Sprint or Marathon?

When we think about fixing problems, or moving in new directions, we do not think through the amount of time it will take to really make things better. Usually, we tend to underestimate the time involved. One rule of thumb I sometimes think about is that the amount of time it takes to reach a certain point is about equal to the amount of time it will take to get out of a given situation.

When we view problems through the proper time scale, it is often easier to make sense of setbacks and failures. In other words, if we think about the importance of exercise to getting healthy RIGHT NOW, then a few missed days becomes a catastrophe, a reason to abandon the whole enterprise. But if we think about exercise in the context of a daily habit over decades, it becomes much easier to contextualize going from not being active to active on a daily basis. Of course that does not change overnight– and of course there will be setbacks along the way.

Now, change can, and does, happen fast. But often what happens is a burst of energy and dedication to change, which leads to some initial success, followed by a derailment of the whole enterprise. In our heads, we are preparing ourselves for a sprint, but in fact, we need to be getting ready for a marathon.

Preparing ourselves to maintain change, and to sustain ourselves in a different way of being is often an equal (or bigger) challenge than simply making the initial change. WC Fields famously said “Quitting drinking is the easiest thing in the world– I’ve done it thousands of times.” When we want to change big, entrenched problems, we mistakenly think in months instead of years or decades.

For example, when someone has been using drugs for 4 years, it’s unlikely that life is going to totally turn around in 4 weeks. Yes, things can be better. But more than likely, life was not going well before the substance use started, and then 4 years of substance use made whatever problems were present dramatically worse. There’s a whole web of interrelated challenges that need to be worked on– why would we think that a problem that is half a decade in the making of un-knots itself in a month?

I see a similar phenomenon happen when someone decides to “get in shape.” I’m not saying that progress cannot be made in a few weeks (it can!) but truly thinking about living a different, healthier lifestyle is not something that just happens overnight.

Relationships are the same. When there has been a high level of dysfunction in a romantic relationship for years, 6 sessions with the best couples therapist in the world is not going to fix everything.

I find this frame of reference can be helpful when thinking about big, social issues that we face. Many of the problems we are collectively struggling with did not arise overnight. Whether talking about global warming, fairness in society, environmental stewardship, or struggles with building new infrastructure (or any one of a large number of problems) these are not things that arose in a day, a week, a month, or a year. Instead, they are problems that took many decades (or centuries, in some cases) to reach the place we are now. Why do we expect them to go away quickly?

The problem of timescale can work against us the other way, too. Sometimes, we make problems out to be bigger than they are, and so overestimate the amount of time they will take to fix. When this happens, the size of the challenge we face can morph in our minds into something so large and overwhelming that we cannot face it. The enormity of what we are taking on becomes overwhelming, and so we just shut down, rather trying to work through it.

By correctly understanding the time scale of a project, we can more accurately measure progress. If something should be fixed in a month, and 25 days in we’ve made no progress, we know we are off track. On the other hand, if something is a five year project, and at day 25 we feel we are still figuring out the shape of what’s to come, we might just be doing fine. But the confusion between the two can be deadly– if we expect a five year project to be finished in five weeks, we’ll give up in three when we realize we will not be done in another two.

One final thought. We are now in April, but a few short months ago, we were ringing in the new year. While I am not a big fan of setting resolutions, I am a big fan of reflecting and setting intentions. Many of us take the New Year as a time to identify challenges in our lives, and to set about making changes.

For many of us, the usual trajectory of this new year resolution exercise is to move into January with high levels of excitement and commitment. Then, over time, our commitment and excitement wanes. We forget, or de-prioritize, our exciting new change. By this time of year, many of us can barely remember what it was we committed ourselves to in the depth of winter.

Were the problems that you were thinking about in early January things that happen over a timescale of weeks, months, years, or decades? In light of that, do you feel like you are moving in the direction you set out to? If so, congratulations! We tend to be highly self critical, and giving ourselves credit or positive affirmation for doing hard or difficult things does not come naturally. If not, perhaps it makes sense to think about the timescale of the problem, and ask how to tackle it in light of that understanding. Most of the time, we think of sprints when we should prepare for marathons.

A final note of optimism. There are many quotes about how we tend to overestimate what we can do in a day, and underestimate what we can do in a year (or, overestimate what we can do in a year and underestimate what we can do in 5-10 years). The amount of change that people are capable of is something I find inspiring, humbling, and uplifting.

I believe people can change, because I have seen people change. We can fix our problems, and make things better. But doing so takes sustained effort over time. When we understand the time it takes to do great things, we allow ourselves the space to accomplish the things that matter.


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