The Law of Slow Leaks – Why Important Things Fail and What We Can Do About It

I took my bike down from the garage wall the other day, squeezed the tire, and realized something important.  Sometimes the things we hold to be important in life fail us.  It happens because of the Law of Slow Leaks.  Here’s what that is, and what we can do to keep it from happening.

The Law of Slow Leaks - Why Important Things Fail and What We Can Do About It

Spinning in the Garage

I’ll be bicycling indoors for the foreseeable future.  With ice and snow on the ground, and temperatures starting with a minus sign, my stationary trainer will do the job just fine.  

The bike I use on the trainer sits in a little 4’x 8’ corner of the garage.  My other bikes watch jealously from their perch on the wall.  There’s a quip often shared among bike riders:

     Q:  How many bikes should you own?
     A:  N+1, where N = the number of bikes you already own.

My “N” is three (at least for now!).  When the weather warms and the roads clear, I’ll take one of those other bikes down for a ride outside.  One thing I’m sure I’ll have to do before I pedal away:  pump the tires back up.

Over time they will have gone soft.  A quick squeeze between thumb and forefinger confirms the fact.  There’s nothing wrong with them, it’s just that left unattended, the air will slowly leak out.

A flat tire is unrideable.  Steering is difficult, the ride can be jarring and unsafe, and the more we ride on it, the more damage we cause.  If we want a pleasant ride, we have to keep the tires inflated.

Isn’t that a little bit like other parts of our lives?

Slow Leaks

Like the bikes on my wall, lots of things can have slow leaks:  Relationships.  Friendships.  Trust.  Goals.  Fitness.  Faith.  Knowledge.  The list goes on.

If we just hang those things on the wall somewhere and ignore them for a season, there’s one thing we can be sure of:  they will go flat.  They are all susceptible to slow leaks. 

As the air seeps out, they lose their bounce, their resilience, their dependability.  They stop being capable of what we thought they could do.

Sometimes we notice.  But then what do we do?

Going Overboard

We overinflate. 

Like those New Year’s resolutions we keep making, we want to fix everything all at once.  We join the crowds at the gym, adopt radical diets, set unrealistic schedules, smother others with our enthusiasm.  We set big, ambitious goals, and tackle them with gusto.

In part it may be because society conditions us to seek the dramatic:  run a marathon with only a few week’s training; drop 50 pounds by cutting all carbohydrates; win her back with expensive gifts; get that promotion by living on four-hours’ sleep a night.

Often, the big gestures backfire, and radical changes like these are usually unsustainable.  Like inflating that tire, if we just pump and pump and pump, eventually it’s going to pop.  Too much pressure.  The bike becomes unrideable.  We hang it back up on the wall, or just stick it in a corner.  Who knows when we’ll try to ride it again. 

What is a better way to combat slow leaks? 

Adding Air

We put air back in the same way it got out:  a little bit at a time, all the time.  Small, regular top-offs can be quick, don’t take much effort, and help keep that “bike” we hope to ride in good shape and ready to go. 

What are some ways to combat those slow leaks?

  • Leave a note.
  • Send a card.
  • Say thanks.
  • Give credit.
  • Be honest, even with small things.
  • Do a good turn.
  • Hit the gym.
  • Eat more greens.
  • Send someone a good book.
  • Go for a run.
  • Wash the dishes.
  • Walk with a friend.
  • Return that tool.
  • Bring coffee.
  • Loan someone your bike pump.

It’s not hard to come up with ideas.  

Can it really be that easy?

The Law of Slow Leaks – The Takeaway

The Law of Slow Leaks is similar to that of entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  One person described it like this:  “If you have a system that is isolated, any natural process in that system progresses in the direction of increasing disorder, or entropy, of the system.” Left alone, things gradually fall apart.

But this isn’t just about physics.  Whatever it is that we value, if we hang it on the wall and ignore it, the air is going to leak out.  Soon, it will not do the things we hoped it would do.

To keep it working, we have to provide regular inputs into the system – put some air in the tires to keep them from going flat.

Now is as good a time as any to take stock. 

  • How many “bicycles” do we have, and what are they? 
  • When’s the last time we checked the tires? 
  • What is something simple we could do today, right now, to pump them up a bit?
  • What’s stopping us?

As soon as I publish this, it’ll be time to head back down to the garage for a ride.  Of course, I’ll give the tires a squeeze first, and maybe add a little air.

Let me know if you want to borrow my pump.

Lead On!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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