The Tortoise And The Hare

In this article I'd like to talk about a principle that has literally revolutionised my approach to just about everything I do. It’s so powerful – yet mind numbingly simple, that when I was introduced to it my initial reaction was to think “I already know this”. So before I get into the details, I'd like to first address the error made in my reaction.

I Already Know?

One thing i've come to understand about fundamental principles is that they're usually easy to understand – they can sometimes be difficult to apply, but they're easy to understand. I mention this because of an error in judgement I've made various times throughout my life. This error can be summed up in three words “I already know” or "it's common-sense".

“I already know” switches off the mind to learning, it impedes new perspectives and confuses KNOWING with DOING. "It's common-sense" prevents self-analysis – it inhibits any objective comparison between what you're reading and what you're actually doing.
Those 3 words will kill self-awareness because you probably think of yourself as a level-headed person (most people do); However, because of that belief, you're unlikely to take on board and implement what you deem to be "common-sense information". I mean why would you, you already know this stuff because it's oh-so obvious!
Some people can even be faced with "common-sense" information and declare that they aren't applying it, but know all about it. Usually it's because these same people are looking for a more complicated answer, approach or even something that will lead to a shortcut. For some reason simple has become synonymous with stupid, and if it's too simple it obviously can't be effective?
Confusing learned knowledge with knowledge gained through experience (i.e. putting learned knowledge into practice), is a fairly prevalent trait amongst analytical types like myself. I spent years soaking up information and reading over similar concepts, which with time embedded that knowledge deeply. After a long enough exposure to similar teachings, I began to feel like I'd learnt everything I needed to. The reality, however, was that I only understood things on an intellectual level – I hadn't experienced or applied much of what I supposedly “already knew”.
The following are beneficial for overall health

  • Eating five servings of fruit/vegetables a day.
  • Drinking at least eight glasses of water spread throughout the day.
  • Walking manageable distances instead of using transportation.
  • Walking for at least 30 minutes a day.
  • Avoiding long periods of inactivity.
You can enhance muscularity and strength

  • Via consistent and progressive overload.
  • By challenging yourself and training hard.
  • By consuming quality food and enough calories to support development.
  • By consuming an adequate quantity of lean protein.
If i were to make these assertions, i believe most people reading this would exclaim “yes I know – everybody knows, it's common knowledge”. Except, is it common knowledge because everybody is applying the above consistently and experiencing the benefits? Or is it because they've heard, seen and read similar concepts many times before? I'm really trying to hammer this distinction, since I've found myself switching off to advice because I've thought “I already know this”. Then because I switch off – i don't go out and apply what I've read. So please take this into consideration when you’re faced with the simplicity of what I’m about to share!

First things first, here’s the short fable of the “tortoise and the hare”. For those of you that already familiar with it, feel free to skip ahead.

Once upon a time there was a hare who, boasting how he could run faster than anyone else, was forever teasing tortoise for its slowness. Then one day, the irate tortoise answered back: “Who do you think you are? There’s no denying you’re swift, but even you can be beaten!” The hare squealed with laughter.
“Beaten in a race? By whom? Not you, surely! I bet there’s nobody in the world that can win against me, I’m so speedy. Now, why don’t you try?”
Annoyed by such bragging, the tortoise accepted the challenge. A course was planned, and the next day at dawn they stood at the starting line. The hare yawned sleepily as the meek tortoise trudged slowly off. When the hare saw how painfully slow his rival was, he decided, half asleep on his feet, to have a quick nap. “Take your time!” he said. “I’ll have forty winks and catch up with you in a minute.”
The hare woke with a start from a fitful sleep and gazed round, looking for the tortoise. But the creature was only a short distance away, having barely covered a third of the course. Breathing a sigh of relief, the hare decided he might as well have breakfast too, and off he went to munch some cabbages he had noticed in a nearby field. But the heavy meal and the hot sun made his eyelids droop. With a careless glance at the tortoise, now halfway along the course, he decided to have another snooze before flashing past the winning post. And smiling at the thought of the look on the tortoise’s face when it saw the hare speed by, he fell fast asleep and was soon snoring happily. The sun started to sink, below the horizon, and the tortoise, who had been plodding towards the winning post since morning, was scarcely a yard from the finish. At that very point, the hare woke with a jolt. He could see the tortoise a speck in the distance and away he dashed. He leapt and bounded at a great rate, his tongue lolling, and gasping for breath. Just a little more and he’d be first at the finish. But the hare’s last leap was just too late, for the tortoise had beaten him to the winning post. Poor hare! Tired and in disgrace, he slumped down beside the tortoise who was silently smiling at him.
“Slowly does it every time!” he said.

Of course, different people will attach various meanings depending on their outlook. Some will say “slow and steady wins the race ”, others will mention the hare's arrogance, a few will say that you should always try – even when the odds aren't in your favour. I on the other hand wish to discuss consistency.

