I’ve been meaning to clean the basement for some time. Every week, I dutifully scribble, “clean the basement” on my to-do list. And every week, I look at that entry, and my stomach sinks. Before I pick up a single box, I’m overwhelmed.
Of course, that’s not the only thing on my to-do list that sends my stomach into back flips. Every week for some time now, I’ve also written: “Revise the novel” and “Write new book” on my to-do list.
You can guess how much progress I’ve made on both the basement and the books: zero. Here’s why: my brain cannot cope with huge tasks like, “clean the basement.” I might as well have added to my to-do list, “Tackle global warming.”
Humans do not do well with giant steps or drastic changes. Why do you think so many of us fail at these lifestyle-changing diets? The fear part of our brain freaks out. Instead of cleaning the basement, revising the novel, or writing that book, we will do just about anything to avoid that big, scary goal.
Think about your own writing life and tackling that big project you’ve wanted to take on for years. Or consider cleaning out one of the places you’ve packed to the gills with stuff (the attic, garage, car trunk). Did your stomach just sink a bit? Maybe you had a sudden urge to eat chocolate or get a root canal, anything to avoid “the big task.”
Don’t worry. Take a deep breath. I have a solution for you: take a small step. According to Robert Maurer, author of One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, we avoid that sinking feeling by taking absurdly small steps toward our goals. Instead of filling our to-do list with big chunks like, “Write book” or “Clean house,” we list tiny actions like “write a paragraph about taking small steps.”
Try it: Write down a small step you can take toward finishing your big project. If your stomach still flips or sinks, then you need an even smaller step. So, “write a paragraph about taking small steps” becomes “write a sentence about taking small steps” or “list small steps I have taken.”
Pro tip: I’ve found it helpful to list a bunch of small steps toward my big goal at one time. That way, I have some choices about which small step I’d like to tackle.
You may be wondering, “How will I ever finish my book this way?” Yeah, when you have a big goal like writing a book, taking baby steps does sound a bit counterintuitive. Think about it this way. If you wrote just 200 words a day—that’s less than a double-spaced page—you’d have a 73, 000-word book at the end of the year. Wow.
Bottom line, writers: Keep in mind the old joke: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. That’s how you write a book, clean the basement, or change the world: one teenie-weenie step at a time.
Your turn: How have small steps helped you tackle big goals? Share your story below!