Common knowledge is not necessarily common practice.
Take eating vegetables. Is it good for us? Obviously. But do we all do it? No.
Take the main philosophy here at DreamBigStartSmall. Is starting small a good idea? Yes. Do I do it? No. I know that I should, but I don’t. I get greedy. I want results too fast. I do too much at once.
And just like chasing two rabbits, I end up with none. In ending up with none, my routine goes out the window, and I find myself wallowing in self-pity watching Stephen Colbert on Youtube, asking myself how I ever got myself into this mess.
For example, here’s a non-exhuastive list of things I’ve been implementing over the past 2 months.
- Polyphasic sleeping (again)
- Benjamin Franklin virtue training program
- Daily Spanish grammar
- Reading 3 times a day
- 67 steps v3
- Get Things Done framework
- Gratitude Journalling
- Having a contact book to keep track of conversations with friends
- Trying out Habitica
- Systematically breaking down books into their essential actionables through notes
- Masterminds with friends
- Writing a blog article once a week
- Tai Lopez’ millionaire mentor program
- Tai Lopez’ Accelerator program
- Journalling before bed
- No Fap
- Getting back into triathlon
- Working on Awaken The Giant Within
How many of these became habits? A few at best.
(I can see Master Yoda shaking his head at a padawan (me) as I type.)
So, I’m gonna take this opportunity to remind us all (read: me) of why this blog is not called DreamBigStartFreakin’Huge, but DreamBigStartSmall.
Why Start Small
Let’s represent our goal with building muscle. How would we go about building muscle?
For a start, muscle doesn’t grow on trees. A Spartan physique can’t be bought, nor stolen, nor gained in an Ivory Tower. Muscle, like habits, is built through action.
But not just any old action. It must be consistent action. Nobody gets ripped from going to the gym one time. No-one looks like King Leonidas after a single workout. No fat person can reverse 10 years of crappy eating with two weeks in the gym. There are no shortcuts on the road to muscle or habits. Only the Seth Godin long-cut.
Try to gain muscle too fast and we get fat. Try to cut too fast and we lose muscle. Our means to our goal must be consistent effort over a long-time period. The long-cut is the way.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” – Aristotle
In other words, stick-ability. If we can’t stick it out – if we give up during the dip – we get nothing.
How do we build stick-ability? How do we train not for three weeks before summer, but a lifetime? By starting small.
Starting Small is Fun
Tim Ferris says you need three things to learn a language:
- Effectiveness (priority)
- Adherence (interest)
- Efficiency (process)
If you focus on the essential (80/20 rule) and you’re interested in the material but your process sucks (e.g rote learning off a chalk board), you won’t succeed. If you’re interested in the material, and understand how you learn (i.e spaced repetition) but all you learn is useless nouns, you won’t succeed. But most crucially, if you’ve got the best training program and process in the world, but give up because it sucks, nothing else matters.
To build muscle or a habit, we must enjoy the process.
How do you make it fun?
Depends on your tastes. Do you enjoy weightlifting, powerlifting, or bodybuilding? Listening to heavy metal or insane EDM? With friends, or without friends? At home, or in the gym? Do what you enjoy. As Mark Sisson says, the best exercise is the one you’ll do the most.
Deadlifts make for a beastly workout, but if you don’t like them, you won’t do them. The man who can’t read is just as well off as the man who doesn’t read.
But what if there’s no way to reach your desired end without enduring boring monotony? What if you don’t enjoy the process of lifting?
Make yourself enjoy it. Even the toughest things can be enjoyed with the right frame of mind and in the right duration.
Take cold showers for instance. Is a cold-shower enjoyable? If you associate it with the awesome benefits, then hell yeah it’s enjoyable. If all you see is pain, then no. Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so.
Then there’s duration. I love cold-showers. But not for 45 minutes. I also love basketball. But not for 12 hours straight. I’m partial to Spanish grammar. But not for a week without sleep.
And that’s why we must start small. It allows us to maximise pleasure and minimise pain. Going for too long (as a beginner) leads to boredom and frustration. For cold showers, starting small is the difference between starting your day like a beast and starting your day with hypothermia.
We must start small. Not to make it insanely fun. Not to make it comfortable. (Deadlifts are fun but not comfortable.) But to make it as fun and enjoyable as possible.
Starting Small Helps Preserves Willpower
Our willpower each day is finite. Studies show that students who do difficult maths problems cave in far more often when offered either chocolate cake or fruit salad compared to a group who did no maths problems.
