On Big and Small Steps

Any sane person knows that “a.m.” shouldn’t really be combined with “5:30” in any sort of active sentence. Nonetheless, I sometimes run with friends around this time before work.

Some days are harder than others, not because we run farther—we don’t—just because they are. On these days, I talk us through the last few blocks about 20 meters at a time. It goes something like this, “Just make it to that car, now to that mailbox, now to the tree.” It’s amazing how much more possible it feels to finish these small chunks than to finish the whole run.

But do I replicate this practice in my day to day life? Not so much. I prefer to concentrate on the end product as a giant, overwhelming thing to freak out about.

Never mind that everyone from the Buddha to E.L. Doctorow to David Allen to bad ‘70s sitcoms have pointed out that it’s not actually possible to complete an entire journey, novel, project at once. They all subscribe to that one step at a time philosophy. When else have an enlightened being, an author, an efficiency expert, and Hollywood ever agreed on anything? I mean aside from the time they all shared a box of Trader Joe’s dark chocolate sea salt caramels.

In his book Getting Things Done, David Allen explains how you can’t actually do a project, say landscape a yard, you can only do the smaller actions that add up to some state you consider done—pull out the old plants, fertilize the soil, etc. So the idea of focusing on the journey instead of the destination may simply be practical advice instead of deep and mysterious spiritual direction.

And yet it’s usually my last resort, somewhere after pulling out my hair and before drinking. My resistance might have something to do with the previously discussed lack of patience or perhaps some slightly unrealistic expectations. If you have suggestions on how to join the ranks of the contented and well-organized step-by-steppers, leave them in the comments. In the meantime, pass the caramels.

Note: The blog and I will be on vacation next week. Merry Christmas, belated Happy Hanukkah, Happy Solstice—enjoy your various celebrations of the returning of light.

3 thoughts on “On Big and Small Steps

  1. Rachel, I’m a runner too, and I really liked your running analogy. I tell myself the same things you do so often when I run, but I never think to apply these strategies in other areas of my life, either. Thanks for sharing – I like the way you look at life.

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