How Fast are You Running to Stay in the Same Place?

The Red Queen tells Alice about running to stay in the same place.

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!

  • paurullan

    I will think about this; thanks for the post!

  • Jason

    I guess a start would be to monitor and regulate time spent internet surfing, emailing and facebooking! 🙂

  • Martin – TheUniversityBlog

    Hey Scott,

    The way I see it, the vast majority of a day breaks down into:
    1. Everyday, required tasks/actions you cannot easily avoid (mainly hygiene, sleep, and so on);
    2. Required tasks that require your personal effort;
    3. Required tasks that you can automate/outsource/delegate;
    4. Unexpected events (potential disruptors);
    5. One-off and rare tasks (various, sometimes maintenance);
    6. Personal enjoyment, free time, wasted time, etc.;
    7. Improvement, learning, ambition, etc.

    As you suggest, the required elements take up a large proportion of the day for most, if not all, people. But this is no bad thing, since we’re (generally speaking) all in the same boat. Rich, poor, or otherwise, much of the action throughout the day is spent running to keep in the same place.

    The difficulty of breaking through point 6 to reach point 7 is potentially huge. Especially when working hours can span the majority of waking time, a little personal time is seen as a reward. It’s a shame, though no surprise, that reaching point 7 is so tough.

    It, therefore, doesn’t take much time in the realms of improvement, learning and ambition before you’re sprinting ahead. That’s why I have no concerns about the time spent in the same place. If I was unhappy there, I would rather change direction on that spot and keep looking around until I was satisfied with the view…

    Once in a happy place, even a small amount of time on ambitious projects is worth a great deal. In my mind, the value is in knowing how much time you have that *doesn’t* require running on the spot and making a conscious effort to try moving. The available time may well stay the same. But with practice and continued determination, a walk can turn into a jog, which can turn into a sprint.

  • Arami

    Love it.

  • Paola

    “Every day – every single day, you get up, wash yourself, make your bed… but what for, then?”, this I was regularly repeating some years ago, usually when I felt tired because of school, homework and daily routine in general. Same things, to always maintain the same.
    Years later, I read something about this anxiety for daily repetition in Martin Heidegger’s “Being and time” (Sein und Zeit).
    I understood two things.
    First, this daily anxiety was not a mere problem of mine: somebody else was suffering about it. I was not alone, at least!
    Second, this much common problem was nevertheless one of the most struggling for the philosophical thinking.
    I felf a bit better, immediately. Nowadays, I’m still going on questioning about the same, but I feel less stressed about routines, and try to set them in shape as “habits”.
    I try to separate some part of time in routines and some part in “free”, almost un-shaped acts and doings.
    The main matter is proportion between the two items: sometimes routine goes 99% and free-acting less than 1%… sometimes the opposite. That’s not absolutely bad: but it is when quantity and quality don’t match – when, for insance, I spend much routine-time doing aimless things, or spend “free” time without inspiration.
    How to find balance? A useful trick is to ask myself “well, what have you been doing in the last five minutes? Could you do something better?” – if the answer is Yes, the best act is to stop immediately, and do something worth. “Carpe diem” is obviously not a simple point to set…

  • Dave

    Having read the Red Queen Effect by Matt Ridley (even though it’s about evolution), I often think about “treadmills” and “arms races” in other parts of life. I personally have been finding ways to decrease my possessions and expenses to my maintenance time is less. It’s difficult knowing which “treadmills” are worth running on, whats worth maintaining, and what can be let go. I definitely like the idea of separating time to improve from maintenance is an excellent idea. Even though I’d like to think I can take all moments as an opportunity for growth, it can be very, very tiring.

  • Dan

    I guess this is what Franklin Covey called “sharpening the saw”. Improving yourself by learning new traits and making it a habit as well.
    I read it somewhere, where another guru called it the “house of power”. Whatever you name it as long as you develop yourself daily as a habit and dedicate a fair amount of time for that, I guess we can make wonders happen.

  • Wendy Irene

    I would have to say a huge amount of my time is spent running just to keep me in place. That is why when I need a break from it all; I have to leave home because otherwise I am not forced to get off the treadmill, which is so essential for my happiness once in a while. This was great because now I am going to be a little more aware.

  • Hotrao

    Some points:

    a) What percent of the day is spent on growth? Great point; my only suggestion is not to have all day spent on growth. A good house is made also from solid foundations. Is a personal matter, but a 70/30 rule for starting with the 70 being consolidation could be good.

    b) The red queen trap: “[…] Life takes a lot of time for maintenance especially when it is truly worth maintaining.[…]”. Another good point, especially if you think of maintenance as a moment of growth itself.

    c)Mentally Separate Maintenance Tasks with Growth Tasks: this is the key, because helps in general terms to learn separating (on a mental point of view) the task we plan and perform

  • Richard @ Lifestyle Design Unl

    In terms of maintenance I suppose one of my lifestyle design aims is to minimize the time that it takes me to maintain my life which can therefore provide me with more opportunities to grow.

    With a typical entrepreneurial nature I enjoy the thrill of new things but then can quickly tire of everyday maintenance. I love to write ebooks but then once I have finished them sometimes the buzz has gone and I struggle to finish them off and actually get them online.

    Washing, ironing, paying bills and all those other everyday tasks simply aren’t exciting so I have been investigating ways to minimize my maintenance time.

    For example I am using more SEO than PPC or social media to market my sites – which means less maintenance and hands-on activity. It also means I can take time off to study, travel etc. without worrying too much.

    I am setting up sites that require no customer service and minimal time, paying bills automatically and so on. The goal is really to limit my maintenance to only a day or so per week (in total) by around 9 months time to free me up to grow, improve myself and “live the dream”.

