The Blessings of Small

Goal Setting Trends

At this point of the new year, at least 25% of those who set New Year’s Resolutions have quit. By the end of three months, half will have given up on their new goals. One study shows that by year’s end, just over 9% will have kept their goals. Also, no one goes with small habits. It’s all of a “be a better person” variety, and what does that even mean?

About 60% of Americans choose not to set resolutions at all. I wonder about that majority. Are they already working towards goals, so they don’t need new ones? Do they hate to be part of trends and traditions? Do they not see the point in setting goals in the first place? I did not set new goals but resolved to continue working on the ones I had already been working towards. In January, I wanted to spend the month revamping my goals and habits.

I feel an affinity with those who made resolutions but have already failed to complete them after just a week. I suppose the only difference for me is that at some point along the way, I started getting up after a failure. Of course, that really means learning how to relaunch two, three, seven or a seemingly infinite number of times.   

All or Nothing

I used to be an all-or-nothing kind of girl. Everything either was or it wasn’t, black and white with nothing in between. It is a consequence of perfectionism. I did well overall in my K-12 school days, but I was horrible at projects due to a lack of time management skills. Either a project would be magically completed at its appointed time or it was not to be, or so I felt. I also had no established academic routines. If I needed to study, would that mean I wasn’t really smart enough? And if I’m not smart enough, then don’t I deserve to fail? Oh, I was a piece of work.

I don’t know how I got out of bed in the mornings. Why even set my feet on the ground if I knew I would make a mistake? And, many times, that is just what I did. I sprawled out on the bed contemplating the unfairness of it all.

Out in the World

This state especially applied to my first attempt at college. Anatomy and physiology nearly killed me because I had never had to create a study system. I should have been creating vocabulary cards and detailed notes of reading materials, but instead, I was scanning chapters and half-heartedly listening to lectures. Then, there were my research and writing habits. Oh, they were atrocious.

Oddly, I had learned to slowly build into a paper from my days in public school, but once set into the wilds of the university world, I tossed all that aside. Needless to say, I simply gave up in my fifth semester and did not return to college for three years.

So, on my second attempt, I tried a new approach. In retrospect, I don’t know how conscious the choice was, but I changed my study and work habits just enough that I made As in all but one class in my remaining courses and graduated Summa Cum Laude. I learned that you have to sit down and do a little bit of work every day. I know, I know. This is not revolutionary, but for some of us, it feels as if a new world has dawned when we figure this small thing out.

Good & Evil

In all honesty, the tendency to be an absolutist still plagues me. It has faded somewhat, but it often rears its ugly head. Lately, I have been thinking about one of my favorite quotes: 

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956

I often want to only be good or evil. Usually, I want to be all good, of course. On occasion, I just want to be bad, not in the cool meme style, but in the all-out “nothing matters” sort of way. It has always been difficult for me to absorb that I am good and evil, and I can be both in one day.

Small habits are one step on the learning scale to dumping the old “all-or-nothing” mindset. In a way, small habits have saved me. 

Small Trends

In the world of self-development, the fad of small habits has made a name for itself. Promoted by self-made gurus like Stephen Guise, researched by Stanford Behavior Scientist, B.J. Fogg, and furthered by James Clear and his story in Atomic Habits, the idea of small habits has swept through the academic world, podcasts, the ebook industry, and blogs.

Now it is the case that I have had an aversion to self-help literature. In fact, I frequently don’t record all the ebooks I read on the topic to my Goodreads account. The world is full of self-focus, and I often wonder how much time I should spend on it, or if it is wise to broadcast the fact I do read so much. Then again, I spend tremendous energy and focus making sure my concentration on self-development is directed to union with Christ and loving others. I fail, but I just keep refocusing. 

With that caveat, I can say that working through self-development blogs and books have changed the way I see transformation. That has been especially true in how I view change or rather growth in Christ. Small becomes big over time.

Small habits consist of changes on a micro scale. In his book Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results, Guise describes a small habit as a “mini habit”. It is “basically a much smaller version of a new habit you want to form” (19). The key is to set a goal so small that you can’t afford to not do it. 

Consistency

The critical component of habit formation is consistency and specificity. Giant new habit goals could make sense if the context of your life can hold up the weight of them. If you want to spend an hour reading a book every day this year because last year you read for 45 minutes every day that might make sense. If you only read the captions on your favorite Netflix show, then that hour-a-day book reading habit looks pretty far fetched. Maybe a better idea would be two pages a day or even ten minutes.  

On a recent episode of his podcast Lead to Win, Michael Hyatt commented, “You want to set the bar low enough that you can do it when you really get busy and when you’re not as motivated.” If you set your habit practice this small, you will at least build consistency. Most of us can read for ten minutes even on the worst of days.

