The significance of small things done over time

Have you ever wondered about the potential of a seemingly insignificant, repetitive task? Let’s take an example: Imagine, from a very young age a child is taught to live healthily – eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, greens, nuts, regular exercise and sports activity, drinking plenty of water a day, meditation, and spiritual knowledge. One could view this upbringing as a very healthy preparation for the years ahead. While some may regard a few or most of the listed aspects of the child’s lifestyle as excessive, impractical, and sometimes unnecessary, it is true that one could grow to have a similar ‘balanced’ lifestyle by not being so fastidious about the little things in the first child’s life. Whilst we would all agree on a healthy diet, no one ever had problems due to the occasional intake of junk food and caffeine. Besides, what does one lose by missing one day’s worth of exercise, fruit and veg,  meditation, or spiritual knowledge?

One could (naturally) therefore, disregard some aspects of an ideal lifestyle as being insignificant, boring, or having very minimal effect that could be perceived immediately.  After all, such a rigid discipline leads to an unhealthy obsession – one  which actually prevents one from experiencing and enjoying life – does it not?

However, fast-forward 50 years into the future. This child, now a mature adult, while showing some signs of aging of the body, would definitely look much more youthful and healthy than most (if not, all) of his/her peers of same age. The benefits are not constrained to physical attributes – they extend beyond this to include: having the discipline to have a goal and persist despite all circumstances, until the goal is reached. In sharp contrast, most people’s new year resolutions only last a couple of weeks, after which the normal habits resume. It is therefore evident that the persistence and cultivation of good habits – especially the ones that seemed ‘insignificant’ – culminate into having a significant impact over time. Thus, it appears that certain things – which are seemingly insignificant – have a profound effect when compounded over time.

But the observation does not end there.

What makes this observation more significant is that, even if all of this person’s peers (after all those years of neglect) suddenly started living more healthily, and cultivated all the good habits of this person (who has been doing it throughout his/her life), I would assert that they still would not be able to catch up with this person’s level of advancement.

And this is my point: You cannot (always) play ‘catch-up’ in life.

For some things in life, we can ‘catch up’ by increasing our resolve in our efforts. Like walking twice as fast towards the bus-stop, due to being delayed by a few minutes, or turning up the heat in the stove in order to boil a pot of water in half the time. Yes, it is possible to compensate by increasing our effort, but the circumstances in which this could be applied is comprised of a small finite set. For the rest of things in life, you simply cannot ‘make up’ towards things you have been negligent towards.

I see people who have been ignoring the importance of saving for a pension for the first 10 – 15 years of their working life, and suddenly start making bigger contributions to their pension fund hoping to ‘catch up’ for the delay on their part. We see people start to take on longer and more strenuous exercise routines and sports supplements to minimise the cumulative damage they inflicted on their bodies by improper posture, malnutrition, and lack of exercise – with limited results. We see people try to repair the damage they have done the their relationships by neglecting to do the simple things  – like saying ‘Please’, ‘Thank You’, or remembering to keep an appointment or promise. We even see people suddenly embrace spirituality – on the verge of their death  – because long time ago, they looked upon religion as a crutch they did not need. All of these people had not understood the significance of doing something small over a lifetime. All of these people ignored doing these ‘trivial’ things – and this is what I have come to realize recently.

The little things do matter

I experienced this bitter truth during my second year at University, spending sleepless nights pouring over textbooks, cramming as much information as I could – a few days before the exam – when all that suffering could have been avoided by spending a mere 10 – 15 minutes each day going through my notes for the 3 months I was taught the module.

In Software Engineering, there is a fundamental graph that is used to explain the importance of avoiding mistakes very early on in the project life cycle.

As illustrated above, the cost of making a change is much more costly towards the end of the development cycle than it is towards the beginning.

It is the same in life; mistakes not corrected early in life culminate to big problems over time. People delay doing simple things, like putting 5% of their salary towards a pension, or doing some simple breathing exercise (Pranayama yoga) 5-10 minutes a day, or spending 5 minutes to tidy the clutter sitting on their desk, or go through the little things that they should do on a daily basis. These seemingly ‘insignificant’ things are so deceptively trivial – that we tend to dismiss them altogether, without paying much attention.

Interestingly, when things get difficult the quest for a ‘quick fix’ manifests within all of us. We love getting fast results which involve minimal effort – and we tend to dismiss things that take time. Which is ironic, as it was the dismissal of little things that take time that gave us the problem in the first place. Nevertheless, this affection with ‘quick-fixes’ has not gone unnoticed by marketing and advertising. Supermarkets are filled with microwaveable meals which are ‘ready to eat in less than 5 minutes’. Numerous diet pills, exercise gadgets, herb supplements are available on the market today to cater for the ‘busy’ people who want ‘quick results’. A quick look at Amazon reveals books such as ‘Learning <a popular programming language> in less than 24 hours’ for those who prefer to ‘catch-up’ with the learning they did not take the proper time and effort to learn. Numerous ‘Get rich quick’ books are being published for those who lack a meaningful goal in life, instead prefer to enjoy life by putting in the least amount of effort.

All of these marketing gimmicks aim to instill an impression in the peoples’ minds: that  “Quick-fixes are just as effective as things that take time”. This ideal is only true when applied in the context of ‘working smarter, not harder’  – advertising has distorted this sentiment by making it an absolute truth that needs to be applied in all aspects of our lives. The reality is not as simple as what the subtle advertising messages would like you to believe. Whether it is the latest get-rich-quick scheme, or healthy meals in less than 2 minutes, all of these attempt to cure the symptoms and not the cause of the problem – the person’s attitude towards life. It is for this reason, that most of the results of  these short-term rigorous exercise routines do not bring lasting benefits, and most people who subscribe to these fads nearly always have trouble maintaining the results they achieved. In my personal experience, I observed that I was more prone to forget subject material that I crammed for an exam the night before –  than the subjects which I loved and spent time each evening for an entire semester. I ended remembering the subject matter of those favourites long after I stopped studying it, whilst the others subjects (which I crammed for) were forgotten almost the day after the exam. Similarly, those who cultivate the discipline of taking care of the little often-neglected things in life over a long period of time, have much better success compared to those who lack patience and resolve end up resorting to fast, easy solutions that never work – and even when they do, yield only temporary results.

Remember the example I mentioned at the very beginning? Even though one may present oneself to have achieved the same level of success as the person who maintained a certain discipline for many years, there is another aspect that almost always goes unnoticed: despite physical similarities, both of these individuals are not on the same mental platform. The person, who has disciplined him/herself to have the courage, determination and fortitude to be resolute in their purpose will be far more advanced than the person who hasn’t. And the beauty about this is that, such a person’s achievements in life are not short-lived. Despite the ability to artificially catch-up with external attributes such as physique and beauty, it is not always possible to catch up with a person’s advancement in character. It is for this reason, that all of the catch-up gimmicks mentioned above do not work – they focus on curing the wrong problem: symptoms, and not the the root cause.

I believe the way forward for me is to not focus on big changes, and grandiose schemes that reap quick rewards, but to shape and build my character to something which I could reflect upon one day and be proud of. Everything else, will just fall into place – I need not worry about that.

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One Response to The significance of small things done over time

  1. Pingback: Reach for the Sun (New Years–>New Life, Part 2) |

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