Little by Little, Every Day

We all have desires to fulfill, roles to become, qualities to acquire, and goals to reach, but we rarely pursue these things. Because of our fuzzy concept of time, we only hope and imagine, because hoping and imagining are more pleasurable than sweating and doing.

You’ll remember, if you read my piece on heroes, that we tend to overestimate what we can do in a lengthy span of time. We might have a shelf of 100 books that we figure we can plow through by the end of summer. The end of summer seems far away, so we don’t stop to think about the individual steps required to reach this goal (reading every single one of those 100 books – and summer is not even 100 days). We assume that, in this great, foggy mass of time, something magical will happen, namely that our future selves, unlike our current selves, will be superhumanly diligent and committed.

Nothing magical will happen to help you accomplish your gargantuan goals. But there is a way to achieve them.

The secret is to start by actively taking little steps.

Taking small steps is a fantastic way to harness both the pessimism and the optimism inside all of us. The optimism? Believing we can change ourselves for the better. The pessimism? Knowing that we fail unless we set the bar incredibly low for ourselves.

I can’t resist sharing a little-steps method that has worked wonders for me. This is an explanation of what I do – not a prescription for anyone else. I’m just some random guy online – you don’t have to follow anything I say.

I’ve used this method eight times to pick up various habits. I used it first in February of 2011, when I decided I wanted to form a writing habit. My goal was to write for an hour every day.

I set aside 28 days to form this habit and penciled it into my daily schedule. For the first seven days, I sat down at my computer and made myself write for 2 minutes. Yep, 2 minutes. No more, no less. After my two minutes expired, I always wanted to keep writing, but I didn’t. I stopped, because I wanted to frustrate my desires in order to build anticipation for the next time I wrote. I also wanted to establish the simple habit of sitting down to write rather than exert willpower in order to write for hours on end.

The second week, I wrote for 15 minutes. Not long. But I did it every day. Third week: 30 minutes. Fourth week: 60.

Finally, after these 28 days were over, I allowed myself to write longer than 60 minutes if I so chose. For the first time, writing longer than an hour felt liberating, not draining. Magical, even. And, better yet, a habit was born!

If you ever attempt or have already tried this, tell me. I would love to know if it works for anyone else.

30 thoughts on “Little by Little, Every Day

  1. I’ve found that I need a time-frame for my goals, or I just spin my wheels. Not just a deadline, but a plan of how I’m going to get there. So on the wall behind my desk is a simple handwritten schedule that ends with the words “2017: publish.”
    So I’d better get on with it!

  2. I agree about breaking your availability into small bites at first. I have a similar problem and take the same course as you. I’m not writing at the moment, but I am editing. I’ve looked at the book a number of times, but this is the “final” edit before I send it out somewhere. (you are never done editing, I know). Every time I sit down at my computer I set aside X amount of minutes to do nothing but edit. Sometimes I don’t feel like it, but I also know I can’t move forward unless I show myself I really care about my work.

    • I definitely get to that point where I am so tired of reading what I wrote that I’d rather set it on fire than read it again. Glad to hear other people use similar methods for tackling those sorts of things. Thanks for the comment, Claudia 🙂

  3. in the beginning you were talking about how we see summer as a mass of time, this is called the misweighing cognitive bias and is one of the 25 cognitive biases that lead to failure. We misweigh how much time we have and this leads us to make poor decisions with how we spend our time. usually this ends up in us procrastinating. I really liked the idea of frustrating your desires to build anticipation, brilliant.

  4. Such a great post! This is so true as well if you try to really dive into something with too big of a commitment you will surely fail and very quickly! It is best build up the habits like this!

  5. An interesting approach. I have no problem writing for 12 hours straight, but exercising for 10 minutes is a total chore. I wonder if your method would work. I’ll try it 🙂

  6. True that we often overestimate the things that can be done in a longer span of time. I used to be the same just an year ago and even above that procrastination was always very common in initial few days for that time which was not enough, even otherwise.
    It was nicely explained.

  7. I like this idea! I am always so intimidated by the thought of sitting down every morning for an hour and willing something profound or interesting to come out in writing. I do have my weekly blogging habit down, though. I have been meeting my goal of two posts per week since February of 2014!

      • I was working with a life coach on what’s next in my life and realized that being a writer has always been my dream. I came up with the idea of blogging, went home from our session, and set up my Word Press account. No matter what is going on in my life, I get those two posts in every week, and it has made writing so much easier and more fluent for me.

  8. i really should give this a try. procrastination always gets the better of me because i have always only thought about the time it takes to start writing and then finish it in one seating.

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