The Importance of Small Steps

You’ve no doubt heard the quote “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” (this is attributed to the Chinese philosopher Laozi). Generally it’s an exhortation to begin tasks, but recently I’ve also been thinking about how that thousand mile journey doesn’t just begin with a single step, it’s also constructed entirely of other, additional steps. Apparently there are about two thousand steps in a mile, so actually, a journey of a thousand miles is made of about two million steps. As a hiker this information appeals to me, but also I’ve been thinking about it a lot with regard to getting any large task done.

Obviously people talk about this a lot, especially writers, who will set themselves writing goals per day, because if you can write five hundred words a day eventually you’ll have written a novel. But I’m also very very bad at sticking to things, so my life tends to be long periods of nothing I don’t have to do in order to survive punctuated with periods of intense activity as I try to hammer out something I want in as little time as possible. These monumental efforts are exhausting and if the task is too big they’re prone to failure and they’re often stressful as hell when I do them at the last minute. I am, of course, a massive, horrible procrastinator. Wait But Why explains it best in these two posts, but basically I’m very bad at putting in sustained, steady effort at anything.

But I’ve been trying very hard to get around that recently, and really truly internalise the idea that small, regular progress is a much better way to live than doing nothing at all towards whatever goal it is. The thing I’ve been most working towards at the moment has been decluttering my small flat and finally getting everything nicely squared away after my house move a year ago. Because after a massive effort immediately after I moved I got the place to a standard I could mostly live with and then stopped. Alas what I can mostly live with is still a mess and still actually really annoying and stressful and it makes me embarrassed when other people see it and more importantly I don’t like looking at it. So I’m going to use that task as an example throughout this piece.

I think there are a few psychological barriers holding me back from doing small amounts of work on something regularly.

Mistakes of Perception

For starters, I look at something and see how much work it is, and think that a small effort is useless. I understand that if I want to get it done, I have to do a lot of work, so doing a small amount of work feels like not nearly enough, but of course doing a large amount of work is daunting and I put it off.

Related to this, I tend to view tasks as single units – one big monolithic item. And because of that I make this weird cognitive error where I seem to believe I can complete that single task in one go, in a single sitting. That’s fine for small tasks, but for big jobs it’s total insanity. Of course if you asked me I would say that sorting out my house is probably weeks of work hammering away at it every day. But in my brain? I feel like I can do it all this Saturday. This belief is really deeply ingrained in my decision making, even though it’s total bullshit, and my logical mind knows it’s total bullshit. I’m just optimistic about how long things will take to a pathological degree. Aside from leading to poor planning, this belief leads me to being constantly disappointed with my progress, because I feel like a hard day’s work should lead to total, perfect success, when actually it might just be 10% of the whole job. Then I view a perfectly acceptable amount of progress as failure, and give up. Again, my conscious mind is aware that this is bullshit, but it seems to have no power over the part of me that motivates me to actually do things.

I Don’t Factor In the Procrastination

When I plan things I don’t consider the part where I’ll spend a stupid, irrational amount of time doing something else instead of the task. Procrastination doesn’t exist in any of my future plans so I have no notion of how I intend to stop watching Netflix, or learning to paint, or reading books, or researching Chinese philosophers before I actually start doing something I want to do.

History also tells me that I’m not actually capable of doing one annoying task and nothing else for an entire weekend unless the stakes are high or I start to enjoy it in some way. But yet, I constantly plan to do just that. I don’t think realistically about how much time I have, or how much emotional energy I have for making myself do things (especially after an entire week at work making myself do stuff, which is easier due to the constant threat of screwing up and being fired, but still tiring).

Optimising

I’m weirdly obsessed with efficiency (I think it’s some combination of laziness and overthinking things). Why take a small bag to charity when I can wait until I have everything I want to give away ready to go and take it all at once? Except of course I have that small bag ready now and who knows how long it will take for me to get everything I want to give away ready. Years probably. So it’s not really a great plan. But it’s an impulse I constantly struggle with.

I also want to optimise the process  and get rid of things in the best, most thoughtful, environmentally friendly, least wasteful way, and that’s another barrier between me and actually getting things done. I’ve inherited this from my mother – if I get rid of anything she will grill me about why and how and suggest ways I could have done it better. But then my mother is an actual hoarder so of course she is a great source of excuses to not get rid of possessions. It turns out that with my limited ability to actually do stuff, I can’t screw around taking items to various different places and posting them and so forth. I’ve discovered I need to focus on using the easiest methods – so for example I’ve joined a facebook group for giving away free items in my city, and just post stuff on there and then people come and get it. All I have to do to make that happen is take a photo, write a post, and then arrange a time for someone to pick it up. Likewise instead of exhaustively researching which charity is most deserving, I just take stuff to the Red Cross shop that’s on my block. I’ve stopped worrying so much about selling things and recouping as much value as possible – I now only do that for especially valuable items because it puts such a barrier between me and parting with the item.

Frustration

Incremental progress also isn’t very rewarding and the lack of result is frustrating – if you read those Wait But Why posts (they’re long, so I forgive you if you don’t) you’ll know that my brain is heavily wired for instant gratification and only panic or really serious progress can tend to inspire me to action. So when you make small changes constantly there’s not much of a reward. It’s hard to stick to, because it seems meaningless and to borrow Tim Urban’s brilliant metaphor the Instant Gratification Monkey is bored shitless by things that aren’t rewarding and interesting and it can only be banished by total panic. But it turns out that if I make the pieces of the task small enough I can usually force myself to do at least a little bit of it before the Monkey takes over again. So I’ve been reminding myself over and over again to just do something, anything, towards my goals.

I’ve finally managed to drum through my brain that any progress, no matter how small, is better than no progress. So for the last few months the rule has been that I have to get rid of something every weekend. I’ve only missed a few so far, because while sometimes I KonMari my wardrobe and get rid of two huge garbage bags in a massive surge of effort, sometimes I just put a single small item up for free online or just throw something worthless in the bin.

Which brings me back to the quote. If I do nothing every weekend, I’ll still have exactly the same amount of stuff, in the same state of disorganisation a year from now. If on the other hand I do even the tiniest bit every weekend, eventually that will add up to the entire task being done. I might be annoyed at how long it takes, and frustrated with myself, but if I want to go a thousand miles, I have to actually take two million steps, and any steps a week is going to get me a lot further than none. The only way to reach my goals is to put one foot in front of the other.

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