The Secret of the Track

Image from Disney’s The Brave Engineer

I’m gonna tell you the secret of the track. You know—the track that everyone gets off and back on (1). But first I have a confession.

In my February blog post “Unintentionally Living Intentionally,” I talked about getting serious with a plan to use my time and my life most wisely. For almost a month, things went really great.  But then Laura got sick. Vet appointments and daylong babysitting gigs happened. I got pneumonia. My parents came to visit, and we spent two weeks in Maryland caring for Laura’s mother who had a recent surgery.  April was the cruelest month.

Every day we talked longingly about those three weeks of keeping a schedule—working out, getting up early, eating well, consistently writing. But we had jumped the well-laid track, it seemed, and derailed our plans, like the iconic crash in The Fugitive, the cars diving from the rails in a halo of sparks, grinding and scraping, jackknifing and furrowing to a halt. We were lethargic and discouraged. “We’ll get back on track, Pal,” Laura promised.

But the longer we waited, the more clearly I understood the secret of the track:

We hadn’t gotten off track at all. We simply stopped our train.

I feel like this idiom of getting back on track is simply a way to blame the train and track for the engineer’s failure. If some part of life (unexpected responsibilities, emergencies, needs of other people, the general swift passing of time) makes our schedule “go off the rails,” we are victims of the distractions and duties of life (2). And when we think of ourselves as victims, we’re frozen in our own self-pity, never moving forward while thinking something else is holding us back.

Here are three ways that I’m beginning to change my perspective so I can reclaim order to my life and chug on toward my goals.

1. I’m the Engineer—I am not the weeping, hapless passenger in the back of the parlor car. No, I am the engineer in the cab. I get to decide when to pull the brake and when to add coal. Unlike a train’s rigid departure schedule, my best-laid plans and routines are idealic things, often upset by the unexpected or the necessary or my indiscipline.

  • I wanted to start getting up early, but I stayed up too late reading or writing.
  • I wanted to exercise in the evening, but after work I had unexpected errands and events.
  • I meant to eat healthy, but there was Chick-fil-a frosted coffee and a moment of weakness. . . okay, several moments of weakness.
  • I meant to write and handletter consistently, but I just didn’t feel inspired (oh, brother).

After a week or two of not following the schedule, I pulled the emergency brake and ground to a complete halt, thinking I was a failure and life was working against me. But since realizing I’m in charge, it’s been easier to leave excuses at the station, take the blame for standing still, and start out again tomorrow.

2. Don’t Stop for Pennies—Since trains have been around, people have laid coins on the tracks, sadistically testing the myth that a penny can derail a train. A penny weighs only a few grams while a train weighs several hundred tons. As you might imagine, that penny is consistently flattened or even pressed right into the track or wheel. It seems ludicrous to think of something as small as a penny upsetting a train. But then again it’s usually little things that make me screech to a stop. So I’m learning to identify the things that waylay me—social media, sleeping in, apathy, sugar, priorities, discouragement—and either anticipate them, avoid them, or roll right over them.

3. Watch the ETA and Destination—I keep a notebook full of ideas for my blog, advice on SEO, a list of guest bloggers and artists I want to highlight, encouraging quotes, a monthly schedule for posts, my fears—and my goals. It helps me focus on what I’m doing each day and each month. I’m still not exactly sure of my final destination, and there’s not exactly an ETA— but I’ve got to keep moving and recalculate for the days when I stop (for pennies). I’ve got a freight load of goals, dreams, and purpose to haul, and only I can make sure they arrive on time.

Casey Jones
Image from Disney’s The Brave Engineer

4. Ignore the schedule. Rather than trying so hard to stick to the schedule, sometimes it’s better to just ignore it entirely. Perfectionism is often the enemy of progress. I’ve got to stop obsessing over the ideal outcome and just focus on making as many good choices as I can. Even if I drink a frosted coffee, I can still go to bed early that night. If I get up late, I can still spend some time working out later. I decide where my train is headed, and sometimes that means forgiving myself for making choices that went against the plan and making a better choice the next time.

So if you’re feeling like your Little Engine That Could is in the ditch, remember—it’s only stopped at the bottom of the hill. Change your perspective, give it some steam, and start to climb.

I know you can. I know you can. I know you can.

the little engine
Image from The Little Engine That Could

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1. You can probably apply it to a walking track, but I prefer a train metaphor.

2. Of course I am not talking about the tragic and time-consuming unavoidable, such as moving cross country for a new job, becoming seriously ill, or recovering from the death of a loved one.


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