Start Stupid Small

“Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.”

Vincent Van Gogh

I am a strong believer that we either succeed or fail because of our routines. Our ability to reach our goals is directly a result of our ability to stick to the routines we have built to get us there. Whenever anyone asks for my perspective on how to establish a new routine – anything from starting a meditation habit to getting in shape – my answer is the same: start stupid small.

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Look, I get it, when you tell me you want to run your first 5k and my response to you is to run for 1 min, walk for 5 min and repeat for twenty minutes three times a week, I know that isn’t the answer you wanted to hear. That’s not sexy. And that’s the thing about the hustle: the reality behind any success story you’ve heard isn’t cute and it isn’t epic. You’re not going to get bitten by a spider and suddenly be able to run a marathon, you’re only going to get there by starting stupid small then slowly working your way up to your goal. Success is not a matter of extraordinary effort, success is a matter of putting in the reps, increasing the difficulty then putting in more reps. You don’t stop when you’re tired or when you “don’t want to,” you stop when you’re done.

Programs like the couch to 5k or strong lifts: 5×5 are great ways to get started with running or strength training when you don’t know how to start or how to progress. So, what do you do when you have a goal that doesn’t have some fancy program? In a nutshell, you need to start stupid small then work your way up slowly to your goal.

First, you need to know what your “max effort” is at the moment. For fitness goals, that means taking the time to find out what really is the limit of your current ability and that can be very hard to do. Our minds naturally quit before our bodies do and so this is where having a coach or honest friend to help you is hugely beneficial. Once you know where your “edge” is, your day-to-day habit needs to be less than that and slowly build up until you reach your goal. For example, let’s say you have a goal to do ten pull-ups in one go. Start by doing as many pull-ups as you can… lets say you can do four at most before your body literally can no longer pull. Great, your goal then becomes to do one or two pull-ups per session; this will build your strength over time. From there, schedule regular check-ins for max-effort sessions. If you still can only do four, keep going with your small daily habit until you can increase to five then ramp up slowly from there. Regularly putting in reps at that lower level will build up the strength needed for the higher reps you want to achieve.

I also recommend a similar approach for beginning a meditation practice. Mindfulness is a mental muscle that we can build up over time. If you don’t have a meditation group to support you, starting your daily practice stupid small is the best way to start. Begin by setting the goal to breathe mindfully one or two minutes a day for a week. You’ll probably find that even such a seemingly low bar is difficult to reach. Once you find yourself able to consistently reach that goal, you can increase the time from there.

Small wins over time lead to big results. Often times the hardest part is staying motivated to continue to put in the reps. This is why it’s so important to celebrate your small wins, every step you make toward your goal is a success.


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