Fulfilling Big Dreams Starts with Very Small Promises and Actions
A painful state of stuckness and overwhelm continues to aggravate me when it comes to big dreams—I start, stop, move to another dream, start and stop and move to another one. The result: nothing.
I don’t think I’m the only one with unfulfilled desires. From my interactions with a lot of wonderful people and readers, I can safely say it’s fairly common.
I have no problem prioritizing and simplifying my daily actions. I just can’t seem to do it with unfulfilled desires.
And even if I’m able to pick just one, the dream is so big I can’t make meaningful progress.
The underlying cause behind too many dreams and no progress is a combination of greed and fear (the two destructive primal motivators). We want so many things at the same time and we’re afraid of deciding where to start because we might miss out on other dreams.
When it comes to just one dream, it’s usually fear.
Today I want to talk about a very simple approach to deal with being stuck when it comes to big dreams so we can start making meaningful progress.
First of all let me say that there is nothing wrong with wanting to do so many things. Nagging desires are life’s way of telling us what we need to do to grow and express our uniqueness.
If you have only one thing you’d like to start with, you’re set to move forward. If you have many things (like me) pick just one. I will pick composing music as my big dream. Take a few moments to pick your one thing right now if you can.
If you can’t make up your mind, pick the first one that comes to mind. Trust is a key element in this process.
In order to follow through, we need to start somewhere. Here is a basic method to get you going.
The very small process: very small promises + actions
The emphasis here is on very. I’ve talked before about taking small steps. Today we’re going to add a very small commitment (and accountability) and then act.
Make one tiny promise to yourself and take one tiny action daily.
My very small promise and action
Dreams by nature feel crazy big and insurmountable. So they need to be broken down into mini dreams that are more manageable and less intimidating.
Once you have the mini projects listed, pick one and make a promise to yourself.
For example: composing music is a very large endeavor with lots of other steps.
In the past I started to learn the software, then stopped to read about recording music. Then stopped again to read about music theory and messed around on the piano. I did a little of everything, with no meaningful results.
Now I’m choosing one mini target: learning and working with music software (Ableton Live).
My promise to myself is to work on learning music software every day for five minutes after my morning coffee.
Writing, exercising, learning a new language or skill (photography, cooking, or a musical instrument) or any other desire can be broken down into smaller projects.
Want to learn yoga? Pick one pose to practice for a few minutes daily. Add another pose the week after and so on.
Advantages of very small
The following benefits are the opposite of the feelings and consequences of trying to do big things in one big swoop. You are more likely to succeed for the following reasons.
Very small fits into your daily routine/schedule
Taking a few minutes each day doesn’t require sacrificing your other commitments. We all can spare five minutes a day. If you can’t, the first thing you need to do is review what’s important to you and where your time goes.
In the past I tried to work on music with a full schedule. It was okay when I scheduled an hour every day for a short while. Then I slipped and couldn’t bring myself to pick up because I had other priorities. Five minutes is not going to be a big deal (vs. an hour or two a day).
A basic micro step or promise is easy on the primitive side of our brain that’s protective and resistant to change. There isn’t much room for doubt when all I need to do is sit for 5 minutes and work with software.
Momentum and confidence building
The more you do something, the more you’ll want to do it and the more confident you feel about doing it. When you keep your promise to yourself you start believing more in your abilities to stick with something and see results.
When I first started this blog I wanted to write at least two to three articles per week. This worked for a while before I barely got three articles published in a month. I struggled and I knew that if I stopped, it would be very hard to pick up again.
Unknowingly, I started making very small writing promises. The big desire was reduced to writing four articles a month. It’s a pace I’m comfortable with.
Then I write for 20 minutes at a time (after experimenting with smaller and larger chunks of time). If I feel resistance is about to kick my butt, I go into an even smaller promise: write one line. I write it, feel a bit better, and write another and another.
Before I know it, I have an article. I still don’t know how it all fits together in the end. But after doing it for more than three years, I know it works and I use it all the time.
If you’re wondering why this process worked with writing articles and not composing music, the main reason is familiarity. I have experience in writing. I’m a music illiterate. This scares the bejesus out of me.
Requirements for making very small promises
If you want to start making and keeping promises to yourself, consider the guidelines below:
Trust is crucial when we want to start something that’s not yet a routine. We need to trust that we made the right decision, and the scope of our promise is enough. Then we need to let go of everything else.
