For decades, I put off reading War and Peace. After all, the book is the pinnacle of unreadable books — over half a million words. Plus you just know there is going to be a boatload of characters to keep track of.
So didn’t go there. Just joked about it and kept it on the vague ‘someday’ list. After I’m done with everything else on my bucket list. Maybe.
There are a lot of other giant things in life we approach in the same way. Things like:
- Big work projects
- Cleaning the garage to actually get a car in there
- Organizing the basement
- That home improvement project
- Losing weight
- Regular exercise
And so many more.
We take a look or two and decide it’s too big or too complicated. End up doing nothing.
Which means a lot of things in life don’t get done.
In the process, we miss out on a lot of benefits. Because some giants do go away. Like missed opportunities and relationships. Gone with no second chance.
Or are stuck in cluttered lives because we didn’t take action. The giants just sit there. As ongoing reminders.
Our first approach when faced with a giant is often to look for a shortcut.
For instance, instead of actually reading War and Peace (or listening to the unabridged audio book), I might opt for a shortcut. Think Cliff’s Notes or the Wikipedia summary.
It won’t be nearly the same as the real thing. But we often feel a shortcut is good enough.
Except when it isn’t. Because there are many giants in life where there are no shortcuts.
Getting stuck before starting
Much of the time, our problem isn’t that we truly can’t take the first step.
It’s that we overthink where to start and also worry about the steps after that. All the ones we know it’s going to take to accomplish the whole big task.
If I was a project manager for a construction company bidding on a new project, I definitely would need to know the tons of details involved, all the steps in the process and a myriad other things to be able to write a bid that, when accepted, will make it possible to complete said project on budget and on time.
Even with all that, all bids contain a contingency allowance. Because things happen.
Life is not nearly as predictable as a carefully specced project. It’s messy and full of uncertainty.
Yet we look at many situations from a project manager’s perspective — without the experience and tools of a real project manager — and so see an insurmountable obstacle. At which point we conclude we’ll never succeed and therefore never even try.
Or we look at the whole big thing and conclude we need more — research, money, time — just can’t start now.
In the end, we do nothing.
We might go as far as saying things like: I’m going to… or I’ll try…
There’s a good reason for these famous words:
“Do or do not. There is no try.”
Just talking or giving it a quick try involves no commitment.
Which means we also didn’t really fail when eventually nothing happens. So we’re safe from the shame of failure. Which is what holds a lot of us back from attempting new things.
One small step
Michael Hyatt has said that when he starts writing a new book, the first day may just be creating some folders on his computer. Nothing big. Didn’t take a ton of research or planning. No writing involved. But it’s a start on the structure. He’s moving.
When he sits down to write next time, he’ll have places to file those snippets.
It’s taking a first step. A small step. Then another. And another.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”
Of course we worry that the first step will not be the right one. What if the first thing I really need to do is something way over there, instead of here?
That could be the case. Or not. I won’t know until I take action.
If I did start in the wrong place, I can usually pivot. Change direction.
When driving from Little Rock to Chicago, I can’t just point the car like a compass needle and go. Even as I drive in the correct general direction, there will be many places to make turns before I’m finally rolling along Lake Shore Drive. Because roads have curves and there are intersections.
“It is difficult to steer a parked car, so get moving.”
When we’re moving, taking action, direction and redirection, is possible. From God, others or experience gained in the process. But if we don’t do anything, none of that will happen.
That shepherd boy, David, could have taken one look at the big warrior Goliath and followed everybody’s advice: It’s impossible. Stay away. Instead, he made the choice to face the giant head on. And the rest is history.
Slow and steady wins the race
Dreams die when we leave them as dreams. Nobody else can move something from dream to reality for us. We have to do that ourselves.
Giants are unconquerable until we take action.
Which brings us back to reading the 1,000 page book that’s been put off forever. How do we do that? **
One page at a time.
For quite a while, it will seem like I’m making little or no headway. Even as I turn page after page.
Then all of a sudden, when I look at the bookmark poking out, I realize I’m almost 1/3 through. That’s the steady and slow progress. So I keep going, one page at a time.
The same principle of starting with one small action applies to other big tasks and projects.
Once we’re deep into a task, it often becomes a self-motivating challenge. I got this far. I can do a little more and then I’ll be even further along.
The value of milestones
After we pass any mid-way point, we see how there’s noticeably less and less left. The end is in sight. Reachable.
That’s why these words of Winston Churchill, offered at a very dark time for the English and Allies, were so important:
“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
Winston Churchill, Speech at the Lord Mayor’s Day Luncheon, 10 November 1942
Churchill had not had opportunity to deliver much good news so far during 3 years of war. And although the Allies had won a significant victory in Africa, winning the war was still far from a sure bet. So Churchill framed this event as an important step in a long chain. But not just any step. A milestone. One of those that we keep looking back to. Later on noting how things really changed once we got to that point.
With any big task or project, it’s important to find and celebrate milestones. For they are the indicators that help us see progress.
Looking at the bookmark sticking out of a closed book gives me an idea of where I’ve been, how far I’ve come and how far I have yet to go.
So does reviewing milestones on a task or project. We add up all the little things we’ve done, one thing at a time. As they add up, it feels like we’ve done something. Which lets us look towards where we’re going and see light at the end. We can imagine what completion will feel like.
We’re energized to do one more thing now. And all of a sudden there’s not that much left to do.
It’s now or probably never
Which brings us back to the point where we haven’t even started on that giant task or project looming ahead.
If after all this, I do nothing today, it will still look huge tomorrow. Or even bigger.
Or I can take one small, imperfect action today. And another tomorrow.
“A good plan violently executed today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow.”
General George S. Patton
It all starts with one small step. Followed by another. But we have to take the first step. The first action. And when we do, the end effect can be truly impressive.
Take that, you giants.
- * I did read War and Peace. And am truly glad I did. It’s a magnificent epic that follows a number of people and their destinies in intimate ways through a period of drastic change in Russia and really all of Europe. In the end, it didn’t feel so lengthy at all. More like a good visit with old friends that you like to spend time with.
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