Small is the way to go — tiny, uninteresting, and un-instagrammable. Here’s why.
Ridiculously Small | 01
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This is The Good List — I’m Tsh Oxenreider.
This is an idea.
Between my husband and me, I was the one in charge of planning the details of our family of 5’s round-the-world trip for the 2014-15 school year. Kyle was involved, of course; after I worked out some major details that would set the direction of our course (quite literally, in this case), we’d go out for a quick meeting date at our neighborhood pub in Bend, Oregon to hash out the nuts and bolts and shake hands on the deal. But for the early, initial brainstorming of how this feat was going to happen, it was mostly me.
Here’s the gist: we’d wanted to spend a year traveling with our kids for quite a while, so we were full of lofty dreams and ideas. What would it look like to spend a month in one city, then move to another one, for 12 solid months? Or, what about touching down on every continent? What would it take to spend enough time on all the inhabited continents on earth without feeling like we were zooming by major landmarks or glorious sunsets, just so we could check the box of having done in? How do we do this financially responsible? After all, this wasn’t a vacation; Kyle and I would still have to work our remote jobs throughout the year, and we needed that steady income flow to continue feeding our children. And speaking of them, how would they do school? We’d take it with us, naturally, but how? Do it all online? Get drop shipments of various books in different places, then mail them back when we left? What about the potential language barriers? Banking and ATM access, transportation (or lack thereof), healthcare, staying warm, staying cool, carrying enough but not too much, and knowing what on earth to do in each place we visited so that we did what we wanted to do without suffering from fomo, plagued with the thought of, “we may never be here again; we should do as much as we can, just in case,” and end up with a severe case of burnout by month three?
Yeah, as you might guess… it was a lot. An absolute monumental administrative task. How on earth would we plan it all before we left?
Well, fast-forward several years, to today as I’m talking to you, and yes, we successfully traveled around the world for a school year and lived to tell about it; you might have read about it in my book, At Home in the World. So somehow, we managed to tackle the planning beast of a round-the-world trip with 3 kids under age 10, all of us wearing just one backpack full of the belongings we’d need for that entire time. It somehow ended up feasible.
Here’s the secret answer I learned from asking the question, “How do I plan and prepare for it all before we leave for this adventure?” It’s… you don’t.
I think most of us would describe this sort of endeavor as a BIG goal. I certainly did; we had the dream for almost 4 years before we did it. And there was a reason it took that many years between the inception of an idea and walking on the first plane that took us westbound to Asia. We had to save up money for the long-haul travel, yes, but aside from that, it took planning. A lot of planning, that obviously didn’t all get done in one sitting.
The way all that planning got done was by breaking it down into minuscule, do-able tasks. I’m talking tiny. And I find most of life ends up this way, and really, how most of our goals should be.
If you’re listening to this episode when it first goes live, it’s around the start of a new year, that classic time rife with possibilities, and hopes, and expectations, and yep — goal-setting. Everyone’s talking about goals, resolutions, whatever. Thought gurus will release courses to help you set goals; niche content creators will encourage you to dream big and not be afraid to take risks, you’re worth setting those lofty ambitions and saying yes to yourself. All well and good, and a fraction of it might even be worth looking in to. Personally, I’m a fan of setting goals. But here’s where I think most of us get it wrong, especially those louder people out there selling us the idea that the bigger the goal, the better:
I think smaller is the way to go. Tiny, uninteresting, un-instagrammable goals. And here’s why.
For most of us, most of the time, our goals don’t involve traveling around the world, but sometimes they feel like it. Lose weight, get in shape, save money, learn a hard skill, visit a certain place you’ve never visited, get over chronic fears, break a long-running had habit, start a new, better habit… all these things are huge. Good, but huge; sometimes insurmountable. We might take the next step and make them — quote — SMART or SMARTER goals, as those in the business world like to remind us is necessary for a goal to be good. The well-known acronym tends to stand for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound, and then sometimes the added Exciting and Risky. So, instead of just “get in shape,” you’d do something like, “lose 20 pounds of fat and gain 10 pounds of muscle by May 30 so I can then train 5 times a week and run in the local half-marathon on September 1.”