Let’s say you go all-out Rocky style, and start training 6 hours a day. Then what? What happens when you get home, and have to decide between reading and Netflix, between salad and ice-cream, and between taking action and procrastinating? What happens to all your other kick-ass habits that you’ve spent months developing?
From experience, you make poor choices, and your habits go out the window. And when we make poor choices, it’s tempting to write off the day7week/month and perpetuate the cycle.
Why take the chance? Start small. Conserve your willpower and your habits.
Starting Small is Antifragile
Let’s say you start off big, hitting the gym for an hour every day. For the first two days, it’ll be a cake-walk. You’ve got motivation and passion at your side. But what will happen when they leave you? Will you keep it up or crumble?
The Spartans make the distinction between andreia (courage), and pseudo-andreia – the courage produced by a rousing speech by a general before battle. Anyone can act after a motivational video. But who has the discipline without one?
Anything is easy with motivation and passion. Anything is easy when the going is easy. But we must plan for when the going gets tough. We must plan for when motivation and passion have deserted us. We must plan to charge without the general’s speech.
Yet, most of us plan for, and plan during, best-case scenarios. We plan after watching Eric Thomas, or after making out with your girl/boyfriend, or after catching a reflection of your sculpted body in the mirror, or after reading an inspiring book, with the sun streaming through the window, and bunnies and Smurfs giggling outside.
Why we don’t question whether this perfect state will last forever I have no idea. We plan with the hidden assumption that we won’t be feeling worse. That conditions will be perfect. But what happens when they’re not? What happens when the proverbial shit hits the fan?
What happens when winter rolls around, and you must fight the wrath of Zeus to make it to the gym? What happens if you wake up hungover? What happens if a family member dies? Or you fall out with a friend? Or if you just don’t feel like it? What happens if your boss gives you shit at work? What if your 2 month old labrador puppy literally gives you shit at home? What if you’re snowed under with deadlines? What if you break up with your girlfriend or boyfriend? What if you’re ill?
Still gonna go to the gym for an hour now? I bet most of us wouldn’t even make it out the door.
So if conditions are unlikely to be perfect, why do we make plans that become dependent on it?
Starting big is like the servant of Damocles, who sits upon the throne with a sword dangling above his head, held to the ceiling only by a horse-hair. Any hiccup in the system will destroy our plans.
Starting big is fragile. Starting big is for sissies.
You, my friend, must make indestructible plans. Plans that make us even stronger when aforementioned shit hits said fan. We do this by starting not just small, but ridiculously small. So small that it’s an affront to your ego. So small that it’s insulting.
Instead of 1 hour a day in the gym, try for a single pushup when you wake up. Instead of running 3k a day, try just stepping outside the house. Instead of doing a 30 minute stretching routine, reach down and touch your toes before you go to bed.
And when the shit inevitably hits the fan, magic will happen.
The world might come crashing down, but you’ll still do the thing. You’ll still do the single push-up, you’ll still lace up your shoes, and you’ll still write the single sentence.
That’s when you teach yourself that no matter what happens, you’re still going to do it. That you still can do it. And what’s on the other side of knowing you have, can and will hold strong through the worst of times? Self-respect. Self-belief. Real confidence. And everything else becomes a walk in the park.
By starting small, you stack the deck in your favor. For the worse life gets, the stronger you and your habit become. You become the Hydra, the multi-headed serpentine leviathon that when one of its heads is cut off, two grow back in its place.
Starting big is for sissies. Starting small is for Hydras in the making. Starting small is antifragile.
I once heard of some pHd students who had a competition to see who could complete their thesis the fastest. The guy who won it wasn’t the one committed to 3 hours a day in the library, or huge swathes of reading every morning. He was too clever for that. He simply commited to writing 1 sentence every day.
Sure enough, he’d stumble in, hung-over, from the night before. But he’d write that 1 sentence. And on the good days, he’d write more. 1 sentence a day. Try that for your next assignment.
Become an antifragile beast by starting small.
Nothing Fails like Failure, and nothing Succeeds like Success
I don’t believe there is such a thing as failure. Every set-back and every challenge is a unique gift from the universe for growing stronger.
However, when it comes to habit building, “failure” is giving up or not following through. And although failure is usually an incredible learning experience, nobody said the failure has to be yours. So why not use mine instead?
