This photo is of two postcard-sized paintings I painted and framed recently. They now live over the bookshelf right next to my favourite armchair.
In the past week, I have also completely overhauled my website (with professional-quality photos, which my talented husband shot for me as I had no photos of myself without the kids). I did some research around my coaching business, wrote some content for this blog, mowed the back garden, gathered another bag of stuff to take to the charity shop and a bag of clothing scraps to recycle, and sorted some clothes to/from the loft as my boys change their clothing size. Alongside all of these tasks, I also managed to have time to read for pleasure (George Eliot’s Middlemarch) and for learning (Paul Gilbert’s The Compassionate Mind), go for coffee with my husband, take my son to a park for a playdate after school, and go for a run.
This isn’t a list designed to brag (though reading it back I’m afraid that’s how it comes across…sorry about that). It is to demonstrate the amazing power of small things.
I have learned this simple truth time and time again before forgetting and then rediscovering it. But there’s a reason “Little and often” is one of the mantras I repeat to myself: little things, done every day, make a huge difference.
It’s easy to forget this though when we feel overwhelmed. When there’s simply too much to do than we have time for and the moment we tick one thing off our list three more have spawned, the little tasks and steps feel like barely a drop in the bucket.
But that is precisely the time when “little and often” comes into its own.
Why ‘little and often’ works
- The fact you’re dealing with simple steps, one at a time, helps reduce anxiety or distraction.
It’s like when Chandler runs out on his wedding in Friends, because it all seems too big, until he has to break it down into ‘take a shower’, ‘put on a suit’, etc.
Example: I have been wanting to research the parent coaching marketplace, but the task “Research parent coaching marketplace” sat gathering dust on my to do list. So last weekend my task was to look up some maternity coaches (coaches who specialise in people going from work to maternity leave and back to work). I realise part of the barrier for me is that ‘researching the marketplace’ sounds very business-y, and reminds me that I’m starting a coaching business (gulp). That leads to other thoughts – is my business idea viable? how will this work alongside my day job? how will I find clients? It became daunting, and I researched with these doubts and questions in the back of my mind, which inevitably put me off doing much research.
A simple step – look up parent coaches – was far less loaded in my brain. Today, I’m just looking up what’s out there for parents. No pressure.
- Small, simple steps mean you know exactly what you need to do next.
It’s concrete. There’s no question of where to start when you look at a small, simple step.
So whereas ‘research’ could mean looking up anything from stats about the number of working parents in the UK to looking at rates and methodologies already in the marketplace to researching figures about happiness in the UK, ‘look up parent coaches’ was direct. When I had ten minutes on my phone while my baby nursed, I could look up some maternity coaches.
That led me to my next step – contact them to find out more about their rates. For one, I wanted to work with a maternity coach to help me transition back to work next month, and secondly, I could have a good idea what support is available to parents like me – my ideal coaching clients.
- Small steps can be done in a surprisingly short space of time.
Lots of things that seem too time-consuming to do all at once can be broken down into short steps that can be done in the most time-pressed person’s day. Ten minutes a day on the train to work, every day, doesn’t feel arduous in the moment but that’s nearly an hour by the end of the working week.
With the example of ‘researching the marketplace’, I found one simple step, once completed, led naturally to the next day’s simple step.
On Sunday, I found some maternity coaches and reached out to them to find out more.
On Monday, I made an appointment with one of them for the following day to chat more.
On Tuesday, I spoke with said coach to find out more, and realised that a) it was going to be outside my employer’s budget and b) paying privately, even with a generous discount, was going to be WAY outside my budget.
Disappointing as it was to realise I wouldn’t be able to work with this coach, this led to one of my most powerful insights about my desire to coach parents to be happier. Instead of targeting the employers in the hopes they would pay for coaching, I wanted to offer an affordable self-fund coaching offer for parents directly. Being a working mother about to return to work from maternity leave, I do not feel comfortable trying to ask my employer to pay for me to get coaching, as I’ve just negotiated my flexible working with them and been off for a year. And while I know that’s the law and my right, etc, I feel awkward even thinking of asking for more right now. And if I feel that way, other parents probably do, too. So other parents might want some affordable coaching at this point. And boom, there’s my offer.
- The momentum of little somethings builds up far faster than a string of nothings.
Doing a little something each day starts to gather energy behind it. Thinking about something a little each day makes it more front of mind.
Following on the same example around my coaching business, I found that the momentum I got from having some professional-looking photos taken meant I actually wanted to update them on my site straight away, which I found the time to do (just).
One minute meditations, done every day, help me more than when I’ve managed a five minute meditation once a week.
Another example from a completely different part of my life is painting. I’ve always liked painting, despite frequently being disappointed with the finished product. But who has time?
Then the other day, my son wanted me to paint with him. We got out our watercolours and some paper. I didn’t know what to paint, but as I was feeling homesick for the beach near my parents’ home in Florida, I decided a sea scene would do. Not wanting to waste paper, I did it quite small, postcard sized, and fit two on a page side-by-side. One sunny calm day and another slightly stormy day with a bird being blown about by the wind.
And you know what? I liked them.
So much so that I remembered we had some cheap postcard frames from IKEA. I dug these out of the garage and framed my paintings.
The next time my son wanted me to paint with him, I approached it with pleasure. I painted two more postcards – and hated them both.
But the next time we painted together, I did two that I kind of liked, so I framed them as well and hung them in a corner that was otherwise blank.
The positive results of these 10-minute painting sessions have been manifold:
- I’ve had quality time with my son and he has LOVED that I have painted with him.
- I’ve been able to enjoy a much-loved and much-neglected hobby of mine.
- These little paintings actually look nice hanging on my wall and have been the perfect size for little corners in our cottage that would be too cramped for larger paintings.
Do you have a project you want to make progress on and want to try the ‘little and often’ approach? Here are some tips I’ve found worked along the way.
Brainstorm your list of to dos. Do a bit of a brain dump, get it all out.
I’ve done this with a small paper pad I could keep in my handbag (so could note things as they occurred to me at all times) and more recently using the Wunderlist app on my phone. Find what works for you.
Dumping everything into a place frees up the mental space. You don’t have to try to hold everything in your head. And once you’ve stored it somewhere it can be easily retrieved and actioned, your brain can let it go.
It’s also good to keep this as a running list where you can dump things as they occur to you. So devising your list in a way that you can add to on the go from just about anywhere can be helpful.
Pick what you’re going to do and commit to it.
At the start of the day, pick which one thing you’re going to do that day. I’ve been focusing on doing one thing from each of my lists – so one thing related to coaching, one thing related to writing, one thing related to the household, etc. So everything is moving forward slowly across a few different fronts.
If you don’t have as many categories or projects, you could do more tasks every day. A couple of years ago I did this when I had three things to do a day in relation to my project of becoming a coach. Decide what’s the right number of things to do on a given day, but the key is to keep it super achievable. Err on the side of less rather than more. This is not the time to be ambitious. Remember, little and often.
And when you do your daily task(s), it’s good to take a moment to celebrate. It can be a pat on the back, a little happy-dance at your desk, or (my favourite) the simple satisfaction of ticking it off the list. (Wunderapp makes a lovely ping sound when you tick something off as completed, which lifts my heart just a little bit each time I hear it.)
Celebrating reinforces the habit of getting stuff done. You get the same positive dopamine hit your brain gets when you get a ‘like’ on facebook, so it can be almost addictive ticking things off your list.
Have you tried the little and often approach to getting things done? What project or area of your life could you make more progress? I would love to hear how you get on – get in touch or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.