Years ago, I ran cross-country in High School. I wasn't very good at it.
I would run too fast at the beginning of the race, putz along at a snail's pace in the middle of the run, then sprint at the end of the race. I continued this particular style of cross-country "racing" into college. Every once in a while I'd have an okay run, mostly because I'd see some teammate not that far in front of me and I'd run my heart out to catch up with her.
Long after college, on some particularly long hike with a friend, we stopped for a rest. After the rest turned long, during one of my long-winded stories about my lack of running ability, my friend turned to me and commented, "You know it's easier to keep up than it is to catch up."
Of course, intellectually I knew this. Even in childhood, the tortoise wins over the hare, slow and steady wins the race. And yet, even on that hike when I knew a steady pace was going to keep us with the rest of our companions, I wanted a break, we'd catch up later.
Wow, what a theme that thought had become.
I don't need to invest for retirement now, I'll catch up later when I'm earning more.
I don't need to let my significant other know I love him, I'll let him know later how much I love him.
I don't need to write these 1000 words today, I'll catch up tomorrow with 2000 words in this NaNoWriMo novel.
I don't need to worry about this bug, I'll fix it tomorrow when I'm more refreshed.
I don't need to go for a run today, I'll just go for a longer run tomorrow.
I don't need to skip this dessert, I'll just forgo the extra calories later.
Years later, my retirement account isn't as big as I calculated I needed. My significant other is no longer my significant other. I didn't finish that novel. The number of bugs for this project is so many I want to rewrite the thing and start over. I'm winded playing Ultimate in ways I never was before, and, yes, I'm carrying a few more pounds than I want to be.
I know of very few things in life where catching up is better than keeping up. Maybe illnesses of old age could be one? Okay, yes, YES. I'd like to be free of any dementia, cancers, arthritis, or osteoporosis until right before I die. Then I'll catch up with everyone. That'd be great!
Realistically, however, catching up is really hard. Sprinting at the end is so much harder than jogging in the middle.
It's hard to fund a savings plan that you haven't been contributing to.
It's hard to fix a customer-facing problem that has cascaded into an avalanche.
It's hard to learn a new technology that you haven't seen before, aren't even aware of.
It's hard to lose those few or many pounds that have creeped on.
It's hard to write a book that you haven't been obsessed with writing.
It's hard to repair a relationship that you haven't embraced and maintained.
It's hard to achieve that life goal that you haven't thought about in years.
Small steps move us forward. They may not be the amazing, overnight success stories we hear about, but that's because you don't hear about the thousand small steps that contributed to that overnight success story.
Most of us will not win the lottery: we can still save for retirement. We can still work towards those life goals. We can start that journey of a thousand miles, and take one step every day until we've made it.
Just one small step a day to keep up.
So that we don't have to catch up.