A Journey of a Thousand Miles. . .
June 16, 2017
Today’s to-do list: Come up with a great idea, commit it to an outline, then write a 70,000-word kick-a$$ novel.
Granted, I won’t actually accomplish all that in one day. But the list has taken up urgent residence in my brain, and my brain has dutifully committed to an action plan. An unmanageable action plan, but an action plan nonetheless. The result? The same feeling I get when I’m knee-deep in laundry, clutter and unwashed dishes. My high-maintenance brain’s only focus is the desired outcome: a clean house, or a finished novel, or whatever. Its message, delivered with all the subtlety of a drill sergeant, is, “GET TO WORK AND MAKE THIS HAPPEN!” It doesn’t care to be bored with the tedious details.
But the devil is in the details, and major projects involve so many of them that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.
Here’s my strategy for dealing with this potential avalanche of anxiety: First, I humor my brain. (“Oh, you want me to write a novel/clean my house/solve world hunger, you say? Okay. I’ll make that happen. Now, go veg out on cat videos while I get to work.”)
Whew. I’ve bought myself some time. But my brain will eventually catch on and start haranguing me again, so my next step is this:
Do the easiest thing possible to start this project.
In the case of a novel, it might be surfing a few websites about some subject matter I plan to cover in the plot. Or it might be typing “Chapter One.” Or it might be turning on the computer. Likewise, the easiest possible way to start cleaning my house might be to chuck a single misplaced toy into a closet. No sweat!
You know what’s crazy about these easiest-possible first steps? The brain gets its fix just as reliably as if I’d done something difficult. Its little synapses light up with glee, showering me with praise and positive reinforcement: What a rock star you are! How proud I am to live in your head! We can accomplish anything together! I am well-pleased. Now, move on to the next step before I start haranguing you again.
Okay, so it’s on to the next step. But this feels much less onerous in light of the fact that I’ve already completed Step One. I’m no longer creating something from nothing; I’m building on something that already exists. I’m not getting on my feet to begin a journey; I’m already in motion.
Step Two — maybe tossing all the toys into the closet, or getting started on the outline for my novel — inevitably feels easier than Step One, even though Step One was the easiest possible thing I could do. Step Three feels easier still, and by Step Four, I’m often on autopilot, just enjoying the ride.
This isn’t always as easy as I’m making it sound. Sometimes speed bumps will slow me down, or I might encounter an unexpected detour. I might even break down on the side of the road with a busted gasket. But each successful step along the way has reinforced my brain’s belief that reaching my destination is not only possible, it’s inevitable. After all, the trip is underway. It would be just as daunting at this point to turn back as it would be to finish the journey.
So when I start a novel, I might occasionally indulge myself by fantasizing about the end result. But mostly, I’m focused on taking one step at a time. Neuroscience confirms that feel-good endorphins flood the brain when we put one foot in front of the other, and the more often we do it, the more momentum we have.
Nobody has taught me this lesson more indelibly than my wonderful kids. They’ve each created such rich and fulfilling lives for themselves. For instance, when my daughter decided several months ago that she wanted to totally reboot her life — new city, new apartment, new career — her vision seemed like one big overwhelming blur to me. But I watched in astonishment as she simply made it happen, one step at a time. Her resilience and resourcefulness make me burst with pride, reinforcing my conviction that virtually nothing is out of reach when we stay the course.
So, yeah, I’ll make progress on my novel today, and if it happens to be the teeniest amount of progress possible, well, that’ll be my little secret. And when I finish it — it’ll be book number eleven — I’ll know that book number twelve isn’t far behind.
I’ll just take it one step at a time.