In Lewis Carrol’s novella, Through the Looking Glass, there’s a wonderful dialog between Alice and the Red Queen:
“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”
“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
I think about this idea often–running fast, just to stay in the same place–as a great metaphor for life. How much time do we invest just to maintain things? How much energy do we really dedicate to going beyond the status quo?
This isn’t a veiled critique on society, but an honest question. I believe the majority of time we spend each day is, as the Red Queen suggests, spent running just to stay in the same place.
What Percent of Your Day is Spent on Growth?
Running this blog and business is a perfect example. Each week I write a new article, send out ass-kicking updates to the members of my learning skills program, and respond to the dozens of emails and comments I receive. These are all worthwhile tasks, but they merely keep me in the same place.
Fitness is another example. I’ve been exercising regularly for long enough now that going to the gym no longer means gaining strength or losing fat. Four times per week at the gym sustain my current fitness, but they don’t improve it. I’ve even had moments where my physical shape was getting worse even though I was exercising regularly, simply because the intensity dropped.
Think about your daily routine–eating, showering, sleeping and work. I would guess that in a given week, there are probably only a few hours which are genuinely invested in something outside simply maintaining what you already have.
Good News, Bad News and Breaking out of the Red Queen’s Trap
Needing to spend a lot of time on maintenance isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, if most of your life is spent maintaining your status quo, that probably means there is a lot worth maintaining in your life.
For myself, I could complain that I need to spend hours each week just to keep my business in the same place. Or I could be extremely grateful that I have the opportunity to communicate and work with thousands of people every day doing what I love.
I suspect the same is true in your life. Life takes a lot of time for maintenance especially when it is truly worth maintaining.
The downside of this is that as you get improve, it becomes easier to stop growing. When exercising four times per week simply keeps you at the same level of fitness, how can you go beyond? When you need 40 hours just to get today’s work done, how do you set ambitions for tomorrow?
The Red Queen’s trap is that the effort that goes beyond the status quo is scarce. And unless we pay attention to it carefully, it can slip through our fingers.
Mentally Separate Maintenance Tasks with Growth Tasks
One way to avoid the trap is to mentally separate tasks which maintain your position from ones which allow you to grow. That way the hundreds of hours you spend each week don’t drown out the few hours you actually invest.
I’m not confident you can easily remove maintenance tasks without also removing the growth tasks.
With relationships, you can’t streamline out all the face time and communication just to spend it on intimacy-deepening moments. With fitness, you can’t cut out all the workouts and just focus on the extra few reps and miles that build strength and stamina.
Business and work may be an important exception, as you grow you can reinvest your gains into delegating, eliminating or automating the parts you’ve already mastered. That isn’t always possible with many other areas of life, and even if it were, it might not be desirable.
But even if you can’t automate your love life, there’s still tremendous value in knowing how much of your running is going beyond keeping you in the same place.
How much of your running is just keeping you in the same place? Do you mentally separate the tasks that keep things from falling apart versus the time you actually spend building your life? Please share in the comments!