To Do a Great Big Thing, Break It Into Tiny Daily Things
Here’s how to discourage-proof those big dreams
When I tell people that I write books, they sometimes act as if I’d said I build houses by myself, with only my bare hands. “You what? I could never. I don’t know how you sit down and write a whole book.”
Here’s a secret: I never sit down and write a whole book.
Maybe William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks and didn’t change a single word (so he claimed, anyway), but that’s not how most writers work. For me, a good day’s work may look like any of the following:
- Brainstorm revision ideas for 15 minutes.
- Work on outline structure.
- Write 500 words in chapter six.
And so on. The work is divided into tiny steps — and then broken down even further.
Small actions repeated over long periods of time pave the way for quantum leaps. Whether you want to start an online business, embark upon a new career path, leave a bad relationship, or start a family with your partner, you first have to break the “big thing” into its most elemental pieces.
Think very, very small
First, identify the most important goal for the week. Next, identify one daily step you can take toward that weekly goal — and then make it smaller. We tend to overestimate how much we can actually get done, which means the daily steps you identify en route to your weekly goal should be lower lifts than what you think you can handle. For instance, let’s say you want to start an online business, and you’ve bought a course from an entrepreneur you admire. Your weekly goal may be to complete the course; your daily goal is to do module one.
Your biggest challenge here may be pushing on even when a step is too small to bring a sense of accomplishment. We’re used to instant gratification, even if it’s just a like on an Instagram post. But to achieve your Great Big Thing, separate yourself from the need for outside reinforcement. Your internal motivation is the only thing that will see you through.
Embrace the hard stop
Here’s some good news about identifying your tiny daily thing: Once you’ve accomplished it, you can stop! Close your laptop—or whatever you’re working on—and walk away.
Don’t look for infinite tasks to add to your “win” column; practice the hard stop. Reset your brain. Maybe move a little: Studies have found that taking a break from your work to exercise can actually emit neurotransmitters that are proven to calm the brain. Additional research suggests that after a certain amount of focusing, the brain just gets saturated. Studying over a longer period of time with more breaks built in helps you retain more. This also applies to other kinds of concentrated work.
If you look for more things to do, you will always find them. But you’ll be scattering your energy in lots of directions — you won’t feel like you’re winning. Small wins compound. Win, stop, keep going. In that order.
Appreciate the process
If you’re working toward a really big goal, it might be years before you reach a satisfying conclusion. Allow yourself to enjoy the journey without using other people’s success as a measure of your own. And as Theodore Roosevelt (and a thousand pretty Instagram quotes) once said: Comparison is the thief of joy.
But if your only yardstick is yourself, you’ll find something to celebrate every day.
This time last year, how far along were you in pursuit of your Big Thing? How much have you learned in the 365 days since?
You wouldn’t have the Big Thing on your mind if you didn’t have the means to accomplish it, so be thankful for your vision, relish each opportunity to learn something new, and keep on.
Here’s a trick I play: I act as if I’ve already accomplished the big thing I’m aiming for, and then I work backwards. For instance, let’s say I’m writing a book and trying to figure out a plot point, but I’m stuck somewhere in the messy middle.
In my mind, however, I’ve just typed “the end.”’ How did I do that? What did I figure out? What pieces clicked to make the whole thing come together so beautifully?
I step across the finish line in my imagination and then go back — all the way to the starting blocks, if I need to. That finish will be there before I know it. The important thing is to keep moving.