The Tortoise Consistency – Steady Steps

If I were to credit one principle with having the biggest positive impact on my life, it would be consistency. I've come to understand that in the eyes of time, no action is too small when repeated consistently.

For example, if I were to drink a cup of coffee today with 2 added teaspoons of sugar (which equates to approximately 50 calories), would I wake up tomorrow unhealthy or overweight? Of course not. How about if I were to have a sugary cup of coffee every morning for a year?

Well let's do the math.

365 days times by 50 calories = 18,250 Calories
18,250 divided by 3,500 = 5.2 lbs of potential added weight – most of which happens to be body fat.

Would over five pounds of body fat drastically change my appearance?
It probably wouldn't be too noticeable … it wouldn't look great though!

How about after three years?
5.2lbs times by three = 15.6 lbs

Would almost 16 pounds of added flab be noticeable?
I'm fairly certain it would!

Now I understand that weight gain/loss is dynamic and not this simple. Also, 3,500 calories is also another huge oversimplification. To make things simple, let's assume the majority of the calories consumed are surplus to a maintenance intake and are stored as body fat. I'd hate for people to miss the forest for the trees!

Oh The Irony!
To me, it seems almost ironic that many weight-conscious people tend to experience guilt over eating a slice of birthday cake (a seldom occurrence for most), that accounts for maybe between 500 – 5000 calories over the course of the year. Yet they experience nothing over a small daily habit that accounts for 18,000+. Food for thought…

This is why I believe some people wake up one day and think “how the hell did I get like this”. It's generally because of tiny – almost imperceptible – everyday actions that have been repeated over time. These actions travel under the radar of our awareness, simply because they are so small and unconsciously driven that we don't pay attention to them. Even when we do “detect them with our radars”, we're typically faced with a conversation along the lines of “one teaspoon of sugar won't make a difference”. It's that mistake repeated consistently, however, that allows tiny negative actions to thrive and strengthen as habits.
Reverse the Process 
I've found that the trick is to use this process in reverse and to my advantage. I start by thinking of a few positive daily actions, or how I can cut down on a few negative habits. I then go to work and apply them every day thereafter. In the beginning, every change I make needs to be manageable – this is important! The changes need to be manageable because they need to be done consistently (at least 30+ days) before they start to take root and become habits. After I feel an action is routine enough to be deemed a habit, I can raise my standards and increase its effectiveness.

So for example, using the above-mentioned coffee example. If I were to cut down to one sugar per day for at least 30 to 90 days; I would then consider raising my standards by going sugar free, or possibly even replacing coffee with green tea for instance.

It's like growing crops… I plant the seeds (new actions), I cultivate the crops (time and persistence) then I harvest them in due time (reap the rewards).

Some of you may be thinking “I don't want to wait years to see noticeable changes, I want results yesterday” – which is understandable! This isn't about doing things “slow and steady” this is about manageable and steady. If you can keep on top of things and control the formation of multiple habits, then your new motto can be “fast and steady”. Personally however, I've found the forming of multiple habits simultaneously to be very challenging – since my focus becomes stretched and my conscious mind becomes burnt out. In the past, this has lead to inconsistency and a failure to maintain any action long-term. Just keep this in mind, since it's better to form and utilise one or two manageable habits over 30 days, then it is to fail miserably attempting to form several big habits all together every month, indefinitely.
A little Perspective
Putting things in perspective, if you were able to develop and maintain one or two positive actions every month (turning them into habits) – then over the course of a year, you'd have a total of 12 to 24 unconsciously driven actions yielding HUGE results. So if a mere 2 teaspoons of sugar every day can potentially add 15+lbs of body fat over three years. Can you imagine using this process in reverse, with 12 to 24 small daily habits working to your advantage?

For myself, I never make new actions any more difficult than they need to be. Once they become established habits and part of my routine, I'll experiment with upping my standards. With regards to my health and training, I'm in it for the long haul. It would make no sense for me to sacrifice a rewarding long-term investment (a positive habit), for an unsustainable short-term increase in results (using willpower alone). I know when I first started out I had to deal with the allure of dramatically BIG, all or nothing, grab life by the balls, Hollywood montage approaches to things. I think I was very misled to the amount of time a worthwhile goal takes to achieve (and more importantly, maintain and then expand upon afterwards). The truth is, our lives are the produce of small, repetitive and unconscious daily actions repeated over time; and while the grandiose displays of all-out willpower appear to be impressive; in the long run, they contribute as much to overall change as the aforementioned “birthday cake" example.

I'm going to create a page with a list of manageable “tortoise steps” that can be cultivated into powerful habits. I will add new habits as I implement them myself, so you can follow along with me and see where they lead two or three years down the line. If I've created this page already – click this link here.

I'm also going to be writing about two subjects that tie into this article.

I recommend reading both since they will expand on the practical application of what I've discussed in this article.
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