This weekend I pulled out my paint supplies, set down a drop cloth and painted almost a whole sheet of unfinished drywall in my garage before calling it quits. Total effort, counting time to clean my brushes and put up my paraphernalia, was one hour. A pretty pathetic effort, you might think. Not at all. This was exactly what I planned. Next week I’ll repeat the process with another hour of effort, the same the next week and so on until, by the end of summer, my garage will be painted.
When we moved into this house almost five years ago, the unfinished garage was one of the first projects we identified. The drywall was in place and taped. All that was left was the painting. My wife immediately said that she would paint it. Since she was an industrious sort, as evidenced by her painting most of our old house interior in preparation for sale, and I was not overly industrious, I accepted her offer. When, a year later, the garage was still unfinished I figured her project had become our project. I was happy enough to help out, as soon as I had some free time. Sometime last Fall, when I pulled into the garage and looked at the now-familiar unpainted walls, I decided another strategy was needed. It was time for the Method of Many Small Steps.
I discovered this method when I attacked my tax returns last year. Note the plural. For some unknown reason I had saved a copy of every tax return I had ever submitted, over forty years of faded paperwork dating all the way back to 1974. I know this was unnecessary, but after some point any collection takes on a life of its own. Like a chain letter, you fear cosmic retribution if you miss a single installment. More recently I’ve used TurboTax software to file my taxes. The software offered the option to save a PDF copy of the submitted return, which offered me a way of escape from the file cabinets of paper I’d been curating all these years. I decided to scan all the returns and shred the originals. However, the task of scanning hundreds of sheets of paper, one at a time by hand, was daunting. That was when I discovered the Method of Many Small Steps. I scanned for up to an hour, no more, each weekend. At the end of several months, the file cabinets were empty and my archive was safely captured electronically. (For those of you concerned about such things, the scans are in an encrypted archive with a known and safely archived password. It wouldn’t do to lose a lifetime of records to a forgotten password!)
There’s nothing new about the Method of Many Small Steps. It certainly didn’t originate with me. I learned it years ago as the salami technique from the classic Getting Things Done by Edwin C. Bliss. Imagine a large salami, a meat log large enough to fend off attackers. Hardly an appetizing prospect. But if you slice the salami into small slices, pair with bread or crackers and you have a delectable snack. (If you like salami.) Similarly, large tasks are more ‘appetizing’ if you break them down to bite-sized elements. (“How do you eat an elephant?” “One bite at a time.”)
It’s said that a journey of ten thousand steps begins with the first step, but let’s not forget those ten thousand steps. No one takes a journey of consequence in a single step. When I first started commuting to work in my new, larger city the traffic was daunting. I would come over the interstate flyover and see cars seemingly lined to the horizon. I quickly learned that I didn’t have to deal with the entire traffic jam. The car in front, those to the side and the jackass behind me were enough to occupy my mind. I was learning mindfulness on the battlefield of life.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, popularized the idea that success is built upon ten thousand hours of practice. The concept has been misinterpreted and criticized by some, but it is essentially the Method of Many Small Steps applied to personal development. While earnest effort won’t replace talent and aptitude, the core complaint of many of Gladwell’s critics, it will move us much closer to our goals than we would if we simply tried to become superstars overnight.
Rick Hanson and Daniel J. Siegel, in Buddha’s Brain, talk about the neurological underpinning of how constant effort, spread out over time, can change our life. The neural network of the brain exhibits neuroplasticity, meaning it basically rewires itself as needed to address the challenge of the day. And since the brain’s challenges are almost entirely our thoughts, it means that the thoughts we think literally change the physical structure of our brain, making it easier to think our most common thoughts, which further rewires our brain in a closed feedback loop. Every wonder why some people are perpetually gloomy? They’ve spent their entire life stuck in this feedback loop, gloomy thoughts making the brain more susceptible to gloomy thoughts, and so on.
The good news is that the process can work in our favor. I’m not a fan of positive thinking as an end in itself. The universe doesn’t fundamentally change just because we smile at it. But our brain just might. If you force yourself to look on the sunny side of life, if that is the opposite of your normal disposition, then over time it will become easier to do so as your brain rewires itself to this strange new challenge. This isn’t quite the same as ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ (which is another topic for discussion), but in the same family of techniques. The Method of Many Small Steps works, and not just for garages, taxes, salamis and traffic jams. It also provides a powerful method for changing our outlook on life.
There’s much more to say on this topic, but I’m too exhausted to go on. All that painting has me just plumb tuckered out.