Think of the power of wind, water or ice to reshape the landscape in dramatic ways.
A steadily blowing wind can build a mountain of sand. A steadily flowing stream can dig a deep canyon into rock. A steadily creeping glacier can carve magnificent, polished cliff walls.
Of course, these steady actions of nature take years, or decades or centuries to show their effects. But the power of modest actions steadily maintained is in display all around us, and this principle is built into our biology. And fortunately, we have some room to choose what shapes us and how.
When we do a seemingly little thing, do it frequently, do it regularly, it will reshape our lives in some identifiable way. When we have a strong desire for some sort of personal improvement or growth, and set a goal for it, it is the power of small but steady action that makes that possible.
Cuts Both Ways
This power of modest action cuts both ways – for positive reshaping and for negative reshaping. Likely, all of us have modest but regular actions taking us in a negative direction in some areas of life. But we’re not going to focus on that negative side quite yet. By taking up a positive modest action and building a belief and habit around this, you build momentum in a positive direction, making it easier (over time) to become aware of and counter-act some of those negative actions that you are unconsciously engaged in.
With little bits of time each day spent carelessly on things not truly important to us, just think of what else we could be building up…
Do 3 cycles of 4 pushups a day 3 times a week and within 2 weeks you find you can more easily do 6 pushups each cycle. In a couple more weeks you can do 8, and so on. Within a few months you will find you can do 15 or 20, something you could not imagine you’d ever be able to do.
Practice 20 minutes each day, for 2 weeks, putting your fingers into the position for 3 chords of the same key on a guitar and strumming a few times and you’ll find you can make a simple pleasing songs, and your fingers will find it easier to find positions for a few more chords. You may not be a musician now, but you could be within a few months.
Each day practice saying just a few words of a new language used in a single sentence pattern, with perhaps 2 or 3 small variations. Do this just a few times each day as it comes to mind. Every week add a few more words and a new sentence pattern. Over weeks you’ll notice it rolling off your tongue and you’ll recognize bits of this language if you hear it spoken by others. You may feel cut off from those of another language now, but in a few months, you could be taking small steps into their world.
Practice using 2 new hot keys one the keyboard for your most frequently used computer app, add a new one each week. You may feel slow now, but within a couple month you will feel so much faster at entering commands and moving more quickly, more competently through computer work.
Use an app to practice meditation 3 days a week for just 10 minutes a session. After a few weeks you’ll notice not only do you look forward to this short brain rest on those designated days, you’ll notice a pleasant shift in your ability to trigger a different state of mind on command.
Do run/walk intervals for 20 minutes (1 min gentle run then 1 minute walk), 3 times a week. Add 2 minutes to the total time each week. Once you reach 30 minutes, change the intervals to 2 min gentle run, 1 minute walk. When that feels easy to your body during and after, change to 4 minute run, 1 minute walk, and so on over the weeks. Within a few months you will be comfortable running 30 minutes continuously.
Growing Roots For Growing Branches
The only goal you set is to do a bit, perhaps up to your capacity, and do it persistently on some schedule, and then be patient with the processes of growth happening under the surface. The benefits will start to be recognizable like compound interest builds in a bank account.
While doing that patient, persistent work for the first few weeks what you don’t see happening is the growth of the roots below the surface which set the stage for the next jump in your capabilities, like seeing the leaves and branches spread out above . You’ve got to stimulate the system through this patient persistent work for weeks to build those roots, and then you see the leaves emerge. Every time you hit a plateau and see little progress for your efforts, this is what you need to believe is happening unseen below.
Maybe it has become easier to believe in the power of modest action the older we because we’ve had time to observe many examples and experience this principle in practice. What do you think – is it easier now to get to work on goals that are accomplished by small actions pursued with patience and persistence?
Coincidentally, Ryan Holliday had something to say about this last week.
Check out Leo Babuta’s wonderful site Zen Habits.
Here are a few inspiring yet practical books on change and habits…