January is when it happens. The season of New Year’s Resolutions brings the self-help gurus out of hiding, and they’re all ready with advice for you. Lose weight. Write that book. Run a marathon. Get a promotion. If the development of the Internet has had one effect on society, it’s the overwhelming amount of advice that’s always right at our fingertips, telling us how to solve all of the problems in our lives.
Think back on your life. Think about all the times that you set out to make a change in your life. If you’re anything like me, you probably aren’t short of examples. Now, though, think about the number of successes you’ve experienced. How many books have you actually finished writing? How many pounds did you not only lose, but also manage to keep off?
It’s funny. In the process of creating a culture of self-improvement, we’ve inadvertently created an echo chamber of failure. There are bookshelves full of volumes telling you about the changes you should make, but (it would seem) none telling you why it’s so hard to actually make them.
I’ve thought about this situation for a long time, and I think I’ve come up with at least a partial answer. It gets down to one powerful word:
When you think about exercising and getting into shape, you’re not thinking to yourself: “Boy, I can’t wait to look my best next year.” You want to look and feel better now (or, at the very least, soon). The culture of “now” pervades the self-help industry. Go online and, in ten minutes of searching, you could probably find a dozen articles on the changes you can make right now to start living the life you’ve always wanted.
There’s a problem with “now,” however. It’s hard to achieve and more difficult to sustain.
I can remember one time when I decided to take up jogging. I got dressed up in my best active wear, laced my shoes tight, and I carefully stretched out before starting to run. It wasn’t long before my lungs were burning, but I pushed myself hard that day because I knew how much improvement I needed to make. And at the end, I was hurting but I felt good about myself. That good feeling lasted until the next morning, when I woke up with stiff and aching muscles. Every step as I jogged on that second day sent a new jolt of pain through my sore legs. I pushed myself again, but it didn’t feel as good that second day, and the third day was worse than that. It wasn’t long before I was skipping days (because my body was sore and I’d been so good and I deserved some time off), and not long after that I wasn’t jogging anymore.
Or consider the example of a guy I used to know. I was working as an editor in the video game industry at the time, and this guy’s dream was to be a game writer. I did what I could to get him a job, but he didn’t have any experience and I couldn’t convince my higher-ups to take a chance on him. So I gave the guy the bad news, and then I offered some advice: spend six months or so writing pro bono for some website, and then use those writing samples to get the job of his dreams. He didn’t like that idea, though. He needed a job “now,” and six months was too far away.
That was ten years ago. If my friend had taken my advice and spent those six months the way I recommended, he might have spent the last nine years in his dream job. Ten years on, those first six months would have seemed like nothing. But, in pursuit of a dream he could land “right now,” he gave up on his future.
Patience is a superpower. You are better-served starting slow and easy with a new initiative (be it exercise, productivity, meditation, or what have you), and then building slowly over time. In the process you will build positive habits that will serve you well in the long term. By starting slow, you will not set short-term objectives for yourself that will be too steep and result in disillusionment and defeat. By starting slow and remaining patient, you are allowing yourself to reach all of your dreams … later. Because “later” is, when it comes to the big things of life, still a really good outcome.
Start slow. Be patient. Build incrementally on each success. And don’t fall in love with “now,” because “now” doesn’t really love you back.
Originally published at medium.com