There are so many worthwhile, admirable desires in life. To be in better shape. To be healthier. To be more loving. To pursue a passion. To achieve a personal goal. Depending on the make-up of your particular personality, you might have a bunch of them or a few of them. You might have big, life-changing desires or small ones. But there’s one thing common to all of these goals and desires. In fact there’s only one thing common to them, and it’s the key to whether or not they’ll become a reality for you. They come from taking a series of tiny steps continually over a sustained period of time.
Losing fifty pounds doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t even happen one pound at a time. It actually happens one day at a time, or one meal at a time, or one workout at a time, over a sustained period of time.
Turning a relationship around doesn’t happen overnight. It happens one day at a time, or one interaction at a time, over a sustained period of time.
Building a business doesn’t happen overnight. It happens one day at a time, or one focused working session at a time, or one decision at a time, over a sustained period of time.
This isn’t some cutesy way of looking at things. This is the truth. Every single change, no matter how big it is, happens this way. I heard a story once that Mother Teresa was asked how it is she was able to help so many thousands of people in her life, to which she responded that she did so one person at a time. Big impact changes happen as the result of what seem like very small actions on the surface.
So think about what it is that you most want to change about your life. Or think about a goal you most want to achieve. Now ask yourself this simple question:
What one small change could you make to your life that would have the biggest impact on achieving that goal?
When I looked at the ways in which I wanted to improve myself and I stepped back and asked myself this very same question, the answer actually surprised me. For me, the small change that I could see had the potential to lead to the biggest impact was to wake up at 4am every day.
Waking up early gave me time to meditate consistently. It gave me guaranteed time to work out. It gave me time to write and to work on creative projects. It gave me time to take up yoga so I could finally touch my toes or sit cross-legged on the floor with my son without being in agonizing pain (exaggerating only slightly by the way). It gave me time to read. It just so happens that so many of the bigger, outward changes I wanted to make to my life required some distraction-free time for myself. Not only that, but like just about every human I struggle with intermittent discipline. Forcing myself to wake up early was a form of discipline. It set the tone for being disciplined about the habits I wanted to build.
Now my point in sharing my answer is not about the specifics of waking up early, it’s this: Relatively speaking, this was a pretty small change to make in my life. It felt big at first because I’ve always been convinced I need a certain amount of sleep and I’ve always been convinced I am terrible in the morning, but it wasn’t as epic as I made it out to be and in the end all it amounted to was setting an alarm and actually listening to it, and then using that time to effect a specific change in my life.
And all of those goals I had around meditation, working out, writing, and so forth could’ve been framed in very big terms, like “I want to lose 20 pounds,” or “I want to write a book.” But achieving those goals boils down very simply to the mechanics of taking time each day to exercise, or to write a single page of a book.
Often our problem is that we think about the magnitude of the goal or the change required and scare ourselves away from going for it because it feels too big.
I had this experience in grad school where each time I’d think about having to write my thesis, I’d immediately get this horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach because the thought of all that I needed to do to finish my thesis was completely overwhelming. It feels like you’ll never get to your goal when you think about all those steps, but that’s because we’re terrible at actually judging how long things will take, how much work they actually are, and how we’ll feel each step of the way.
If you anticipate how you’ll feel writing a thesis over the course of 6 months or a year, it’s like saying you have the ability to understand what it will feel like to live 6 or 12 months of your life. And that’s a ludicrous way of thinking about it. It’s not as though I was also thinking about every breakfast I would have, or every birthday party I would go to, or every night of sleep I was going to get. I was focusing just on how much work it would take to get there. I was taking on the burden of all of that in one moment of contemplation, a burden that in reality is broken up into a bunch of tiny chunks, many of which flow and happen pretty organically, and many of which actually carry their own intrinsic sense of accomplishment or fuel the motivation to continue onward.
The other thing that gives this “what one small change…” question such power is that it gets you to focus on something high impact and inherently achievable.
I’ll give you another example from my life. Once upon a time my answer to this question was to give up drinking alcohol for some period of time. It felt like a sacrifice for a time, and I could’ve focused on that aspect of it, but in reality what a small change it was. It’s not even doing something, it’s NOT doing something. That takes no time, it takes no money, it just takes resolve. So it really is a small change in many ways.
But that one small change had a big impact at the time. I was more well-rested, so I had more energy and didn’t rely on caffeine the way I did before. I felt better and even happier because of being more well-rested. I had more usable hours in my day because on days I used to drink, that was more or less the end of my night, whereas now I found myself naturally using that time in better ways. My workouts were better because I had more energy. I was in better shape from not consuming a bunch of excess calories. All of that from this one small change. Hard hitting, high impact, but totally achievable.
If you’re ready to amaze yourself, follow through on this simple principle and watch some fantastic changes unfold in your life.
So what is your one small change? And why not start on it today…?
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