  • Royale Scuderi

    Great perspective! You are absolutely correct. I think my comfort level is about 80/20. I need about 20% of my time for growth, 2-3 hours per day. Although, I would consider my running and weight lifting time growth as I am always pushing to improve!

  • Frances

    Well, what’s the solution? If only somebody else could do all my stuff and I could be free to engage in self discovery. The rut is too deep. If there is a setback, catching up is overwhelming. Oh dear! Faggetaboutit.

    I know, a bunch of money would buy time by having servants take care of stuff. Now, where is the money?

    No, no. I must change my attitude and then everything will ‘seem’ just fine. O.k. I got it. I think.

  • Petrina…Mid-life & me

    Possibly the assessment of effort vs value is useful…maximising value whilst minimising effort. The ongoing cycle of life/personal development…

    “Growth” becomes “Habit” becomes “Routine” becomes “Efficient Routine” thus allowing time for more “Growth”.

  • Jim Greenwood

    Great post Scott,
    There certainly is a lot of running in life. Faster, slower, this way, that way, to keep up, to get ahead. For me, being a bit older now, there is still running, but there is more focus on enjoying wherever the running occurs or takes you. The journey is the destination kind of stuff…
    Thanks for sharing.
    Have Fun,

  • Zengirl @ Heart and Mind

    Some days or weeks i do not get to anything growth related but still I believe learning is happening even while you are on break! Brain needs some down time from all these life improvement and just be!

    Other days, I leap and make a huge progress in short time. Who knew?

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  • René

    It is amazing how one fills up with unessential routines and things. Some time ago, my wife and I enjoyed a sabbatical year at a different country. We rented an apartment and took with us whatever fit in our small car. We were coming home every two weeks, anyway; we figured we could fetch anything we needed. Surprisingly, we fetched very few of these. It was a very light and revealing year.

  • Joe Adams

    Definitely awesome information, and genuinely helpful. The first blog post to make me think in a little while now.

    I like the distinction between maintenance and growth. I feel like, for me, most of what I do is casual maintenance or maintenance overdrive. I want to grow, but I wind up doing my maintenance tasks and activities more–I never get off the treadmill and go anywhere, just the same place faster.

    I generally end up tired without any noticable benefit. This info will definitely help me rethink my daily activities. “Is this mainenance, or is this growth?”

    As always, you rock buddy.


  • Dr Paul Dyer

    I’m compelled to share a quote from the great Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “We never step in the same river twice.” It may look like the same place, but the river, and our lives are constantly moving and changing. I agree with Heraclitus, returning to the status quo is an illusion.

  • nXqd

    Thanks for mentioning this, I’ve read a lot of successful man’s stories. They all have improvement – task everyday , they keep moving instead of stay and maintain what they have 😉

  • Angella Foster

    I recently transitioned from working as an independent artist to running my own dance company, and this issue of maintenance time vs. growth time is a huge issue for me already. I’ve started considering all that maintenance time to be a bit of a burden, but it was helpful to be reminded that when something is good it is worth the effort to keep.

    And, also it makes me think about how some of life’s daily activities also act as rituals that keep me centered and refreshed. I’ve learned to see washing dishes as valuable time to let my mind wander or enjoy listening to music…I just need to bring that same mindset to the maintenance routines of the admin work that supports my art. Not sure what that looks like yet, but it is good to think about.

  • Mejsel


    This is a post that came at the right time. I have been struggling a lot with this lately. I do agree with your input, however I am not sure how to apply it. In my case as a father of three boys (8, 6 & 4 years) I am up to my neck in maintenance of life. Which is fine because it is a life well worth maintaining.

    However, when looking at the day it starts at 06.00 with breakfast and arrangement for kids and off to work and coming back home, dinner and activities it then ends at bedtime for kids around 20.30. After that we have the maintenance tasks of running a familily with groceries, cleaning, washing and potentially some more work to handle.

    This leaves very little time for growth and “sharpening the saw”.

    Anybody have input or good ideas how to solve this? Good reading suggestions is welcome!

  • Jim Greenwood

    “Little time for growth and sharpening the saw” Wow, you have a bunch of little saws to sharpen. I have four kids (21, 23, 25 and 28). They’re out of the house now, moving on with their own lives but I commiserate on the amount of time and effort it takes. (And it will go so quickly you won’t believe it)

    Solve this? I think what you’re doing is great. Keep up the good work, there is learning and sharpening you’re not even aware of.

    Suggestions? One, when your kids come home from school don’t ask them what they learned, ask them what good questions they asked.

    Have Fun,

  • Selina Pittari

    This article is a great new way of thinking about exactly where my hours go and what function they’re performing. I think this was exactly the article I needed today since I’ve been only semi-conscious of my life for the past few weeks. So, thank you.

  • Petteri @ Happiness Hunters

    I like the points in the article. Maybe it all depends on if you are satisfied with the status quo or not. For some people it is enough, but some of us want to progress all the time and get better in anything we do.

    Sometimes we find happiness when we realize that we already have everything we need. Sometimes we find it by realizing what our bigger goals are and going after them.

  • Maicon Sobczak

    One great question. For sure I’ll think about it. Thank you for the post.

  • Mary Robenson

    I liked your blog very much. Really i mean it. But i guess thats human nature, ain’t it? To stay in the same place, with same people and to cuddle with same person we run and we run hard. Thats human nature.

  • Eddie

    Practically, I’m selling my single family home and moved into a rental apartment just to cut down a HUGE amount of maintenance tasks in a house such as lawn mowing, shoveling snows, never-ending repairs and upkeeps, landscaping, etc…..