But look, if you’re a normal human (I’m raising my hand here), that sort of goal might sound inspirational, lofty, or even motivating, but also completely, totally, mind-bogglingly overwhelming. I mean, where to begin? And we know, in theory: hit the gym, or start eating keto, or start running a mile 3 times a week. But even that, is too much. And this is where good intentions usually go to die.
I’ll be right back, right after this short break, to talk about what we should do instead.
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[BACK TO THE SHOW]
Around this time last year, like lots of you, I read for the first time James Clear’s mega-bestselling hit, Atomic Habits. This book blew my mind; it changed everything about the way I thought about goals, and how to actually achieve them. And one of the key reasons is right there in the title: goals are achieved because of habits. Even those goals that have a finish line, where you can get out a marker and write a giant checkmark as done, once and for all: write a book, run a marathon, take a trip, save a specific amount of money. Those don’t just happen. Those goals happen because of the billion different decisions you make every day before then to get you one millimeter closer to hitting that milestone.
We all know this in theory. You don’t lose 20 pounds just by wanting to. You lose it by saying no, again, and again, and again, to those cookies in the breakroom and the fluffed-up coffee drink at your neighborhood cafe. But it’s hard to remember in the moment that that’s how it happens. Your brain seems to work independently from your good intentions in the heat of the moment, when everyone else is having a cookie, or it’s cold out and your bed is warm and you really, really don’t want to go for a run.
So none of this is rocket science. But what is, actually, proven science, is breaking down your lofty, ambitious goals into tiny, almost laughable goals. I’m talking, writing them down as your one little goal for the day, and not going any farther. James Clear has talked about this in interviews, where someone’s goal first wasn’t to work out 3 times a week, or to sign up for a class at the gym. It was to literally get dressed to work out. That’s it. That was the whole goal. Get dressed, be in your workout clothes for a little bit, then get back into your work clothes. After that, it was to get dressed in your workout clothes, then drive to the gym. Don’t go in, just go to the gym, sit in the parking lot, and then go back to work. Then, the goal was to go into the gym, walk around, then get back in the car and leave. Rinse and repeat, for however long this was necessary. And several things happened when the person repeated these tiny goals: after awhile, it became a habit. It became part of their routine to put on workout clothes every day at the same time. And also, once they walked into the gym, they started staying to work out a little bit. Now, that wasn’t the goal — they weren’t accomplishing the task they came there to do by working out. They already did that by walking in. They went ahead and worked out a bit because they wanted to, because they were already there, and it felt silly to them to be there, in full workout attire, having taken the time to drive, park, and walk in, and then to not do anything. So, they worked out. But because they wanted to.
This happened because they made their goals ridiculously small. Laughably small. Almost so small, you-don’t- want-to-tell-anyone small. Definitely nothing that would create an inspiring social media post.
James goes into lots of other psychological and emotional tweaks and hacks in Atomic Habits, but this one — the basic idea of starting small — is the 101 concept that’s really stuck with me this past year. And it’s the one I’m encouraging you to embrace here, as part of your Good List, especially if you’re listening to this at the start of a new year (but of course, it’s true any time).
Start smaller than you think. If you want to write a book, make that your big lofty goal, sure, but don’t just stop there. And don’t just stop at “Write 10,000 words this month.” Go ridiculously small, and make your goal for tomorrow something like, “Open the writing software on my laptop” or “Sit at my desk with a pen and journal.” Narrow it down to the absolute essential. And you’ll probably find two things happening: you’ll slowly, over time, build a habit of sitting down at your desk with a pen and journal, day after day (especially if you do it the same time of day). And two, once you do this painfully small task, you’ll move on to writing down a few sentences — because after all, you just opened Google Docs, or Scrivener. Why wouldn’t you at least jot down a thought? But there’s no pressure to do that, because that’s not the goal right now. The goal, which you can check off as having done, was to open the app. That’s it.
From there, you build. Once you feel like you’ve got this habit under your belt, you add to it. You write X number of words, or for X number of minutes, every day, or 3 times a week, or whatever. It’s still really small — not write a novel, but write a paragraph. Once you feel like this is solidified as a habit, then you move the needle just a little bit more.
