When you’re working towards a big goal, whether it’s building a van, learning an instrument, losing weight, training for a marathon, writing a novel, or [insert your goal here], it’s easy to get overwhelmed thinking about all the things that need to happen for you to achieve your goal.
Focusing on the endgame alone has a way of paralyzing us and stopping us from taking the right actions. We think, “There’s so much I need to do to get to where I want to be. What’s the harm in delaying this one little step until tomorrow, or the next day, or the next?”
We often feel that to get anywhere we need to take big steps, and if we don’t have the time or the motivation to take a big step today there’s no point in taking any step at all. But accomplishments are born in the small actions that we take each day, and many small actions can add up to something big over time.
What Actions Can You Take Today?
When we decided to sell everything and travel the country in a van, we quickly got bogged down in all the things we needed to do to make that happen. We had to buy, gut and remodel a van. We had to go through all of our stuff, price it, take photos, list it online, have yard sales. We had to get our house ready for renters, find a property manager, get new insurance. We had to make side money, save, quit our jobs. The list went on and on.
Once we set our goal, we would have been spinning our wheels if we focused on the length of the road ahead. Instead, we focused on what was right in front of us. We constantly asked ourselves, “What actions can we take today to work towards our trip?” And we took those actions.
There were points on our journey where we stepped back and saw how much farther we still had to go. After we quit our jobs and our leave date grew closer and closer, whenever we thought about everything we still had to do we felt stressed and overwhelmed.
Thinking about the distance we still had to travel only made us focus on the stress instead of the step at hand. It wasn’t until we refocused on the immediate actions we could take that we got anything done.
Running a Marathon One Step at a Time
Earlier this year I ran my first marathon, which had been a goal of mine for almost ten years. In the past I would work towards it haphazardly and unrealistically. I would train without a plan, or I would try to do too much in too short of a time and end up injured. It wasn’t until I slowed down, committed to a realistic training plan, and focused on executing it each day, that I finally crossed that finish line.
For many people, the idea of running 26.2 miles, or 10 miles, or even 5 miles seems insane. Before I started my journey it certainly did. But instead of focusing on the distance I was aiming for, I focused on how far I had to run today.
It’s still a goal of mine to write a novel, and thinking about the sheer scope of that still overwhelms me at times. But I know that novels aren’t written in epic bursts of creativity. They are born in the trenches of daily action, and all I need to do is sit down and focus on the words I am writing today.
Focus on Where You Are, Not How Far You Have to Go
“The journey of a thousand miles
starts from beneath your feet.”
—Tao Te Ching, no. 64, translated by Stephen Mitchell.***
This quote is so common to the point of being cliché, but it speaks to a vital truth. The traditional interpretation is that any complex task or big goal begins with a simple step, that you can accomplish anything by taking one step at a time.
But it also describes where to put your focus. If you focus on the length of the journey alone, you will get discouraged with the distance ahead of you and give up before you even start. But if you keep your focus on the journey itself, on the ground beneath your feet, then you can walk many miles in perfect calm.
When setting a goal, define your goal but don’t focus on it. Figure out what small actions you can take each day towards that goal, and focus on those instead. Down the road, you’ll look back and you won’t believe how much you accomplished.
***The Tao Te Ching is filled with wisdom and meditations on the nature of universe. This translation by Stephen Mitchell is my favorite, and I highly recommend spending some time with it.