It takes 80,000 words to make a novel, about 10,000 words to be fluent in another language, and 52 kilometres of running to complete a marathon.
These are daunting figures in their own right, but perhaps less intimidating when viewed from this perspective: writing 250 words, learning one sentence, and running for 15 minutes each day.
I’m fortunate enough to have worked for a coding academy, where the motto for surviving the gruelling syllabus was to break down big problems into little chunks, then fully focusing on solving those smaller problems, one step at a time.
This analytical approach has certainly helped me from being overwhelmed by work, especially during my time as a copywriter in a government-linked company, where assignments always seemed to come in bulk, with deadlines much shorter than the cooking time of a packet of ramen.
And in life, there’s very little that can’t be broken down into their smallest forms, rendering even the most ambitious goals totally doable.
“Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.”
—Vincent Van Gogh
Let’s say you’re looking into becoming a writer. What’s standing between you and your goal? Are your technical skills up to scratch? Do you know which genres you like? Do you need connections for a full-time job, or are you looking to make money online?
Once you’ve establish your main goal, you can break it down further to see how you can turn this idea into a completed task.
Of course, not all goals are this simple, and when faced with the choice between do or don’t, it’s almost always better to err in the way of action rather than contemplation. After all, you’ll either succeed or learn through your actions, compared to the nothingness from idling at the drawing board.
There will be times when the little things seem a bit too much, like picking up that first dumbbell, writing that first headline, or signing up for that dance class.
These are the times you should dive headfirst into whatever you’re pursuing, because only then will you discover what the next little steps are, such as knowing how much weight you can carry, or which dance move to learn.
As an insurance agent, I was taught to break down the premiums into daily spends, just to show how small the sacrifices were.
“It costs just one pack of cigarettes a day to buy yourself some peace of mind, especially with the rising costs of healthcare,” I’d say.
And that’s how you gotta look at your goals. Every effort you invest into them is progress made. Look at it like a savings account. With every deposit you bank in, no matter how little, you get a higher bank balance than the day before.
Likewise, every rep you put in at the gym helps you grow, even though it might not feel like it at the time.
The dangers of tomorrow
So you have a dream, a lifelong goal, something you’d like to achieve before you kick the bucket. And like many other goals worth pursuing, yours don’t come easy.
You take these achievements at face value, then put it on the back-burner because they’re just too much. One day, you tell yourself, I’ll have the time to pursue this proper. When I lose more weight, then I’ll pick up the sport. I’ll wait till after the holidays to start eating clean.
Don’t tell me you haven’t done it. I have. I delayed writing my novel for ten years. I always had an excuse not to start: I can’t write stories above a thousand words, I don’t have the time, why write something that won’t be published…
But do you know how much time it took when I actually got down to it? Less than four months. Yep, if I’d actually applied myself, I could’ve written thirty novels by now, and maybe even have one accepted for publication.
I was intimidated by the final word count, not knowing that it was possible to reach it through a comfortable average of five hundred words a day. Heck, I even wrote just a hundred words some days. Looking back, I’d say that the word count was irrelevant. What really mattered was showing up. Every single day.
It took years of writing news pieces, ad copy, travel articles, and social media posts before I actually wisened up and realised that my day job wasn’t bringing me any closer to my life goals.
Neil Gaiman said it best when describing the most common dilemma writers face:
“Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be — an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words — was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal.
“And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain.”
My day jobs had taken me far away from my mountain, but I’d found my way back, and step by step, I’d managed to summit it.
Find your littlest thing
And that brings me to your goals. What matters to you right now in life? Are you looking to lose a bit of weight? Complete a triathlon? Make that career leap you’ve thinking of for years now?
What’s the littlest thing you can do that will push you towards your mountain? Find that. Do that. Pretty soon, you’ll learn that momentum pays in compound dividends, and the littlest things you set out to do will very well turn into an avalanche.
“Aim lower. Aim at something you will in fact do. Do it. Then, having succeeded, aim a bit higher. Capisce?”
Now, I don’t like to just talk the talk, and will only write about things I’m willing to do. So for the past three months, I’d set out to incorporate these three small habits into my life to see how much I could benefit from them: practising penmanship, learning Chinese, and meditating.
I had initially set aside fifteen minutes for each task, making it real easy to slot them into my day. I’ve now worked my way up to thirty minutes each, and I’ve even started waking up earlier just to complete my tasks before my day begins, which is an extra benefit I’ve acquired through this practice.
What’s my current status, you ask? I’d like to think my handwriting’s much nicer now, my back’s much stronger from meditation (I couldn’t sit cross-legged longer than ten minutes without hurting prior to this), and I can now read 30% of my friends’ Chinese posts on Facebook. Not bad for such a small daily investment.
Of course, be wary not to stray too far in the other direction, as that could make things unchallenging, and an unchallenged mind is a bored one. However, as I’ve mentioned above, when faced with a choice, always pick action over inaction.
So if it’s a pick between running for five minutes or staying at home, choose the former. Writing a hundred words versus putting it off till tomorrow? No question there. Tidying up just one cupboard rather than waiting for spring cleaning? You get the idea.
The case for intense work
There is the argument that the old-school mentality of ‘go hard, go long’ is the only way to go about learning things.
There’s no question that intense periods of training helps get you over plateaus and take you to the next level, but you’ll need a solid routine and understanding of your art before you kick it up a notch.
Firas Zahabi, best known for coaching renowned MMA fighter Georges St-Pierre, recommends working out comfortably in general, then increasing the rate of perceived exertion only before a competition. His argument’s paraphrased below:
“If your absolute max is ten pull-ups a day, I’ll make you do five so that you can work out every day. If you were to max out, you’ll inevitably be sore for days (if you’re not sore, you’re not maxing out), and by the end of the week, the person who’s done less reps per day will have thirty-five pull-ups versus the max-effort guy’s twenty.”
He goes on to reiterate that the nature of intense training entails not being able to maintain the same pace every day, and that for skill acquisition, volume always beats intensity.
Now that’s a concept I can get behind.
Why the small things matter
Look, time’s going to pass you by no matter what, and when this year ends, would you want to be the exact same person, or would you rather be the exact same person who knows a new language?
The years will come and go, all that time spent on Facebook and Instagram will pass unremembered. You might not even have ticked the first item off your bucket list by then either.
But it doesn’t need to be that way. You can start doing the littlest things today. Choose the salad over the cupcake, do just five pull-ups, read just one paragraph from that textbook.
Over time, you’ll still forget all the work you’ve put in. But you’ll be left with a skill. You’ll be a better version of you. You might even end up unrecognisably different. All because you showed up and consciously chose to walk towards your mountain.
Because in the end, it’s the many little things put together that make our greatest achievements in life.