I started this month tired, anxious, and worried about the future, the health of the people I love, and the safety and lives of black people in this country. With the world feeling so scary, and not feeling confident that I know what I should be doing (much less what to tell anyone else to do), I’ve had to fight the instinct to crawl into bed and watch home improvement shows all day. Of course, that is not an acceptable option right now.
While I am still learning about what I can do to be an effective ally, what is clear to me is that when a challenge feels like it is so big that you don’t know what you can do to overcome it, you have to just pick something and just start. Taking some action, even if the action is small, is always better than taking no action. What I’ve found in my work with clients, and in my own life, is that it’s human nature to want to give up, or not even start, when a goal or a dream feels too large or intimidating. Our brain wants to save us from failing, so it tells us that it’s pointless, or not possible.
Ever since reading The Compound Effect, by Darren Hardy, I’ve been fascinated with, and inspired by, the power of incremental change. The Compound Effect is the principle of reaping huge rewards from a series of small, but consistent actions. The concept can help free you from the “all or nothing” approach – If you just commit to taking small steps consistently, you’ll be able to make measurable progress towards the big changes you seek.
A few examples of how this can work in real life:
Writing a Book
As many of you know, I’m spending this year writing my first book, which will be published next Fall. While I generally love writing, the prospect of creating an entire book seemed impossible at first (I mean, an entire book?). To make the process feel more manageable, I decided that I would focus on completing one chapter a week, with two full hours each day dedicated to writing. After one week, I had my first chapter. The next week I completed another chapter. As of this post, I have almost completed the entire first draft. Now, if anyone asks me, “How do you write an entire book?” I’ll answer, “Two hours at a time.”
After being indoors pretty much since the beginning of March, and not having access to my normal outlets for physical activity, I decided that this month I wanted to commit to working out every day. I’ve tried this before and failed. I picked classes that were too far away or too long or too intense, and then I quit. This time, I picked a physical conditioning class that I can do in my living room in just thirty minutes. Thirty minutes doesn’t feel like much, and when I thought about it, there were always at least thirty minutes of my day that I spent doing unnecessary things. Now, when working out feels like a drag, I imagine how much stronger I’ll be in six months, or even a year, if I stretch and do even a few crunches and push-ups every day. I also printed out this free monthly calendar so I can check off each day I complete a class and see my progress accumulate. Who doesn’t love to check things off a list?
Learning a Language
A few months ago my girls discovered Duolingo, the free app that promises you can learn a new language in just five minutes a day. The app is designed to teach you new words and phrases and help you practice reading, writing, and speaking. Learning a new language seems like a lot for me at this point, but I found that after a few weeks of practicing just five minutes a day, my girls were speaking, reading, and understanding new languages. Imagine how proficient they could be in a year – amazing.
Organizing Your Home
For many people, the prospect of editing, organizing, and styling their entire home is completely paralyzing. That’s why I always advise people to take it room by room, and to only focus on one drawer or shelf or surface at a time. In my virtual programs I promise my clients that they will see results if they can invest just fifteen minutes a day on their organizing projects. Our private community is filled with pictures of little fifteen-minute wins – celebratory posts like “I cleared a surface!” and “I donated three bags of clothes!” and “I organized my junk drawer!” It’s extraordinary what you can accomplish just by focusing your energy and attention towards improving your home fifteen minutes at a time.
Making an Impact
I’ll be honest. I always feel like I could, and should, be doing more to make a positive impact on the world, but right now this responsibility feels amplified. I’m committed to working towards a world that is safe and equitable for all people. I’m also a full time working mom with a puppy who eats rugs when you turn away, so the prospect of doing one more thing can feel daunting.
I’ve been thinking about how I can apply the power of incremental change to contribute more, both financially and through my own actions. Every time my brain tells me it’s too much or not enough, I remind myself that something is better than nothing, and a lot of somethings from a whole bunch of people can translate into dramatic and impactful change. Here are a few examples of things I’ve done in the past week that took me less than five minutes:
I signed this petition.
I ordered this book for my girls even though they say they’re too old (they’re not).
I ordered this book for myself.
I read about organizations working towards a more equitable future for all people, and made my first contribution here.
Each of these actions was very small, and I’m just one lady trying to do better. But here’s what I realized: If I put aside just five dollars a day, in one year I would have $1825 to contribute towards organizations I want to support. In five years it would be a total of $9125, and in twenty years I would have donated $36,500. What if I applied the same thinking towards taking action? If I did just one thing each day to make a positive impact, at the end of one year I would have taken action 365 times. That’s 365 phone calls, or petitions signed, or voters registered, or acts of kindness extended. What if hundreds or thousands or millions of people took just a little more action? The impact would be significant.
So, If you’re feeling stuck, paralyzed, or just wondering what to do right now, I’ve always believed that perhaps the most important – and often ignored thing is simply taking action. So here’s my challenge for you. I want you to pick ONE goal to focus on. Something you believe in and care about deeply. Make sure that it’s specific, measurable, and achievable. Carve out a little time each day to make progress towards your goal (I suggest 15-30 minutes). When the time comes, make sure to limit distractions (put away your devices, etc.) so you can stay laser-focused.
If you’re willing to set a goal and then invest in incremental habits and practices to get there, I truly believe there is nothing you can’t accomplish. What small steps can you take today to embrace your values and move you closer towards accomplishing your big goals?