If I don’t trust that I made the right choice, doubt will creep in and I’ll freeze and start looking for something else. This is one of the biggest obstacles to success. We stop before we finish what we started.
Make a choice and stick with it no matter what.
2. Very specific
Composing music is a massive dream that is vague. Learning to use music software for 5 minutes by following a video after morning coffee is specific.
Other examples: clearing clutter for 5 minutes after dinner, writing one sentence during lunch break, or eating one vegetable a day at dinner time.
The promise should be described in one sentence quantifying what it is that we desire to achieve and when we’re going to act on it.
3. Plan ahead of time
This is not a plan for life. It’s a simple plan for the promise and action. That’s it.
In my music example, I need to make sure the software is up and running before the start day. The videos should be lined up for viewing as well, and maybe a pen and paper if I want to take notes for review later.
It’s also important to consider interruptions and excuses. If something urgent comes up and interrupts your routine, what are you going to do?
The simple answer is to act as soon as possible after the interruption is over.
While stopping might slow you down, pick up again and go for it, without thinking about it. Keep picking up where you left off. Trust.
4. Accountability: rewards and consequences
If you want to hold yourself accountable, commit to someone or declare your intentions and specify the rewards and consequences.
We are wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Usually the satisfaction of working on something we really desire is enough of a reward. If it’s not, give yourself a treat—a break, a nap, a massage, a piece of chocolate.
The consequences for not following through in the long-term manifest in dissatisfaction and continued struggle. These may not be felt on a daily basis, so for the short term it’s better to set up quick consequences that sting if we don’t do something. Some examples: giving up your smart phone, or tablet, not watching your favorite TV show, or not having a piece of chocolate.
Rules of very small actions
Very small actions by nature don’t require a lot of effort, once we made the commitment. Below are the main steps.
1. Keep the promise
This is the most important action step. Intend on keeping your very small promise and do it.
2. Give it your best effort
Do the best you can when you take action. Your best will get better with time. Because the steps are very small, it will be easy to maintain your energy and enthusiasm.
3. Keep a steady pace
This is one of the hardest things to do. When we do a few minutes or a very small step, the temptation to do more will be strong. Let it go and trust.
Keeping a consistent pace is better than speeding up then stopping.
One of the best analogies I heard is comparing what we do to sleeping. To feel fully rested, we need a certain amount of hours every night. We can’t make up for lost sleep later. We might crash on the weekend, but we will be tired the rest of the week if we deprive ourselves of the daily needed rest.
The same applies to your very small action. Do it and stop. You can increase your effort after you have established the daily practice—slowly.
4. Track and review
Tracking serves two purposes. The first is motivation. If you record your action on a daily basis, you’re more likely to stick with it and go for another day of action and another mark on your calendar (or spreadsheet).
The second purpose of tracking is to give you a realistic view of your progress. You get to see your cumulative actions and interruptions to date.
At the end of each action session, take a moment to record what you did and decide if you need to revise your approach or just keep going. The revision is not about changing your promise. It’s about how you can do things better as a result of practice.
Depending on your progress and the ease of your actions, you can gradually up the promise and the action. I recommend a maximum of 10%. If you are dealing with something you’ve done before and you’re just restarting old routines, you can go up to 20%. But I wouldn’t do more. Trust.
Today I invite you to make a very small promise to yourself in one area of your life and pick the first and most basic action. That is all you need to do. Over time things add up. I wrote about this in the simple math of achievement.
As an example, last year I spent 150 hours writing—I had no idea I devoted that much time to writing. It all started with one sentence at a time and then 20-minute sessions. The result was 48 articles (plus some drafts).
The new practice can trickle down into other areas of your life compounding the benefits. Not only will you make progress, but also you will transform your life from one very small promise and one very small action.
To wrap up, here is a quick summary
- Decide on your big dream and the first step or area to tackle.
- Make one very small promise: what you’re going to do and when.
- Take action: keep a steady pace; do it daily; pick up as soon as you can if you stop.
- Track and review: tweak your practice as needed.
- Reward yourself.
- Repeat steps 3 to 5 to completion.
Here are a couple of reminders to help with motivation:
Very small promise + very small action = big success
Small progress is better than no progress at all.