“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.” – Vincent Van Gogh

“Even the largest avalanche is triggered by small things.” – Vernor Vinge

During a summer spent living with relatives on the North side of Chicago, I stumbled on a strategy that’s made achieving goals easier ever since.

My Aunt and Uncle lived about a mile away from Lake Michigan, and I wanted to be able to run near the water on a beautiful trail that followed the shoreline. The problem was that after a full day at the office, and the hour plus train ride home, most days I just wanted to park myself on the couch.

So every day, as soon as I got home, I took off my work clothes and put on my gym shorts and running shoes. I didn’t try to talk myself into running – just putting on my running gear. Sometimes, that was enough to get me out the door. Other days, I’d dilly-dally around the house for another half hour or so before heading out. (And at least once, I got distracted, skipped the run, and ended up changing into lounging clothes a few hours later.)

Getting dressed was the first step to getting onto the trail. I had to take off my professional attire anyway, and it was easier to put on my running gear right away rather than to try and convince myself to run later.

Make It Easy

Whether the goal is to start a new workout routine, to eat better, or even just to get out of bed in the morning, the easier we make the decision, the more likely we are to follow through. Choosing to go on a run is tougher than just choosing to put on running clothes, but once the clothes are on, the run is likely to follow.

Twyla Tharp – world famous dancer, choreographer, and author – understands the power of creating easy successes. In her book, The Creative Habit, she shares the morning ritual that’s kept her in action well into her seventies:

“I begin each day of my life with a ritual; I wake up at 5:30 A.M., put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirts, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st Street and First Avenue, where I workout for two hours. The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.

It’s a simple act, but doing it the same way each morning habitualizes it — makes it repeatable, easy to do. It reduces the chance that I would skip it or do it differently. It is one more item in my arsenal of routines, and one less thing to think about.”1

Small Actions Create A Chain Reaction

Getting ourselves to take that first small step might not seem like a big deal, but it creates momentum that helps us accomplish more. The actions cascade into bigger and bigger results, kind of like a chain of dominos. “A domino can knock over another domino about 1.5x larger than itself,” explains Stephen W. Morris, who holds a Ph.D. in geophysics and is excited to explore the physics of everyday life.2 “A chain of dominos of increasing size makes a kind of mechanical chain reaction that starts with a tiny push and knocks down an impressively large domino.”

Morris demonstrates this in action in a YouTube video that’s been viewed over a million times. He puts a tiny domino, 5 mm high and 1 mm thick – so small that he has to place it on the ground with tweezers, in front of a line of thirteen others. At the other end of the line, he rights the largest domino, more than a meter tall and weighing over 100 lbs.

With the lightest tap of the tweezers the dominos cascade into one another, quickly causing the largest block to fall to the ground with a bang.

What’s The Smallest Possible Action?

During that summer at my Aunt and Uncle’s, identifying and doing the smallest possible action – putting on my running shoes – helped me go from running less than two miles to running more than ten. It was the first domino in a chain, almost laughably small, but once toppled ultimately generating incredible force.

Today, I use the same strategy to:

  • Publish these articles (Goal – write the headers)
  • Take cold showers (Goal – adjust the faucet)
  • Get out of bed in the morning (Goal – get one foot to touch the ground)

What are you working towards? Nudge yourself to success by doing the smallest possible thing.

  1. The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp []
  2. http://www.physics.utoronto.ca/~smorris/smorris.html []