Consistent Like the Tortoise

Remember the story, the tortoise and the hare — slow and steady wins the race? My logically inclined brain spent far longer than anyone should on wondering what that story was trying to say, I mean, how could that really happen? The hare is so much faster than the tortoise it makes no sense.

In hindsight, the story is actually delving into behavioural psychology, that is, humans don’t behave the way you generally expect. It is a story about consistency, and it brings up an very important core concept. You see, when it comes to achieving anything, most people are by definition average, and most people are like the hare. They start with a spike of motivation, and get miles ahead of the tortoise. They then slow down, due to any number of factors, overconfidence, drop in motivation, external events, excuses, other bright shiny objects etc. So yes, in theory, if you kept up that pace, you would well and truly win the race. In reality (and hence the message of the story) you don’t keep up that pace, and you are kidding yourself if you think you will for anything non-trivial, and eventually you will be overtaken by the tortoise. Because that tortoise will have a higher average speed.

Worse yet though you probably won’t even finish the race. This isn’t covered by the story but it is the more important point. If you are like the hare, you probably won’t finish at all. Don’t worry about beating the tortoise, just worry about finishing!

The take home? When you start, go slow, slower than you want to. Because you need to build consistency into any new system (remember systems/habits are far better than goals). Some examples:

  • Learning a language? Start with just one word a day.
  • Trying to get fit? Start with a 5 minute walk a day.
  • Trying to lose weight? Eat one healthy item a day.

Too easy? Yes! That’s the point, it is meant to be so easy you can’t not do it. Then once you get going you can build momentum, but even if you don’t, you’ll still be moving like the tortoise. Slowly? Sure but still moving.

Easy can also be Expensive

Taking the easy way out, always has a price. Often that price is hidden (or small in each instance), and in the moment, because it is the path of least resistance, everything is good, until you find you keep paying that price over and over and over again. Suddenly it becomes very high.

That all sounds a bit cryptic, take the classic issue of blaming someone or something else for a problem. This is the classic easy way out. The hard way, would be, despite the situation to take responsibility for the problem. Note this doesn’t mean taking fault, it means realising that the problem is something you and you alone need to deal with to build your character.

The easy way is to blame everything else but yourself, and shift the problem away from you. It works nicely in the short turn. It takes away the problem, the pain and any other emotion associated with it and puts it squarely on someone or something else. Done!

Except, over time, it depletes your character. You pay the cost of not being able to shoulder any burdens and over time, it means you no longer can. When a problem does surface that is clearly yours alone to deal with, now what? You breakdown because you didn’t build the strength and courage to deal with all the other preceding ones that would have helped you here. Now, that problem escalates into something that damages your core being. In isolation, the problem may be minor, but still you don’t know how to cope, because you’ve forgotten what it takes to deal with such a situation.

This is the price you pay for taking the easy way out, time and time again.

Negativity creeps up on you

One thing I’ve learned (particularly from my career) is that negativity creeps up on you. For a while you’re happy with what you are doing, then you start noticing things that are annoying but bearable, and before long, you seem to be against everything and irritated by everyone around you. 

I compare it to putting on weight. If you aren’t regularly checking your weight (and doing something to manage it), then before you know it, you’ve put on 10kg. You can’t quite pin exactly how it happened (it was a combination of factors), and now you have a real problem/challenge on your hands.

I feel the solution to countering this negativity cycle is similar to managing weight (and many other things that can creep up on you like debt, and not pursing your goals).

  • Step 1: implement a habit to measure it honestly. This is to make you aware of patterns that may indicate a problem.
  • Step 2: implement habit(s) to change course on a daily basis. Figure out what you need to do to counteract the situation and, well, do it. Also, make sure you aren’t sabotaging your efforts by ensuring your proposed changes are in alignment with the rest of your life.

The steps themselves are easy understand. Finding out what you need to do is also generally straightforward. The hard part is consistency. That’s why both steps are habits. You need to ingrain them into your life, so they have the opportunity to make a fundamental change.

Easy to say, hard to do, harder still to keep doing.