When I was in school, I hated to prepare for tests. I had this strange idea that, if I didn’t get the material in class, I probably wasn’t going to get it doing homework or studying for tests, especially if it was a subject I didn’t care a lot about anyway. So I put off studying until usually a day or so before the exam. And while I did well enough most of the time (and failed spectacularly several times), I was always tense as the teacher made the rounds, handing out the tests. I could have known a month in advance and still, I would not make myself study until I absolutely had to. I “wanted to”. At least that’s what I told myself. But in reality, I didn’t want to bad enough to put school in front of leisure.
I’ve talked to a lot of people in life who “want to” prepare for things much more serious than a physics test. They “want to” get their finances in order, or prepare for their family’s future, or get in better shape, or start a new business – any of a number of things that would make life better for them and those around them.
And months or years later I see them and things are no different from before. The reason is simple: they didn’t “want to” bad enough. Leadership expert John Maxwell says, “When the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of changing, we’ll change.”
But when life is comfortable and “later on” seems so far down the road and there appears no immediate threat or urgency, well, we just keep on drifting.
And life’s a funny thing. A close call with a heart attack will often inspire a man to lose weight and take better care of his body. Getting debt collector calls and teetering on the brink of bankruptcy will motivate us to clean up the financial messes we’ve made. Seeing a close friend retire and be nearly broke will light a fire under us to think more seriously about retirement savings.
And I’m not criticizing people who find sudden motivation in the face of great adversity or risk. Those are great opportunities for change. I’m simply saying we do not have to wait for the threat to be urgent in order to get ready, to make changes, to be a more responsible steward over the things God has put in our lives. We can look ahead now, today, and be fairly certain that, with or without preparation and personal development, these things will meet us one day. Or, in some cases, those opportunities may pass us by entirely. And while it can be tough to overcome our internal reluctance, I believe we all understand that regret usually hurts much more than the grind of preparation.
But I also believe we frequently deceive ourselves into thinking we can start later. Tomorrow. Next week. At the end of summer. When the kids have moved out. Next New Year. When someone else stops hindering me.
So how do we break the pattern and temptation of neglect?
First, change your perspective. Instead of “plenty of time” being a reason to put things off, look at it instead as a reason to get it done now. When you make something a priority, it’s amazing how getting it done early can invigorate you and even build momentum to get even more done. Putting things off, however, removes margin and opportunity. So look at it from the point of view of, “doing this now enables me to do more later.” It’s like riding a bike downhill instead of uphill.
Next, just do it. Just start. Often times when I am faced with something I’d rather not do, I find that if I’ll just start, my reluctance fades pretty quickly. While it’s tempting to wait until we feel like it, the truth is that we’ll rarely do the best things if we wait until we feel like it. The most highly successful people in business, the people who lose a lot of weight, those who get out of debt – they don’t wait until they feel like taking on the world. They often start the hard work when they really just do not feel like it. But putting one foot forward, then the other, and continuing in small steps – that is how success happens. And again, often if we just start, the “feel like it” follows close behind.
Finally, get someone to hold you accountable. I’ve heard story after story of people who turned their finances around or trained for a running event who attribute a lot of their success to having someone to hold them accountable. It’s easy to lie to ourselves or convince ourselves that it isn’t worth the effort. But it is very different when there’s someone who will call us out for our neglect and procrastination. Not someone rude or belittling, but someone who will encourage us and remind us of the goal. When you’re in the midst of paying off thousands of dollars in debt, sometimes the trees are all you see – the mound of debt remaining. But it’s motivating to have a friend who will remind you what’s on the other side and lift you above the trees for a few moments to help you see the edge of the forest, to help you focus on hope again.
It is certainly easy to sit back and believe that we have plenty of time to do things we know are crucial but are also perhaps uncomfortable. But I hope you don’t let that lull you to sleep when there is so much of life to live through and on the other side of solid preparation.