Saturday, July 18, 2009

Drops in the bucket

It's only a drop in the bucket. Or is it?

As you read this, set your kitchen tap to drip slowly into the sink. Put in the plug, or use a bowl or something to collect the drops. You'll need them later.

Drops in the bucket come up in conversation when people think things don't matter. Things like dropping a couple bucks for coffee or deciding whether to go vote.

Individually, these events are insignificant, but aggregated over many coffees or over large amounts of people they make a huge difference.

For example, Barack Obama was able to outraise and outspend John McCain during the 2008 U.S. Presidential election thanks in large part to lots of people donating small, individually insignificant amounts of money.

If you look at them in isolation they don't really matter. That's where it fools you. Where it matters is in the system that springs up around it. The drops, like the tortoise against the hare, are relentless.

Some things look imposing, impossible even. It would be great to fill the bucket and achieve that goal, but it's a lot of work or effort or time to get there. The 'if everybody would just...' lament recognizes the value of the goal, but recognizes the futility of getting everyone to do anything - especially all at once. Instead, the drops need to be accumulated one at a time. Filling the bucket is worthwhile. It just takes time.

One fast food meal or one trip to the gym isn't going to tip the scales much ether way. Years of one or the other certainly will. The question is which bucket do you put your drops in. (Not deciding is still deciding.)

A leaky tap is going to drip lots before it gets the attention it needs. Skipping one workout doesn't seem like a game changer, and probably won't affect your performance. Similarly, going for a single jog isn't going to turn you into a marathoner, but sustained small efforts add up to something big.

Exercising or not. Saving money or not. Recycling that pop can or not. These are small discrete decisions that add up to big things in the end. These are things that can't and won't get done all in one go, but don't make much difference either way in the moment, which makes them both easy to harness and easy to squander.

Whatever buckets you use to collect your drops in, make sure they're the right ones for you. Whether your buckets are fast food and television, or health food and exercise, be conscious about your decisions. Ask yourself: Is this what I want my buckets filled with? If not, take steps to fix it.

Don't forget to turn off the tap. There's more water there than you realize.

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