The tortoise of small steps vs. the hare of big leaps – Who will win this race?

At some point in time during our childhood, most of us have read the tortoise and the hare story   There lived a hare in a jungle who is very proud of how fast he could run.  He kept boasting about his speed to all the animals. He even ridiculed the tortoise for his extremely slow pace. All the animals were all tired of the Hare’s constant boasting, especially the tortoise.  The tortoise challenged the hare for a race, even though he knew that his speed was no match for the speed of the hare.


The animals gathered the race started and the hare rocketed ahead of the tortoise.  Reaching the halfway mark, the hare looked back.  The tortoise was so far behind that the hare could not even see him.  Being overconfident of his abilities, the hare decides to take some rest.  Soon he fell asleep.  In the mean time, the tortoise kept going at a slow yet steady pace.  The tortoise reached the finish line and beat the hare, who was then woken up by animals cheering the tortoise’s victory.


How does this story relate to our change efforts?  There are two ways to make any kind of change in our lives. The first method is the slow but steady way.  The other is to make a big change, take big steps.  Which of these two will reach the finish line to win the race?  Let us try to answer this with an experiment that was done with two groups of office workers, to motivate them to exercise regularly.


The benefits of regular exercise are well documented.  Due to the sedentary lifestyle of most office workers, doctors recommend them to include an exercise regimen into their day.  American heart association recommends a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, which translates into 30 minutes of exercise per day, five days per week.


In a large office building, two random groups of office workers were selected for an experiment.  Both groups sat through a presentation that explained the benefits of regular exercise and the health risks of a sedentary lifestyle.


As an extra incentive to motivate them to exercise regularly, the first group was given three gift certificates


  1. One year of membership to the gym across the office building
  2. A gift voucher to hire a personal trainer at the gym for a period of 2 months
  3. A gift voucher to a sports apparel store to purchase gym clothes, shoes, and accessories.


The second group did not get any vouchers.  They were asked to do a simple daily routine.  They had to walk up a flight of stairs on the next day.  This could be done at any time during the day.  When arriving at work they could get off the elevator one floor below where they worked and climb up a flight or stairs.  Or they could climb a flight of stairs during the coffee break, during lunch break or when leaving the office.  Each subsequent day, they were asked to add one step.  On the second day, they would climb one flight of stairs plus one more step.  On the third day, they would climb one flight of stairs plus two more steps, and so on till they reached the target of exercising at least 30 minutes during the day.


Here is a question for you.  One year from the day of the presentation on the benefits of exercise – which group would still be exercising regularly?  The first group with the gym membership, free apparel, and free personal training?  Or the second group that did not get any free benefits, but were told to climb a flight of stairs starting the next day and add one more step on each subsequent day?


A year later, office workers from the second group had lost more weight, were fitter and were still exercising regularly.  This was true three years later and even five years later.   It had become part of their daily routine!

Most people in the second group had stopped going to the gym regularly even before the first year was over.


What could be the reason?  The second group took small steps that fit into their daily routine.  They started slow and steady.  They formed good habits that kept them going.  The first group had to take big leaps.  They were excited about the free gym membership, the vouchers to hire a personal trainer, and the gift certificate to buy gym clothes, shoes and accessories.  They bought the gym clothes and shoes, joined the gym and got trained by the personal trainer.  They took big leaps, they started strong.


But somewhere down the line, things came up, and they could not go to the gym. It could be that they had to travel, or they got sick, or got busy with some project, or partied till late and could not wake up early, or some other reason.  Once they stopped going to the gym even for a short while and for a good reason, it was difficult for them to start again.  Eventually, they went back to their comfortable and habitual routine – that did not include a  daily trip to the gym.


In this experiment, the tortoise of small steps won against the hare of big leaps! I am sure you have had similar experiences in your own life – where you start a new routine with a bang, but soon it fizzled out.  New year’s resolutions are a good example of “big leaps” we want to take.  And as it often happens with big leaps, they soon fizzle out.


As the old adage says –


By the yard it is hard – inch by inch it is a cinch!


If we want to make changes in our lives that will outlast the initial enthusiasm – we are better off doing it inch by inch – taking small steps – instead of going for the “big leaps”.  Sure it will take time!  But remember – slow and steady wins the race.  It does not matter if we start small or big – what matters is that we reach the finish line.


Have you tried to make changes taking “big leaps”?  How did it go? Want to try the small steps method?  Link to another article.  Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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I am a coach, consultant, and a trainer. I sincerely believe that people have a lot more potential than their current life conditions reflect, and with the right coaching and tools, we all can grow and transform our lives beyond our own beliefs. My hobbies include reading, writing, traveling, and connecting with people from all walks of life.

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