Start Small: The Advice I Give Most Frequently
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  • Abby

Start Small: The Advice I Give Most Frequently

As I talk to more and more people, it’s become clear what the most common sticking point is: getting started. I don’t think I’ve repeated any phrase as often as I’ve said, “Start small.” No matter what it is that you’re doing, whether you think you need to or not, whether you’re changing your life or starting a new project, start small.


Stop trying to overhaul your entire life overnight. I know you want results, and you want them now, but trying to change every habit you have immediately is unsustainable. You didn’t create all of your current habits in one day, so you’re not going to replace them in one day. That’s just not how it works for 99.99999% of people.


You know all those people living the life you want, the ones getting their homework done on time, exercising, drinking enough water, getting up early, meditating, etc.? They’ve spent years working up to that lifestyle. Don't try to run before you can walk.


Sustainable lifestyles are built slowly. I know it’s easy to feel inspired one day and try to change it all at once because you want that new life NOW, but you’re setting yourself up for failure by trying to change everything immediately. In six weeks when you still have to maintain those habits—because, yes, you have to keep doing this forever—and that new-me energy is gone, will you have the self-discipline to maintain all 308 changes that you made? Probably not.


It’s faster to change slowly. If you build one new habit every six weeks, that’s eight new habits in a year. In one year you could be eating your vegetables, drinking enough water, meditating daily, keeping your space clean, sleeping 8 hours every night, waking up early, exercising regularly, and writing an app in your free time, if you make all of these changes in a sustainable way.


Or you could try four times to make all of these changes at once, burn out, and be in exactly the same place next year.


When it comes to starting a new project, I find the opposite issue is true—it’s not that we start too big, it’s that we don’t start at all. I know you have a project sitting in the back of your mind that you’ve been thinking about for months, maybe years, that you just have not started because it’s daunting. You don’t know where to start. You’re overwhelmed.


Start small. Writing a book starts with writing one sentence. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Don’t worry about the big picture. Starting is half the battle for a reason. It’s intimidating, but starting small makes it manageable so you can actually get started.


Why Start Small?


Well, first of all, there’s no other way to start. A significant change isn’t made up of just one big leap, it’s actually a collection of hundreds or thousands of small steps. The To Do list for redoing your living room isn’t just, “Redo the living room,” it’s dozens of smaller pieces: clear off the coffee table, move the chairs to a different room, decide on a color scheme, paint the bookshelves…


It prevents burnout. I hold myself back when I start something new so that I don't burn out. I know that it’s easy for me to want to go big right at the beginning, but that’s a great way to end up tired and give up in three days. Starting at a sustainable pace is how you make it to the end without burning out. You’re running a marathon here.


No matter what you’re starting, you need to be able to keep going when the time comes to grit it out. Meaningful work will take perseverance. You won’t always feel this motivated, so you need to know how to keep going when the motivation fades.


Starting small eases the feeling of being overwhelmed. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “But I don’t know where to start!” That’s because you’re looking at the whole project all at once. Breaking it down in order to start small gives you a clear series of doable steps to get you from A to B, instead of feeling like you need to leap immediately to B.


Starting small lets you fail small. I know you don’t want to fail, but sometimes you will. It’s fine. It’s a good thing, actually. Some of the things you try won’t work, but now is when you want to find that out, so you don’t fail spectacularly later. Failing small also points you in the direction of what does work so you can focus your energy there.


How to Start Small


Stop worrying about the big picture. I know, especially if you just found your Why, that the big picture is what matters. The big picture is why you’re doing this. But now that you know where you’re going and why, you’re going to have to think smaller to get started.


The big picture is daunting. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you’re looking at everything you need to do at once. You’re not going to start something if you feel totally overwhelmed just thinking about it. Focus in on today. Practice mindfulness. The present moment is all that we have. There is no future. The only thing you can change is what you’re doing right now. Don’t worry about the big picture.


When I threw 1000 ceramic pots—I know I talk about this a lot, but it’s a great tangible, quantitative example—I didn’t think, “I’m making a thousand pots.” All I was thinking was, “Okay, ten pots today.” I didn’t throw a thousand pots, I threw ten pots, one hundred times. Ten is doable. The big picture didn’t matter, all that mattered was the ten pots I had to make at that moment.


How to Change Your Life by Starting Small


When I first started getting my life together, the first step was waking up earlier. Not super early, but around 7. For a few months, this was the only step I was consciously taking to improve my life, but because it was my sole focus, I was able to be consistent easily. I didn’t burn out.


During that time, because I knew I wanted to do better, I also made other small changes subconsciously. I started working a little harder on my homework. I got a bit more organized and started learning to manage my time. It’s easier to get up early if you manage your time well and can get to bed at a decent hour.


