Equipment for Living

Small Steps and Little Things

One more kind of post you can expect from this blog – a selection of tips and ideas for coping with life and ultimately improving it. These are mostly things I’ve found helpful over time, but also some I haven’t tried yet, or ones that haven’t worked for me personally, and my thoughts on them. It’s what I call ‘equipment for living’, tools that help people make life work for them. 

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We all have ambitions and aspirations, great and small. We have visions for the future and ideas on what we’d like our lives to be like. We regularly set goals and resolutions, and plough on ahead with a renewed sense of purpose. And just as often, we fail to reach these goals, become despondent, and give up altogether.

Consider a typical selection of goals, often set as resolutions:

  • Lose 5 stone
  • Run a marathon
  • Write a novel

I could go on, but let’s stop there. One of the things these goals have in common is their sheer scale. They are big. Huge. And as much as big goals will inspire many people, they will also terrify you as you go from the initial elation of having set a target to the actual process of trying to achieve it.

The simple reality of the way our minds work is that change is scary, and the bigger the scarier. Which does explain why so many people never reach their ambitious goals. However, this does not mean we should avoid ambition altogether. We just need to use a different approach.

‘When I face the desolate impossibility of writing 500 pages, a sick sense of failure falls on me, and I know I can never do it. Then gradually, I write one page and then another. One day’s work is all that I can permit myself to contemplate.’

– John Steinbeck

Instead of setting scarily massive goals, we can use laughably little ones. Make them so small and simple that we couldn’t possibly fail to achieve them. This tricks your mind into starting the long journey towards the big goal. In the words of Robert Maurer, author of One Small Step Can Change Your Life, ‘low-key change helps the human mind circumnavigate the fear that blocks success and creativity’.

Let me give you an example. Imagine you’re trying to make yourself exercise. Except, like many people in the modern society, you’re really rather busy and can’t begin to imagine finding the time to make it to the gym three times a week. Plus you’re just too tired, and don’t have the energy, and it’s all just too much. So you may plan a workout, and then miss it because something else came up, and then feel disappointed in yourself and perhaps give up on this goal altogether.

Instead, think about one tiny step you could take in the right direction. Something so small you can definitely manage it. Every night when you get home, you will jog on the spot for 15 seconds. That’s it.

What this technique accomplishes is that it avoids the mental block so many of us have when trying to start something new. It’s also easily achievable, so the satisfaction of success motivates us to continue. And once you’re used to taking the first small step, you’ll often find yourself ready to take a bigger step forwards.

Some more examples:

  • If you’re trying to get into the habit of flossing, you could just floss one tooth.
  • If you want to write a novel, start with a sentence a day.
  • To declutter your house, remove one object a day.

One potential obstacle to this technique may be encountered by perfectionists and overachievers, who will be reluctant to take a small step when a massive one seems more effective. Mastering the ‘small steps’ approach requires discipline, as well as the willingness to keep an open mind. My way of thinking about it is that it’s better to complete a small project than abandon a big one.

I strongly recommend One Small Step Can Change Your Life as a good introduction to this topic. A couple more thoughts from me personally:

  • Try to avoid false steps. It’s very tempting to take a ‘small step’ that doesn’t actually bring you any closer to your goal. For instance, many will purchase additional supplies for the task instead of starting on it. Trust me, you don’t need a thousand fancy pencils to learn to draw – you just need to start doodling for a minute every day.
  • If you’re an overachiever, make sure to halve your ‘first step’ before you start. I’m guilty of setting overly ambitious ‘small steps’; if you’re tempted to jog for 10 minutes a day, consider starting with five!
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6 thoughts on “Small Steps and Little Things

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