I used to get so overwhelmed by anything I had to do that I’d freeze up. And instead of tackling what I needed to, I simply wouldn’t get anything done.
Just about every task seemed so big, so impossible. Because I’d try to work out the entire thing in my head before I even started.
I wanted to know where every piece went and just which way it needed to be oriented. I wanted to know every possible complication that was going to spring up later before setting out.
Basically, I wanted a fully detailed map to places not only I’d never been – but to places nobody else had ever been either.
It was no wonder, given these self-imposed demands, that I rarely was able to bring my ideas to fruition. It was no wonder that I instead would agonize over ideas and then abandon them.
And it wasn’t until there came a day when I was overwhelming myself yet again that I began to realize that you climb a staircase a single step at a time. You don’t leap up an entire flight at once. That’s not the goal. You keep taking small actions, and eventually you get there.
Sometimes it doesn’t necessarily even look like a staircase. It’s more like this old saying:
“How do you eat an elephant?”
“You take it one bite at a time.”
Or how they say that moving a mountain starts with transporting pebbles.
That sort of thing.
Even Learning to Believe in Gradual Change Was an Exercise in Taking Things One Step at a Time
There was a time long ago where I started to try to believe this. Just do something small, I told myself. Do what you can. Don’t worry about the bigger picture and how much looms over you that you haven’t yet done. Do something in the moment, no matter how small.
And collect more moments as you can.
When I first started telling myself this, it felt less like something I actually believed and more like something I wanted to believe.
This is a crucial difference. Thankfully, in this case, as it does in many others, wanting to believe something can over time lead to actually believing in it. As a principle is applied, tested in real life, and passes, it becomes internalized.
As I tested myself by taking small steps and finding that in fact I did make progress. Even if I still had a long way to go, the little steps I was taking made a difference. Much more than my former habit of freaking out and doing nothing at all did.
My debt situation improved, slowly but surely. As did my mental health. And for the first time in my life, I found myself in a healthy relationship, one that managed to be both exciting and stable all at the same time.
But finding a healthy relationship is one thing. Keeping it healthy is another. There, too, I found the same approach helpful. I stuck to a commitment to taking small steps one after another, even if some of them were unpleasant, burdensome, difficult. A commitment to never letting the dread of working on a problem kill any efforts to actually resolve it.
It all played out rather naturally. Even though I had no idea what sort of work I’d be doing in this relationship beforehand. Or when. In a way, I’m glad I didn’t know. Because I didn’t have a chance to dread it. Instead, I worked my way through any problems with my partner as they arose.
Choosing Between Comfort and Growth
The last decade of my life has been the happiest. But it hasn’t always been comfortable. And that’s half the point.
Don’t get me wrong. I love comfy days. Pajamas. Good food. Love-making. Staycations and vacations. Sleeping in. Reading books. Playing video games.
But there are times when comfort isn’t the right choice. When it can get in the way of who we want to be. Where we’re going next.
There are times when we’re faced with an important decision: Do we choose comfort or do we choose growth?
Do we tackle a single uncomfortable step that is part of a larger process of getting us to the kind of life we want?
Or do we nope out because we get overwhelmed by the size of all the work that lies before us?
The bad news is that growth is a continual process. You have to make these kinds of choices over and over again. There are countless times when you need to turn away from what’s easiest in the moment and turn toward what will build the kind of life you want long term.
And each of those small acts require courage and distress tolerance to power through them.
The good news is that you don’t have to do it all at once. You don’t have to have it all mapped out before you set out.
And you don’t have to plan every contour of a better life before you start making it happen. You can build a better life one small positive change at a time. And slowly but surely, it’ll start to take shape.
It all starts not by dreaming big but thinking small.