Over the following three years, I continued to make occasional changes to live a happier, healthier life. Because I gave each habit time to solidify before trying to add in the next one, I’m now able to maintain quite a few good habits with little effort.


Had I tried to go immediately from the life I had been living to the life I’m living now, the changes would’ve been entirely unmaintainable. I would’ve burned out. I know because I’ve tried. And I’ve seen so many other people try, fail, and then wonder why they can’t keep up the new lifestyle. The most sustainable change happens gradually.


If you want to change your lifestyle—because that is what you’re doing when you pick up a series of new habits—figure out where you want to start. Waking up earlier, meditating, working out, eating healthier—they’re all great habits and picking up of any of them will facilitate building the rest. It’s up to you where to start.


Decide what’s most important to you, and start there. If you aren’t sure where to start, adopting a healthier diet and drinking more water will give you more energy, which is something we all need.


Once you know where you want to start, figure out one small change you can make that will push you in the right direction. If you’ve decided to eat healthier, don’t immediately go from daily fast food to exclusively vegetables and protein prepared at home. Again–not sustainable. Start small. Swap out soda for water. Switch the cookies you eat before bed for fruit.


Pick one thing, and once you could maintain that new change in your sleep, add in one more change. Keep doing this process, and in a few weeks, you’ll have made quite a few small swaps and will start to see some real progress, and, even better, it’s sustainable!


If it’s been years since you last set foot in a gym, or maybe you’ve never worked out, picking up a 6x a week gym habit will put you on the fast track to burnout (and injury). Start small. Go two or three times per week. Once that’s comfortable, bump it up. Increase the length of your workouts. Over time, work up to an amount that you find is enough, but not too much.


If you make too many changes too quickly and it gets overwhelming, get rid of some of them, but don’t stop. You’ve made it too far to stop. The only thing harder than starting is starting again. Scale back until it’s maintainable, and keep going.


How to Start a Project by Starting Small


Break it down. Unless you are goal setting or getting hyped for your Why, don’t think about the big picture. Just like I did when I made 1000 pots, break it into steps. What small steps do you need to take to get where you want to go?


It’s spring, so maybe you want to do some spring cleaning but don’t know how to get started. Start listing everything that needs to be done. It’s okay if some of these things are big steps for now. You could even just list the rooms that need to be cleaned:


-Garage

-Kitchen

-Bedroom


Then, list tasks that happen in each room:


-Garage:

-Mount bike rack on the wall

-Take old carpet to the dump

-Reorganize the boxes on the shelves

-Kitchen:

-Clean out the fridge

-Reupholster chairs

-Bedroom:

-Donate clothes that don’t fit anymore

-Hang art on the walls


Then, if necessary, break down any tasks that still intimidate you:


-Garage:

-Mount bike rack on the wall

-Take old carpet to the dump

-Reorganize the boxes on the shelves

-Put all large boxes on the bottom shelf

-Donate boxes of unused toys

-Consolidate everything that remains onto the top shelf

-Kitchen:

-Clean out the fridge

-Reupholster chairs

-Remove and measure old fabric

-Buy new fabric

-Attach new fabric

-Bedroom:

-Donate clothes that don’t fit anymore

-Determine which clothes don’t fit

-Donate them

-Hang art on the walls


This may seem like overkill. Of course, donating old clothes that don’t fit anymore involves determining which clothes don’t fit, and then going to donate them. But have you actually done it? Or are you also guilty of letting the bag of clothes to donate sit in the corner for six months? I know I’ve done that.


Breaking things down gives you a To Do list of manageable steps. It lays out exactly how you get from A to B. Then all you need to do to get started is pick one, and get moving. Don’t overthink it. Ignore the marathon ahead, and just take the first step. That’s all you need to do right now.


The smaller and less intimidating each step is, the easier it will be to actually get up and do it. Plus, it feels very satisfying to cross each task off of your To Do list, and that happens more frequently when the tasks are of a manageable size.


The primary skill to be learned here is breaking things down. “Spring clean my house” is a daunting task to take on. “Buy new fabric” is much simpler and happens easily in an afternoon.


Whenever you find you don’t want to do something, break it down more. Make every step comically small if that’s what you need. It doesn’t matter how you do it, it just matters that it gets done. If you need to write your book one paragraph at a time, then that’s how you go about it. I didn’t make a thousand pots; I made ten pots, one hundred times.


Breaking it down gets easier and more automatic with practice. Whatever you need to do, bring it to the front of your mind, and break it down. Figure out one tiny step that will move you in the right direction, and start there. If something seems intimidating, or like you couldn’t grit your way through it when the motivation is gone, start smaller.