In Praise of Small Steps (or Lessons from the Tortoise)
How to accomplish big things in small steps.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” — Lao Tzu
The scientific concept of inertia refers to the resistance of an object to a change in its state of motion or rest. I’ve been thinking about how the inertia in our lives is often so difficult to overcome.
Life can be hard. Our daily struggles and strains can put us in a kind of survival mode. Sometimes it feels like we’re standing with our toes dug into the sand, desperately trying to remain upright against the waves that are crashing all around us.
When life feels overwhelming, the desire to avoid new things — difficult things, scary things — can usurp our curiosity, our confidence, and our courage. Add to that the pressure to constantly change and improve ourselves on a grand scale. “Think Big!” and “Change Your Life!” are common battle-cries in our fast-moving, super-sized culture.
Small steps can help us resist this all-or-nothing paradigm and overcome the inertia that makes us either move too fast and expect too much, or avoid taking a step at all. Author Leo Babauta emphasizes how tiny steps can be the most powerful way to make changes or add joy to your life. He argues, “You don’t need to fix everything in your life right now. You don’t even need to fix one thing. You just need to do one little, miniscule, almost nothing thing.”
Taking even small actions can help us feel more in control of our lives and how we respond to our circumstances. Some steps might be practical, such as a small change in something you eat that makes you feel healthier. Other steps could help you find a new source of delight, like learning a new skill or discovering a simple pleasure.
I’ve known people with severe illness who in the midst of their suffering have founded organizations, learned the craft of poetry, started a journal, developed skill in jewelry-making, discovered an appreciation of fine art, or simply learned to use social media. Learning new things produces feelings of satisfaction and confidence that are even more essential for those of us who have suffered so many losses due to illness.
We may tell ourselves: when I feel better, or when life calms down, I will begin. Or we may ask: why bother starting if I won’t have the time or energy to accomplish my goals? Thank those voices for their input, and then take a step anyway.
Take a class. Meditate for a minute. Write one sentence. Read a single chapter. Try a new food. As we practice small steps, over time we may look up and realize we’ve arrived somewhere we always wanted to go. No matter the destination or whether we ever get there, the living takes place in the steps on the path, the joy in the sights along the way.
Speed doesn’t matter. Slow progress is still…well, progress. Taking each step reassures us that we’re still living, still moving toward our heart’s desire — whether it be a long-term goal or a short-lived pleasure. A friend recently shared with me that her doctor would always tell her, “remember, the turtle won the race.”
What would you learn or try if you had the time or the energy? Although life circumstances are real and may feel like overwhelming obstacles, there is probably one small step you could take. Each step is something to celebrate, and it just might encourage you to take the next one.