I crashed last weekend—exploding pain, unforgiving tiredness, the works. It was particularly disappointing because I had been starting to feel like I was building up a head of steam—moving in the direction I wanted to go. I had plans. I had thoughts and ideas sprouting and multiplying. There’s so much I want to do! And then plop—the other shoe drops. It happens to all of us—we feel energized to make exciting, positive change and something happens that we didn’t plan for or something reoccurs that we should have seen coming. A fly gets in the ointment. A wrench is thrown into the works. Our best laid plans go so infuriatingly awry.
When this happens, my instinctive reaction is to do a post mortem: What happened? What did I do wrong? What did I not do? This picking apart usually takes place in the presence of my mother, who listens patiently and then says, “Or maybe it’s none of those things. Maybe it’s just the cycle. Maybe it’s just what’s happening now.” At which point, I take a deep breath and grumble, “Yeah, maybe.”
Of course, she’s right. Most of what’s going on is beyond any sense of my control, and I just need to ride it out. My struggle with it, however, has to do with my expectations. They have a tendency to get away from me. I do one thing and then want to, or feel I should, do more and more. Some years ago, a member of my then writing group brought up the notion of setting a deceptively small goal. I took to the idea and kept telling myself to “start small”. However, in the hands (and mind) of a Type A personality, this mantra developed a major flaw. I might be willing to start small, but all too soon, my mind says, Hey, we better put the pedal to the medal if we’re ever gonna get anywhere! Which, of course, devolves into a wild attempt to do more, which in turn tires, overwhelms, and frustrates me to the point where I am ready to throw in the towel.
In light of this, my new motto is: Start small—and then keep going small until you get whatever the thing is you need to do done. It doesn’t quite trip off the tongue, but, when I think about it, it is pretty much how I made it through college. When completely cowed by the mountain of writing I needed to do and the soul-crushing fear of not being able to do it, I would start by opening a document, forcing myself to add one sentence (more if I could) and then, moving to the next paper, do the same. I would rotate through all of my current projects in this fashion. Write a line, switch, write a line, switch. After I had a draft down, I could go back and check for cogency and fix any problems, but it was getting that first layer down that was the biggest challenge—which I overcame only by taking it piece by piece, sentence by sentence. I still write this way when I am stuck. I ask myself, What’s the next line? I don’t think about what will come after. I only have to write one sentence. And once that’s done. I do it again.
It can be hard to commit to small steps like this because societal norms so often tell us that if you can’t have the thing you want by tomorrow, you’d best not pursue it at all or worse, it’s not worth having. I mean, why even bother? Many of us, when we decide to turn over a new leaf, want to jump in feet first. You see books on lifestyle makeovers and they are all about making wholesale changes to one’s life. We tell ourselves, we will do everything according to this new code: eat better, sleep better, do yoga, meditate, be creative. And we forget that our lives are still our lives. I think people feel either: that they want to change everything all at once without regard to whatever else is going on in their lives or that they are too overwhelmed by their lives to make any changes at all.
There is an alternative. Start small. Do the thing you can do—this is advice I have given myself regularly over the past 20 years (when I haven’t been busy trying to outsmart myself). If you can meditate for two minutes a day, then meditate for two minutes a day. If you can eat more vegetables, but can’t eat less sugar, than eat more vegetables and don’t eat less sugar. And, *this is key*, don’t let your mind sell you a bill of goods that you are somehow falling short! The saying A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step is, perhaps, a cliché, and, of course, you do have to take all the succeeding steps after that first one if you want to get to your destination, but if you tell yourself that that first step is not, won’t ever be, enough, you will never take the second.
I have big goals. I don’t know if there are enough steps in this body to get me there, but I want to keep walking towards them. I want to do the thing I can do, consistently, and be proud of each step, giving it the recognition it deserves, because, in a one million-step journey, step number 45,682 is no less important than number 999,999. Without either, small, seemingly insignificant movement, you will never reach your goal.
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