How to Turn Your Life Around . . . by Taking One Baby Step Today

by Michael Masterson

I’ve written very little fiction lately, despite the fact that it’s been a priority item on my task lists. I set aside an hour or two (of my 12-hour workday) for writing/editing short stories or working on my novel. But I never get to it.

There is always something else that eats up my time — some also-important business task. I’ve been rationalizing this failure on the basis of priorities. Currently, my most important goals involve my Florida-based publishing businesses and my real estate development in Nicaragua. Each of those two jobs is full-time. Add them to my ETR responsibilities and you have a good reason to neglect writing fiction.

But I’m not going to neglect it anymore. Starting today, I’m going to spend five minutes — first thing every morning — tackling this priority. Five minutes is much too short a time to get much done. If it’s editing or writing I’m doing, I’ll be lucky to finish a paragraph.

So why the five-minute objective?

Because setting aside an hour or two didn’t work. And I’ve got to face the fact that if I haven’t been successful in the past six months trying to do an hour or two a day, I’m not going to be successful in the future.

I have to do something to change my pattern. But instead of doing something big and dramatic, I’m going to do something small.

Change Your Life
My new approach is inspired by a book I just read: “One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way.” Author Robert Maurer explains his theory with an anecdote from his own experience. Rather than swearing off carbs, hiring a personal trainer, or getting his stomach stapled, Maurer began his weight-loss journey with one very small step: He threw out the first French fry on his plate.

As time passed, he threw out two, then three, and then four fries (or whatever it was he was eating). By taking these tiny steps, he lost 45 pounds in 18 months.

“Taking minute steps to achieve a seemingly impossible goal is the cornerstone of kaizen (pronounced kay-zin),” explained Deirdre Donahue, writing in USA Today. Developed in the 1950s, kaizen is a Japanese theory of gradual, incremental improvement resulting in quality, balance, and satisfaction.

We’ve talked about incremental improvement many times in past ETR messages. But always in the context of business management and product development. “One Small Step Can Change Your Life” made me see it in a new way: as a method of personal improvement.

There are two things that distinguish this concept from the prosaic productivity advice to “start a stalled project by doing one small piece of it”:

  1. With kaizen, you can begin with really small steps. In my case, with five-minute increments.
  2. You increase those increments slowly and only when you feel like doing so. There is no pressure to hit a certain target by a certain date.

I like this concept of micro-change. It’s starkly different from the macho, cold turkey, do-it-all-now approach to change I’ve favored in the past.

“Americans have this myth of the big change,” Maurer told USA Today. But big change causes anxiety, he says. And anxiety paralyzes the part of the brain that controls thinking and creativity. “If one begins by taking tiny steps,” Donahue explains, “panic and anxiety can be sidestepped.”

In my case, the thought of writing fiction panics me, because I know, deep down inside, that I don’t yet do it very well. Believing myself to be an incompetent fiction writer, I find it both painful to practice and humiliating to reflect upon. My ego wants me to already be good at it. My superego recognizes the gap.

With fear and pain working against me, an hour of writing fiction every day is simply too much. It doesn’t sound like too much, when compared to the three or four hours of business writing I do, but the business writing is easy for me. And what I write is usually pretty good. Time expands or contracts depending on your relationship to it. When it comes to writing about wealth building, healthy living, and success for ETR, time flies. When it comes to writing a story about a man and a woman, time creeps.

So beginning today, I’m going to write fiction for five minutes. And I’ll do that every day from now on. Five minutes doesn’t worry me. I’m confident I can handle that. And I won’t think about increasing the time right now. I won’t chart a calendar that takes me from five to 60 minutes in so many days. Instead, I’ll be happy with the five minutes I know I can do.

In “One Small Step,” Maurer talks about how an overweight, hard-working mom finally managed to lose a lot of weight by exercising. She began by stepping in place during commercial breaks while she was watching TV. (She watched only one show a day. At first, she marched during only one commercial — a total of 60 seconds of exercise.)

“The mini-march became longer and longer,” Donahue explained, “until by the end of several months, she was completing full aerobic workouts.”

“The bigger the change you want,” Maurer says, “the more anxiety you will experience. Interestingly, his formula for overall success in life begins not by confronting your fears but by asking yourself questions about your feelings:

  • “What am I happy about?”
  • “What am I excited about?”
  • “Who do I love?”
  • “Who loves me?”
  • “What am I grateful for?”

Compare what you are doing now (and how you feel about it) with what you really want. If you think change is needed, begin by identifying one specific thing you can do to move in the desired direction. Take that one specific change and break it down into the smallest possible increment of change. (Like tossing away one French fry.) Start with that.

You’ll know you’ve chosen the right first baby step if (1) thinking about doing it doesn’t cause anxiety, and (2) doing it energizes you.

Once you’ve begun, resist the temptation to take bigger and bigger steps. Remember, making a habit of doing something small is much better than starting but then stopping doing something big.

I’ll let you know how I do with my fiction writing. If you decide to try the kaizen approach yourself, share your experience with us on Speak Out.