Tiny Steps

Is it the dark of November, that flu I just couldn’t kick, or the malignant gloom of the American election?
There are days when it feels like nothing gets done.
Days when doing the laundry is a big accomplishment.
Days when I think it’s the perfect day, free of obligations, to go down to the studio and paint – smudging and scribbling and sharpening the image, listening to music for hours – and yet somehow I never get there.
Days when I get up with last night’s promise of a morning run ringing in my ears and I flop on the couch and flake out on facebook on my phone.
Days when I’ve told myself it’s really time to finally sit down at my little corner writing desk and enter the zone – the zone of happy struggles, of exploring interior worlds, scaling memories and imaginings and sensations and the secrets of the human heart, searching for all the right words… and instead I spend hours glumly in front of the computer catching up on email.

Do you know these kind of days?
Switch out the particulars for your own personal Important Goals list that never quite happens?

Well, I’ve been pushing against the dark slide of lethargy with some new tools…
Chief among them the concept of Tiny Steps.


Tiny Steps comes from the Japanese tradition of Kaizen, elaborated on in this book by Robert Maurer: One Small Step Can Change Your Life.
He says,

Kaizen is an effective, enjoyable way to achieve a specific goal, but it also extends a more profound challenge: to meet life’s constand demands for change by seeking out continual – but always small – improvement.

The key is to start small.
The key is to make it SO small you can’t NOT do it.
Reading some of the bios and creative practices of the greats can be totally intimidating – they seem to be on their game ALL the time, productive all the time – so much so that it’s a world away, unreachable.
Twyla Tharp in The Creative Habit describes her mornings –

I begin each day of my life with a ritual: I wake up at 5:30 a.m., put on my workout clothes…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 work out 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.

Well, this is amazing, I love the sound of it, can just see the dark of the Manhattan morning and the surliness of the cab driver and the sweaty two hours at the gym, and gosh I sure wish that were my life too, but ummmmmmmm…
I can tell you right now I’m not gonna be doing that tomorrow morning. And not just cause I don’t live in Manhattan.
I mean even just thinking about how far all of that is from my life brings up all kinds of neurotic garbage and the harpies of self-flagellation begin to loom and the whole thing makes me feel like, well, if I can’t be like that, then I might as well just give up now.
This is precisely where the small steps of Kaizen come in.
Maurer says –

Don’t let these common roadblocks to change make you feel so guilty or frustrated that you give up your attempts to improve.
Instead, use times of difficulty to remember that fear is the body’s gift, alerting us to a challenge. The more we care about something, the more we dream, the more fear shows up.
During the rough patches, understanding that fear is normal, and a natural sign of ambition, makes us more likely to hold onto hope and optimism – qualities that increase our willingness to take the kinds of small steps that slip right past the fear.

Did you get that last bit?
…small steps that slip right past the fear.
Okay! Now we’re talking!
A step that is so tiny it will neatly sidestep the harpies in my head. Perfect.
So, for me, a small step would be NOT to say I’m going to write a novel before the end of 2016, but to say I’m going to write for 10 minutes each morning.
10 minutes of sitting down to write is something small enough that it’s really really really easy to do.
(and if there’s a morning when even so, even though it’s a tiny step, if it doesn’t happen and I don’t show up, I’m going to remind myself that FEAR IS NORMAL, and try again the next morning)

Going back to Twyla Tharp’s story about the cab – the point that she’s making and the point that really speaks to me is the idea of creating a Ritual.
Creating a Ritual sounds to me partly like a way to make the whole thing more FUN.
But Twyla takes it even further –

Turning something into a ritual eliminates the question, Why am I doing this? By the time I give the taxi driver directions, it’s too late to wonder why I’m going to the gym and not snoozing under the warm covers of my bed…
It’s vital to establish some rituals – automatic but decisive patterns of behavior – at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way.

So for me, for my 10 minutes of writing, I’ve found this one piece of ritual I can bring in to the goal of sitting down at the little writing desk in the corner…
I light a candle.
The beautiful little glass candle holder makes me happy. The action of striking the match marks the beginning, the dancing of the flame keeps me company, and the whole thing signals to my brain that a hallowed space has been created to sit down and hold a tiny 10 minutes of writing.

And you, Dear Reader? Are there Rituals, Practices, Habits, Methods that have worked for you?

Please Note: All this comes from a training program I’m doing currently, called Kaizen-Muse Creativity Coaching. You might want to check it out. 🙂

Weekly Photo Challenge – Tiny

15 thoughts on “Tiny Steps”

  1. Rituals. I don’t think they make the work more fun. I think the allow you to get into your zone… the perfect space where you never think about what it is you are doing. You just do it. 📷

    1. Interesting!
      If I can ask… what rituals have you got going, Ray? Something to get out with your camera? Something else to get you to sit down and edit them?

      1. Let me just tell you one. I do the same thing every Sunday that I photograph a second line parade. Which is as much as 47 times a year. They usually start at Noon, or 1pm. At around 10am, I get my gear in order. I don’t like to carry much, so it’s usually one or two bodies and lenses. I make sure that everything is adjusted for the day. I’m old and creaky so I take whatever pain meds I think I need (don’t laugh, most of my pals on the scene do the same thing — street photography is not for the faint hearted): ). Then a very long, hot shower, followed by some serious stretching. This is accompanied by music for the day. If this works — it usually does — by the time I get to the parade route — I have stopped thinking entirely. I just point the cameras and shoot. When the brass band music starts, usually I feel only the live street music. Often I will walk 4, 5 ,6 miles in the parade. When I get to my end, I turn and think, OMG now I have to walk back. I didn’t even know that I did it.

        Editing is easy for me. I spent 20 years in a wet darkroom. Sitting in the light with music going is fun for me.

        Note one of the common themes. Music. For me, music matches my mood and the pictures.

        1. Fascinating, Ray, thanks for that.
          Very body oriented.
          I know a number of cinematographers who are serious weight-lifters to build their upper body strength so their hand-held shots are smooth.
          Music on the other hand – intense fusion magic for the spirit. Music is a big part of my life too…

    1. You too, hey?
      I mean, there’s the election, yes, but the low productivity started well before then for me…
      These little things are helpful, I find. I love my little morning candle.

  2. This post makes me think of things I need to accomplish more often, things I need to add somehow into my daily rituals (like exercise, staying involved in politics … and not just when I dislike what’s going on), etc… Thanks for this inciteful post. Loved the part about how the cab ride was the ritual as opposed to the workout. 🙂

  3. Small steps and fear alerting us to a challenge….the greatest feeling for me was a new script and an acting contract in my dance bag, all packed and ready to go. I was always a little bit frightened of the journey, driving (or flying) alone to a place where I knew no one, saying goodbye to my spouse, it was all a bit overwhelming…until I awoke the next morning and took that first step.

    Now acting and exploration has been replaced by sailing racing..ha! So many ways to maim yourself and or die, so many things to learn, it’s all good. Rituals..maybe that’s what I need to break through all the handicaps.

    1. Sailing can be terrifying! When the boom sweeps across suddenly as you head into the wind for a turn… I only did it for a while when I was young, but man, do I get the appeal…

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