Frankly, some interesting things happen when we do absurdly small things for just a few minutes every day. If I read for 10 minutes a day, I am reading for 3,650 minutes a year which translates into over 60 hours or two and a half days of reading. If I stick with that habit the next year and double my time, I could see even more amazing outcomes in the long term. The key would be I made the habit in the first place and could build from there.

The Real World

A few months ago, I set out to clean out my sons’ toy room. The plan was to turn it into a bedroom for my youngest. It sounded great, but that room . . . oh, it was a disaster. On most days, you couldn’t walk from one side to the other without tripping over Nerf guns or taking a giant leap over tubs of Legos. I have always felt overwhelmed by cleaning out a room like that. I can hear some of my family and friends telling me to just get it done, and that if I was going to start I needed to get it done asap or it would never be finished.

It turns out that that is terrible advice. No one wants to declutter and organize an entire room on a limited time schedule. It means all other projects cease, not to mention the basics like food and sleep fall by the wayside. Oddly, my kids don’t like that. Instead, I set a different kind of goal with small steps along the way. Clean out one tub a day or fill one trash bag a day. And, crazy enough, that system worked like nothing I have ever done before. I allowed myself to celebrate after every box or bag. My old perfectionist self would have scoffed, but that old bitty would have given up on that room long ago. And, that means the “all-or-nothing” me knows very little about living in the real world.

Ever Smaller Tasks

Now if I had imagined simply cleaning out the toy room as one big project, I never would have made it. Instead, on similar projects, I break down my task into ever smaller duties. I make small habits. I draw a tiny box next to each one. I find great joy in placing a checkmark in that box. A page full of items with check marks creates deep pleasure in my heart. Maybe there is something wrong with me. On the other hand, we humans need to feel like we’re making progress to build momentum and establish motivation.

To use my example from above, if I say, “purge all unwanted toys” and “organize the toy room,” I feel total overwhelm. It is a hopeless proposition. Maybe you’re thinking, “It’s just a toy room.” True, but a project like that often defined me in the past. I am a horrible person because: look at that room. Instead, I have begun to think I am just human and that everyone needs small goals to get things done.

Tiny Goals

For example, I am out of shape, way out of shape. Instead of lamenting my horrible self, I just think what is the smallest amount I can do that will set up a daily habit. Up until last November, it had been years since I had done any aerobic exercise. When my boys started to refuse our walks in the stroller, all thoughts of exercise fled. Since that time I have been gathering information on exercise. I discovered small amounts can actually make a huge impact on a person’s health.

Doing something is better than nothing. And so, I set some very tiny goals for myself. I work out for 10 minutes every day. I know. That is so small. What difference could it make? In reality, I have to work hard to even make my 10 minutes every day. About twice a week, I even miss that.

It is also true that some of my friends and family would laugh at such a minuscule effort. I am at least experienced enough to know a few folks jeering is irrelevant. Well, I can tell you that the intermittent sprints I do on my stationary bike have actually changed the shape of my legs. I can also do push-ups for 30 seconds without stopping or thinking I’m going to die. Am I an athlete? No, but my blood pressure is better and I sleep more soundly.

Multiplying Results

And, here is the revolutionary bit for me. None of these changes are small to me. The habit is small, but the results multiply. And, part of that big result comes from following the number one rule of habit formation. I do it as close to every day as possible, and I am now consistent. Consistency is the linchpin of changing habits over the long haul. I can work on increasing the time I spend exercising later. For now, I work on getting it done every day.

The miracle of a tiny change in habit gives me hope, and it finally allows me to make sense out of some observations I’ve made about myself for quite some time now. From the time of my youth, I thought projects, goals, and schedules were an all-or-nothing proposition. It was never that I should just clean off one shelf in my closet. It was that I should redo my entire room which meant cleaning, organizing, and redesigning it from top to bottom. And because I was all-or-nothing about so much in life, including housework, I never had just a few things to put away.

Tiny tasks were stupid in my eyes, so I had no daily habits to rely on. Clothes went wherever and cleaning couldn’t happen until things were just gross. Then the disgusting abyss once known as my room became a task so large that I could do nothing more than sit some more. It was a never-ending reinforcing conundrum.

Perfection is better left to angels and imaginary superheroes. Instead, I simply put out my hand and think: “I can do this one little thing.” After all,  healing came with one touch on the hem on our Lord. The small becomes miraculous. 

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2 thoughts on “The Blessings of Small

  1. Bobby says:

    You eat an elephant…One bite at a time. If you “take captive every thought”, not by your own strength but through His spirit, even your habits, addictions, and self evaluation changes. I’m a lot more grateful for my upbringing and conversion now than I’ve ever been. I miss Mom and Dad, but speak to them often through the same Spirit Jesus uses to speak to me, and I’ll see them when He says I’ve finished here. I love Stacia and you’re doing a wonderful job with the boys. We’re all very proud of you.

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