A sure sign that a person is losing a fight is when they give up on precision and strategy, to instead swing and lunge wildly at their foe, hoping to get a lucky connection. Unfortunately, this is very often the same manner in which we fight the problem areas of our lives, taking passionate, wild swings at our trouble, but consistently missing our mark.
I have been guilty many times of panicking at a bank statement, or a number on the scale, or a new mess in the house, and then I lunge at the problem with everything I have. I want to subdue the issue quickly and permanently, and so I try to take the biggest steps that I can towards doing so.
And, if I were able to sustain this, I probably would see real and rampant improvement in the area. But the fact is, none of us are able to maintain this sort of frantic behavior for long. We quickly lose our stamina and then aren’t able to do any work at all. Not only that, but while we’re obsessively working on one area of life, we tend to ignore all the others, and the lost ground in those areas can easily outweigh the gained footing in the one we are focused on.
Thus, our desperate efforts are doomed to failure and frustration. We’ll wind up right back where we before, and probably even worse off.
The Tortoise and the Hare)
We’re all familiar with the famous story of the tortoise and the hare, and with its moral that “slow and steady wins the race.” It might be in our nature to react to stress and fear in dramatic ways, but we need to suppress that urge and instead approach the issue with thoughtfulness and consideration, and then we need to act in a calm and deliberate manner.
If you only make mild progress towards accomplishing your goal, you won’t exhaust yourself prematurely like the hare did. A mild effort is sustainable for the rest of your life. Even better, you can only really perform one desperate lunge at a time, but you can maintain multiple mild efforts in different areas simultaneously.
As discussed in my last post, we need to shift our focus from “what is the massive gap between where I am now and where I want to be,” and instead consider “how much effort is it going to take to just get things moving in the right direction?
A Recipe for Improvement)
There is a practice I have implemented in my own life to help me keep my efforts grounded and reasonable. First, I make a list of all the areas in life that I feel I am losing ground in. Then, I try to make my best judgment for how much effort would be enough to overcome the daily entropy in each of those areas. So, for example, in the matter of cleaning the house, I don’t have to make everything spick-and-span in one weekend. I need to figure out how much mess is made in a day, and I need to clean up that much mess, plus just a little more, so that over time the house will reach the state I want it to be in.
Once I have quantified this for each area, then I have my daily to-do list. I know what my financial budget is, how many calories I’m allowed to eat, and how many messes need to be cleaned. Anytime I find myself with a spare moment in a day, I consult my list and take care of the next thing on it. Once the list has been accounted for I can spend the rest of my day on whatever projects or leisure I want with a clean conscience.
A Foundation to Build On)
You may find that your to-do list isn’t very demanding. You might be able to do all of your maintenance and improvements in just a small section of your day and still have hours leftover. It might be tempting to immediately raise your daily goals to something more ambitious, but I would recommend giving yourself a couple weeks at this lower capacity to see whether the pattern holds.
I have had times where the first week of following my plan was a breeze, because I was still highly motivated and the week did not have much else scheduled for it. After a little while, though, excitement for the new program cooled down and I had the occasional unusually busy week. This was the real test for whether my plans were sustainable or not.
If the pattern does hold for you, though, then you can incrementally raise your expectations for each day, resulting in you reaching all of your goals even more quickly. What’s important is that the goals still remain sustainable, though. You want to be able to meet them every day with rare exception.
Finding that you have extra time and resources is, of course, the happy outcome. The other possibility is realizing that you don’t have the capacity to even do the bare minimum in each area. Going through this process has helped us identify that our life is fundamentally unsustainable and to what degree. While this may be a depressing realization, it is crucial information to obtain. It is better to know where the realities are and react accordingly than to keep plowing ahead in vain behaviors.
This brings us to our options. Difficult options, to be sure, but now we can intelligently choose them. Tomorrow we’ll dive into those difficult choices and how we can determine the best ones for our situation.