounded by colleagues and family. And “isolation – loneliness,” Brene Brown recently reported from a British study, “is a greater predictor of early death than smoking, obesity, or excessive drinking.

And we thought lions and cheetahs were dangerous.

If we borrow a page from the impalas and zebras’ play book, the answer is not to throw away your list, it’s actually to add a point at the top of it that reads:


The greater the complexity, the deeper the reflective pause required to convert the complex to the clear and meaningful.

– Kevin Cashman, The Pause Principle: Step Back to Lead Forward

Give yourself time to think and systematically review everything on that list using the three “Ss”:

What activities can you Stop doing – eliminate because they’re simply long-term habits with no real merit?

What activities can you Shrink – do less, do just enough, reassign, share?

What activities can you Shelve – put off for another time because they’re not as important as something else?

In short, by slowing down, you actually give yourself the ability to pivot to a more rational, meaningful and safe existence.

And in a way, turn the tables on the predators.

Jeff Ikler