Getting Better, Just a Little Bit at a Time
What About You?
Could you lose 25 pounds in a week? Clean your entire house in an hour? How about learning to speak a new language fluently in five minutes? Well, unless there is some “magical” shortcut that I haven’t run across yet, the answer to each question is a resounding “no.”
Unfortunately, too many of us set very “lofty” goals (recall your New Year’s resolutions), and then when we fail, we just give up. We tell ourselves that we “tried,” but it was just too difficult. Perhaps your goals are not as exaggerated as in my examples, but still demanding. And when we don’t achieve our goals, we kick ourselves for not being “strong enough,” or some other negative self-talk. Which puts us in a worse frame of mind than when we began.
What if, instead of setting such a lofty goal, you set a goal to get “just a little bit” better? Or, if you decide to try one more time, every day, until you get it right? Just relax, and give yourself “permission” to improve only a little, each and every day, day after day. That’s how good habits are formed. Slow and steady.
Failure as a Teacher
You will also need to give yourself permission to fail. Just as long as you get up, dust yourself off, and try again – at least one more time than you fall short. If you do this, you are eventually going to succeed. And whether you realize it or not, failure is a magnificent teacher. Don’t get me wrong – success is wonderful. However, it is from our mistakes that we have the greatest opportunity to learn.
Today is the Day
There is an expression that you’ve probably heard: Carpe Diem. It’s a Latin phrase, usually translated as “seize the day.” It dates back to Horace’s Odes, in 23 BC. Yes, procrastination and failure have been around a long, long time. And I would predict that they are going to be around a lot longer. But you don’t have to fail all the time.
Carpe Diem suggests that we do it – whatever “it” is – today. Not tomorrow. Today. How many of us have decided that we were going to start a diet, and “scheduled” it for Monday, or the first day of the month? Using the “little bit” approach, you would start today. Perhaps not “perfectly” and with all your ducks in a row. But you would do something to eat better. Maybe just skip dessert. Or drink one less soda. You get the idea.
Every Day Matters
All you have to commit to is improving “just a little bit,” each and every day. It compounds over time. If you read just 5 pages a day from something that will increase your knowledge (e.g., a course in French vs. a romance novel set in France), you will have read 1,825 pages of knowledge in one year (365 days times 5). If an average book is 180 pages long (it varies greatly), then you would have read about ten books. Since most people don’t pick up a book after the age of 20, you are ahead of roughly 99% of other people.
Don’t get overly excited about my math in the paragraph above. It’s only for illustrative purposes. The point is to read “just a little” bit, and accumulate knowledge over time. Don’t fret if your average book is 250 pages. You are still head and shoulders above everyone else.
Even The Little Stuff Matters
One of my guilty pleasures is watching “Hoarders.” I have a fascination with that show. I think it’s because I can watch it, and no matter how “bad” I think I may be, they always have somebody on the program that is worse off than I am.
Inevitably, I ask myself, “How does somebody get to be THAT bad?” Obviously, they don’t go to bed at night with everything tidy and in its place, and wake the next morning with piles of trash in every room and a broken toilet. No, not at all. It starts, I am sure, with “the little things.” They open a package of cookies, eat a few, and just leave the open package out on the countertop. Nobody puts it away. Ever. Then another package of something is opened and left out. And so on and so forth.
The opposite of this is pretty simple. You open a package, take a few cookies, close up the package and put it back in the pantry. When the package is empty, you put it in the trash. On trash day, you take your full bag of empty packages (and other stuff) out to the curb for collection. It’s these little actions, taken over and over again, that keep your household in running order. Now apply this principle to other areas in your life. That’s the long and short of it.
At the risk of pointing out the obvious – thoughts are only in your head. In some cases this is a good thing. Nobody ever went to jail because they “thought” about robbing a bank. And will all due respect to former President Jimmy Carter, looking at a woman “with lust” is not actually adultery (in the legal sense).
On the flip side, thinking to yourself, “I’ll start reading that book tomorrow,” is a good thought, but it’s not an action. If you start your sentence with “I should have . . .“ or “I could have . . ,” and then follow with the word “but,” you’ve defeated the entire purpose of getting “just a little bit” better.
Try this instead. If your goal is to read a book, decide that you are going to read one entire page at bedtime tonight. Then, actually follow-through. When you finish the page, stop, mark your place, and close the book. You just succeeded. Doesn’t it feel good? Tomorrow you might try for two pages, then three. But only build up to what seems like a comfortable habit.
You can apply this technique with anything in life. Whether it’s taking a few extra steps to increase your activity level, or substituting apple slices instead of fries with your meal, all you need to do is take one little step. Then another. And then another. You will soon reach your goals!