For daily wit & wisdom, sign up for the Almanac newsletter.
Climb Mount Fuji
But slowly, slowly!
― Kobayashi Issa
I’d describe most of the meaningful changes in my life as as quantum changes, seemingly sudden transformations when I felt as if I’d fallen asleep in my old life and awoken into an entirely new one, seemingly without effort or even intention.
After some period of adjustment, I’ve always welcomed these transformations. Intractable problems and impossible challenges faded away, while new, previously unforeseen possibilities swam into view.
But when I’ve wanted and known I’ve needed a quantum change, I’ve never learned how to make one happen.
Lately, I’ve reintroduced myself to the concept of small, intentional changes—micro-changes—and wondering if they might trigger a cascade that precipitates lasting, quantum change.
One of my former colleagues, an outreach worker for a nutrition-education program, tells the story of a young, morbidly obese client. At their initial meeting, she learned he was drinking two six-packs of sweetened soda every day.
A believer in the power of small steps, my colleague suggested that the man begin by substituting a glass of water for just one of the sodas each day for a week and put the money he would have spent on that soda into a jar.
After six weeks of weekly visits and conversations with my colleague, the man had stopped drinking soda entirely, made a few more small changes in his habits, lost 15 pounds, and saved enough money to pay that month’s electric bill.
As I’ve thought more deeply about it, I see that even the aftermath of quantum change means taking and staying with it. That requires a lot of small changes to the affairs of everyday life. The difference is, once you turn the quantum corner, you usually don’t turn back. The change takes hold. The trick with taking small steps is that you have to keep remembering to take them.
When trying to describe to myself the power of small, I think about the seeds I planted last season in my 7,500 square feet of vegetable gardens. If I poured them out of their packets, all those seeds, including the big ones like beans, peas, and winter squash, would fit handily into a gallon measuring container, with room to spare.
The crops that grew from those seeds have fed us since late April and now fill our root cellar, two big freezers, and several rows of canning shelves.
I stumbled across James Clear’s 2-Minute Rule a while back, and find it speaks directly to the power of small steps:
When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do. Can all of your goals be accomplished in less than two minutes? Obviously not.But, every goal can be started in 2 minutes or less. And that’s the purpose behind this little rule. If a task takes less than two minutes to complete, then follow the rule and do it right now.
Ancient wisdom traditions have recognized the psychological value of one small step: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
Applying something similar to the two-minute rule, I’ve begun attacking the long-dreaded and seemingly impossible task of mucking out decades of stuff that’s accumulated in my house and outbuildings by selecting three things each day to toss into the trash, recycle, give away, or begin using immediately.
“What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step. It is always the same step, but you have to take it,” wrote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
All great masters are chiefly distinguished by the power of adding a second, a third, and perhaps a fourth step in a continuous line. Many a man had taken the first step. With every additional step you enhance immensely the value of your first.
That big and awful chore seems impossible. You’re not ready?