When we fail at building a habit and reflect enough, we learn that our egos are too big, that our short-term expectations are too high, that our planning was faulty, and that we need to start small.
If we fail to reflect with a growth mind-set, failure only teaches us that we suck, and that our efforts are pointless (learned helplessness)
As the timless Arnold Bennet says:
“Be aware of undertaking too much at the start. Be content with quite a litte. Allow for accidents. Allow for human nature, especially your own.
A failure or so, in itself, would not matter, if it did not incur a loss of self-esteem and of self-confidence. But just as nothing succeeds like success, so nothing fails like failure. Most people who are ruined are ruined by attempting too much. Therefore, in setting out on the immense enterprise of living fully and comfortably within the narrow limits of twenty-four hours a day, let us avoid at any cost the risk of an early failure. I will not agree that, in this business at any rate, a glorious failure is better than a petty success. I am all for the petty success. A glorious failure leads to nothing; a petty success may lead to a success that is not petty.”
So start small. Start ridiculously small. Put the ego in check, and take the petty success. Because petty sucesses over time are not petty.
How Starting Ridiculously Small Has Led to Ridiculous Success In My Own Life
Time: Less than 1 minute a day. Result: Health, happiness and satisfaction, from a rejuvenated lifting routine.
I used to find deadlifting incredibly frustrating. I couldn’t nail the form, it felt horrible, and I’d end up injured and fed up. Through watching videos (shoutout OmarIsuf), I identified muscular imbalances, and took up a corrective stretching routine mentioned in The Happy Body.
The routine consists of at least 10 stretches, but I started with only one – the one that would correct my deadlift. The dynamic stretch takes less than a minute every day, so it’s ridiculously easy. Yet, my flexibility has gone through the roof, and my deadlift is now my favourite exercise by far.
- Spanish Grammar
Time: Open the textbook and write 1 word (1 minute or so). Results: Better Spanish, better social life, road to mastery visible.
When I started working in Spanish, I stopped studying grammar. Several months later, I realised my linguistical skills needed a smoothin’, so I began in earnest. After several attempts, I finally got into the flow by setting the bar for action ridiculously low: merely opening up the textbook (amazing grammar book that I use)and writing one word every day.
Ridiculously small, and yet, in the last month, I feel like I’m finally on the road to mastering the subjunctive. The fabled C2 level has never seemed so attainable.
Plus, language wins are always communication wins which are always social wins. Win win win!
Time: Writing 1 sentence a day (1 minute). Results: The article you see before you.
I adopted the phd’s strategy of writing for 1 sentence a day. Lack of time? No problem. Don’t feel like it? No problem. The result? I’ve written more in the last 3 weeks than I have in the past 3 months.
Why Start Small: Action Steps
Let me conclude.
Our goal is excellence over time, i.e longevity. To achieve this, we must start small, because starting small increases our stick-ability.
Why? Because starting small:
- Is fun (limits boredom/frustration).
- Allows us to make better decisions (doesn’t exhuast will-power)
- Is Antifragile.
- Decide the result you want (more sociable, more flexible, more muscle, languages, music etc.)
- Decide on a habit that will get you there (socialising, stretching, lifting, studying grammar, practicing piano)
- Come up with a ridiculously small action that you can do everyday (smile at a stranger, an 8 second stretch, opening a texbook, a single squat, or practicing one hand drill)
- Do the ridiculously small action every day.
N.B If you only do the ridiculously small action, YOU WIN. If you do more, it’s a BONUS. The ridiculously small action is the goal, nothing more. Aim for nothing more.
Ridiculously small ideas:
- Writing: 1 sentence a day.
- Socialising: Smiling at 1 stranger.
- Journalling: Write a 1-item to-do list.
- Drinking water: 1 glass a day.
- Eating fruit and veg: Eat 1 cherry tomato.
- Reading: read 1 word.
- Calisthenics: do 1 push up.
- Gratitude: think of 1 thing to be grateful.
- Cold showers: Turn your shower down a tiny notch at the end of the shower.
- Cooking: Take one fruit or vegetable out of the fridge.
- Breathing: Take a 1 conscious breath.
- Running/Walking: Put your shoes on when you wake up.
Got any more ideas? Let me know in the comments!
So there we have it: for ridiculous results, start ridiculously small.
Try it out, then perhaps you won’t have to learn the hard way like yours truly. To win like a lion, we must start like a mouse.
Dream Big (and especially) Start Small!