It isn’t surprising that life coaches, therapists and elementary school teachers recommend to those they mentor to start with baby steps, set small, digestible, concrete goals. The advice is ubiquitous because it is realistic and not likely to overwhelm us.
How does this look in practice?
For Lent, it might be choosing the smaller sacrifice. Fasting from meat on Fridays. Giving up chocolate. Adding five minutes of prayer. Attending an additional mass once a week.
In art, it might be simple exercises once a week. Paint with acrylic. Paint an picture with horizontal lines this week and vertical lines next week. The set-up is easy, the materials are inexpensive, so the buy-in is low.
Or writing 100 words reflectively or creatively that are not shared on social media.
For supporting community, it might mean signing up for volunteer work once a week or even once a month. Or even just signing up for one or two annual events.
For donating financially, $10 here or there when asked, or a donation once a year that covers the annual giving you want to give.
It might mean, for a musician, to play once a month with a low-commitment group. Or attending a community concert. Or attending the solo performance of a friend’s daughter.
Maybe it’s reading one short story a week in an anthology for the person who wants to read more on paper and less on the screen.
Maybe it’s cutting back from the screen thirty minutes, setting one of those applications on the phone to limit your screen time after so many hours, ahem, so much time.
It could mean a daily walk. Or a daily walk with one short span of running.
The key is starting small
I think it is important to start small when we want to enact lasting change. White knuckling it, pushing us through a short period of time no matter how hard it is, is unlikely to leave a lasting impression that the thing was good. We are less likely to grow in the actual virtue that way because we made the avoidance of vice just so miserable.
Let’s allow ourselves to build some muscle.
But then what?
Unless the changes are urgently needed, and sometimes they are, it can be good to start small as long as we are willing to take the next step.
Amp it up. A little.
Take the next step.
That next step is the key. If you set yourself a goal to fast, to diet, to exercise, to give something up or take something on, you know your first step. The step you take after that is not just to do it harder, but perhaps to allow the next step to guide you in the direction of the positive effect you want to achieve.
If you want to run marathons, by all means, run harder and longer. But if the goal is a healthy life with movement, what does that look like and what shape would it take?
Instead of thinking linear in the progress of our goals, commitments, ambitions, what if we thought in a more rounded way and take a wide approach, adding step by step and then doing those things better.
Write the 100 words. Then edit. And edit again.
Paint the picture. Learn a new technique and apply that replicating one painting I already made.
Take on a bigger task at that annual event, or ask the organizer what other events you could help with.
The tasks are small and contained, moving slowly but surely within the one task. Rather than looking online, make the communication personal.
It is just an idea but these days it feels like a good deal of life is set for us. We get up, complete the morning routine, start our school or work day, eat, wash up, and end the day. Each day a little different, but each day so much the same. Creative endeavors give way to time online or are absorbed in what we give to our work or our children and their many holidays and birthdays. It is hard to focus on personal goals and enrichment while maintaining an attitude of giving of ourselves to those around us.
But the work matters.
As a mother of many children, who grow older and older, we seem to be deepening the ruts in the road along our track. How do we recapture the things that fell by the wayside or whose spotlight diminished?
Little by little.
I use the seasons of Advent or Lent to enact the changes, and hope to carry them out after the season is over. The nonreligious world has similar ideas. Meatless Mondays. Dry January. The leisure of summer or vacations make space for creativity.
It’s ever so easy to simply entertain ourselves. Let’s try for something more.