An Assembly of Small Victories
Think small. You don’t often hear that advice. No, it’s all big dreams, follow your passion, five-year plans, moonshots and grand visions. There’s a place for those things. Maybe they are goals or directions, or simply a set of wishes. But without action they are only so much smoke and dust. For action, you need to think small. Decompose that expansive end-state down into smaller pieces until you can can connect it to your day-to-day. Get tactical and specific. Nebulous bullshit like “write a book” will accomplish nothing because it’s an outcome and not an action plan. Concrete daily goals like “write a thousand words” will move you forward much more effectively. No matter where you want to be in the future, right now you only have this day. What will you do to make it contribute to a bigger life?
If you could somehow bottle exercise it would instantly be the most valuable miracle drug on the planet. Obviously you can’t do that, but it’s available for free if you’re willing to commit the time and energy to it. Get moving first thing in the morning for at least 15-20 minutes and you’ll find yourself more awake and ready to do more. If you have more time than that in the morning, great, use it. If not, schedule a longer workout session in the afternoon or evening. Ideally you want a balance of weight training, cardio and flexibility - either in one workout or across the week. Find a good workout program for your fitness level, goals and time constraints. Make this a habit and you will feel better, have more energy, lose weight, live longer, look better, and generally enjoy life more.
Our bodies are an ongoing functional miracle. They require fuel and the better the fuel the longer the complex machinery will last. Sure, it won’t go forever but nothing will. I’m not a nutritionist. Even if I was, you shouldn’t listen to me because it seems that we’re somewhere just after the dark ages in terms of understanding how food actually works. It would be nice to have some in-depth clarity, but all I can offer is a baseline. Avoid anything heavily processed, refined sugar, and fast food. Sure, all those things are delicious which is why it’s a small win to say ‘no’ to that donut. Focus on proteins, healthy fats and leafy green vegetables. It’s okay to periodically indulge in something sweet and decadent. It’s the hourly urge to raid the cookie jar or candy bowl that we should try and overcome. I admit, I find exercise orders of magnitude easier to stick with than a healthy meal plan.
I’m a former smoker. There are times to this day when I have cravings to remove the word ‘former’ from that designation. Everyone knows someone that struggles with difficult addictions to drugs or alcohol. Moderation is your best friend if you choose to indulge in substances or activities known to be addictive - whether it’s a few drinks with friends, a cigar with that scotch, gambling in Vegas, or a bit of cannabis at the end of a long week, proceed slowly and be ready to walk away well before you think you should. When it comes to the more intense substances, you’re better off not leaving that to moderation and abstaining completely. There are plenty of good things in the world to enjoy without taking up heroin, cocaine or opiates as a hobby.
The reason I bring up addiction is that it’s hard to overcome. It’s an ongoing struggle. Anyone that thinks addiction is simply a moral failing doesn’t understand how it operates, which is to say subtly and with the consent of your low-level neural structures. If you feel the pull and you can say ‘no’ or otherwise distract yourself, that’s a victory. I know it’s difficult. Nicotine is a mild addiction compared to more intense substances, but I know how damn easy it is to rationalize. String together enough days of ’no’ and it gets easier. Get help if you need it. Hold the line. If you slip, forgive yourself, identify how your intentions went awry so you can counter those triggers in the future, and start again.
There are some things we should try to do every day. I’ve already mentioned exercise, and that’s important enough to warrant it’s own section. There are other endeavors that improve health, well-being, enjoyment and growth that are simple enough to be done daily. What those things are will vary for everyone. For me it includes activities like meditation, journaling, and reading. For others, it might be drawing, prayer, singing, poetry, playing with your kids, or some time soaking in hot water at the end of the day. Take some time every day for the small things that stimulate or improve your life. Schedule it if you have to. Gratitude, presence, creativity and play are potent antidotes to the fears, stresses and frustrations that can detract from our every day experience.
We all have work to do. Whether it’s at your job, for some side hustle or personal project you have going on, or just upkeep around your house. It’s easy to be unmotivated, distracted or idle. Don’t let that characterize your day or your life. No matter the time scale, at the end of it you will feel more fulfilled the more you did with it. I’m not a productivity guru but here’s the easiest summary I’ve heard of to get things done. Identify the three to five most important tasks you have to do today, organize that list by priority and then start working down the list. That’s it. If something urgent comes up that wasn’t on your radar, be flexible and move things to the next day. Just don’t let the urgent keep you from doing what is important. Plan out your day with intention. Take hold of your time or someone else will.
Your environment defines a lot of your choices. Have you created an environment that enables you to win? Have you made the right actions easier and the wrong actions difficult? Every bit of friction you can shift will affect your outcomes. If you’re trying to eat healthier then don’t stock your pantry with cookies. If you want to workout in the morning, have your clothes and everything else ready the night before. Add reminders to your phone if you want to do some of your dailies at certain times. Outline your task list the night before if it helps you execute on it better. Define a good choice architecture and you won’t have to depend on willpower alone to get you through those difficult moments where simple is not easy.
Nothing above should imply that I have all this on lock. Some days are better than others. This article is as much for me as it is for anyone else. A reminder that how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. It’s impossible to do this perfectly, but you can endeavor to be better than yesterday. You build a good life the same way you create a good day - from an assembly of small victories.