Maintenance is Undervalued

I often talk with patients about how to make change. How to exercise more, eat better, stop smoking, have more community, be less sedentary, or think about things differently. We will make plans together, adjust medications, and try new things. We do all this because we believe that our actions matter. We believe that we have agency in our own life. We believe that if we change, we can make our situation better.

But what are we supposed to do if our situation is already pretty good? How does all of this tinkering and improvement relate to us if we are in a good space? Yes, things can always be better, but perhaps when things are good, improvement is not the direction in which we need to move.

Suppose we have been in a bad space, and worked hard to change. We have started exercising more, adjusted our routines, shifted how we look at things, and how we relate to people. We are now in a good place. What then?

Then comes the hard work of maintaining what we have built. It takes effort and continued vigilance to keep up the things that are working for us. We spend enormous attention and effort on how to get things to be better, and then (relatively speaking) we neglect the work that is required to keep things going well, once we have changed them. Much ink has been spilled about how to start an exercise regimen— not nearly as much discussion goes into how to maintain it. Change is sexy. Maintenance is not.

Maintenance is undervalued.

It’s a funny thing. When we are miserable, we will spend lots of effort and energy to change things. When we are happy and doing well, it’s much more difficult to convince people to continue to do the things that are enabling that happiness and health. Nah, we say, this good place that I’m in, it just happens. We are willing to attribute our misery to our faults, and to try to do differently. But when we are happy, putting effort on just continuing to do what we are doing somehow rings hollow, and does not exactly fill us with pride.

I’ve written before how it is difficult to notice an absence of problems. Equally difficult is to notice how our ongoing, regular behaviors are driving happiness and good health. We tend to focus on what we are doing in our life what is not working, but we give much less attention to the things we are doing regularly that work well for us.

Because we tend to focus on problems, problems tend to take on outsize significance. I’m frustrated that I’m not going to bed early enough, frustrated that I’m not getting enough sleep. Yes, that’s a problem. Yes, let’s work together to change it. At the same time, let’s recognize that while that there are also lots of other things that you are doing that are working, and that simply need to be maintained. Eating well, exercising regularly, spending time with friends— all those things are on a good track, and do not need to be different— they need to be maintained.

If things are going well, if we are in a happy, content place, perhaps it would be more helpful (and honest) to shift our attention. To turn our gaze from what the small, marginal things are that require change and to focus instead on what we need to do to simply maintain what we have. Maybe we don’t need to focus on better health, we need instead to focusing on maintaining the good health we already have. Maybe we don’t need more friends, we need to maintain the deep, enduring friendships we already possess.

Look around, and this phenomenon becomes abundantly clear in ways large and small— my favorite example is our physical infrastructure. People (especially politicians) are excited to build new things, to start new projects. Maintaining what we have is given relatively short shrift. We thing a lot about how much it will cost to build something, but not nearly as much about how much it will cost to maintain it in good working order. Don’t believe me? How well paved is the road you drove on today? How well maintained?

If you are lucky enough to be happy with how things are in your life, perhaps it makes sense to shift your focus onto the hard work of maintenance. Acknowledge, at the same time, that doing this requires effort, and is no small feat.

Cheers,

-Dr. Justin