On Practicing & Starting Small

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I’m not very good at starting small. I am excellent at jumping into things with two feet and a long list of requirements for success, and after some time (a week, three weeks, 3 months..) getting burned out and giving up entirely. I’m grateful that it’s in my nature to be so enthusiastic about things, but my follow-through has always needed work.

I often read about trigger habits and doing the minimum, tiny goal in the hopes that it will eventually prompt you to do more but without the expectation of needing to do more. For example, setting the tiny daily goal to put on your running shoes and get outside your front door. The idea is that just getting outside is enough on its own, but that it’ll also probably prompt you to go further, do a little run or maybe even a long one before you go back home. You’re taking away the pressure by giving yourself an incredibly easy small win right off the bat, which will hopefully lead to more small wins over time.

Unfortunately, it’s also in my nature to barrel ahead and do too much at once. I don’t tend to care about small wins and I don’t give myself credit for them. I always feel like I can and should do more, push harder, have bigger wins. It’s not hard to see why eventually I get burned out and give up – I’m not very good at lowering my own standards for success or being gentle with myself. This, I realize, is both a blessing and a curse.

In the spirit of small trigger goals and daily practices, this week I’ve started using the free workout app Seven. I learned about it on Entrepreneur, and The New York Times also had a great piece about it in Well. Sure, it would be better to go for a 30 minute run every day, or hit the gym a few times a week. True to form, when I first started using the app I wanted to try doing two of the circuits every day, or maybe three! But that kind of all or nothing thinking is what ends up burning me out. I never start by setting the bar low because it never seems like enough for me. This time around, I’m letting a (challenging!) seven minute workout every morning be enough. I know I can do that much. Maybe it will trigger more habits, maybe it will be enough on its own – it doesn’t matter. I am starting very small. I am hoping to stay with it. I am hoping to come back to it every day.

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I’ve realized lately that I’m not good at practice. I like things that I can finish and be done with, wrap up, move on. I think this is a common attitude but unfortunately that doesn’t make it much easier to deal with or overcome. Most things in life that I think are important are daily practices that we are (hopefully) never, ever finished with. Meditation, exercise, creativity, staying in touch, eating well, patience, gratitude: all are practices. You don’t get to an end point with exercise and get to stop. You don’t ever reach the pinnacle of success in gratitude and then are set for the rest of your life. You have to keep practicing, each day, slowly but surely, over and over – and there is no “until….” because there is no end point.

This is very hard for me to grasp, let alone put into practice. This is why I flame out every running season, or after a few months of consistent yoga practice, or after a week of meditation when I don’t feel like I’m improving. I find it difficult to stay with things that can’t necessarily be measured quantitatively, or shouldn’t be.

With many of these important practices, I’ve been trying to keep myself in the mindset of taking it one day at a time. Building up slowly a chain of successful days, and trying not to break the chain. Starting fresh each morning. Showing up at the mat or in the chair or in my running shoes as if for the first time and seeing what happens. Being less invested in a particular outcome, and especially less invested in ever being “finished”. This is not easy for me, and I am usually not very successful in embracing this perspective. But investing in and sticking with things that are practices with no end point is in itself a practice. So at least I can try, every day, for as long as I have.

Right now I’m practicing a seven minute workout, eating mindfully, showing up to my yoga mat, morning pages and meditation. What about you?

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