The Japanese language has a word for this: kaizen. We don’t have a direct word translation in English, but it basically means, continual small improvement. It’s the idea that if you want to wake up an hour earlier every day, you don’t start with moving your alarm clock from 7 am to 6 in one morning. You move the hand to 6:58 and wake up two minutes earlier. The next day, it’s 6:56, and so on, two minutes earlier every day, until a month goes by, and you’re waking up an hour earlier and hardly feeling sleepy because your body has slowly adjusted to the change.
Starting smaller than you think is all about embracing kaizen in your life. Instead of “going big or going home,” like you might hear a lot of gurus yell at you right now in the new year, go really, really small and feel that triumph of accomplishment by tying your shoelaces. Going small embraces your humanity, showers you with grace for those days when it’s just not possible to do more, and makes positive changes in your life maybe even fun, instead of drudgery. Be a regular person, and aim for really small goals.
And to bring it full circle — that’s what I ended up doing to make our round-the-world trip possible a thing we did, instead of a good idea that stayed an idea. I did just a tiny bit at a time for about a year — get passport photos, research the best socks, download an audiobook the kids might need for school at some point — until somehow, it was all done …for the first three months. Yep, I jettisoned the idea of needing to fully prepare for the year before we left. I only prepared for three months, and then saved the next three for planning later in the trip. Turned out to be the best possible move, because the trip would have been totally different with the version I thought we’d want before we left. Small, tiny planning is what made it happen. And the same is true for you, too, whatever your worldwide trip is on your plate right now.
Hi Tsh, my name is Elise. I’m calling you from the windy planes of Smith County Kansas. It is cold and windy here today, and I’m calling to share with you an idea. It’s a blessing really — it’s communal living with my parents. My husband and I recently moved back home and you know, people kind of from the outside may view it as oh, they’re on hard times and they’ve moved back in with the in-laws. But really what it is is a wonderful blessing to be able to spend time with grandparents, grandchildren, with the ability to go on a date and have my kiddos in bed and know that my parents and are there watching them taking care of them. It’s a peace we haven’t had for a few years, living away, and it truly a blessing. It’s wonderful to cook dinner with my mom in the evening and to share stories, and share electronics and high-tech things with my dad. My husband is truly wonderful; even if he didn’t mind he wouldn’t say it, but he honestly gets along with my parents so well. So yes, I’m sharing the idea of communal living living with parents and family. It will be short-term because we’ve found a house to move into, but we’ve blessed and to enjoy it. So hopefully you’re having a wonderful winter. Thanks, Tsh.
The Good List is a brand-new podcast, as you can tell with this being episode one. And the best way to help a young podcast grow is word of mouth — telling the folks in your life about this new show you’re digging. This looks like literally telling them about it the next time you’re making chit-chat, it looks like posting about it wherever you hang out online, and it looks like giving the show a quick review wherever you listen to podcasts. I know you hear podcasters ask for reviews all the time, but the algorithm gods make it so a show gets in front of more potential listeners the more reviews it has. To do that, and to find the show notes of this episode, head to thegoodlistshow.com, where I’ve got links to help you. This is also where you can find links to subscribe to The Good List, so you never miss an episode, also where you can sign up for my free weekly email, 5 Quick Things, where you’ll also get a link for listening, and even where you can read a full transcript of this episode. Again, all of this is at thegoodlistshow.com.
In between working on a book, recording this show, leading trips, and teaching my literature class, I do occasionally hang out online. I’m mostly on twitter @tsh, but you can also find me every now and then on IG @tshoxenreider. I’d love you to say hi, and to tell me what’s on your good list right now.
And speaking of — I’d love to feature what’s on your good list with the listeners of this show! Simply record yourself from your phone, stating your name, where you’re from, and what idea, work of art, habit, or thing is making your life just a bit better. Then email the voice file to email@example.com. You can also call and leave a voicemail at (401) 684-GOOD, and I promise it goes straight to voicemail; you won’t have to talk to anyone. Again, reminders on how to do all this is at thegoodlistshow.com, so just head there, and you’ll get squared away.
Thanks so much to Elise for sharing her idea with us that’s making her Good List. Music for the show is by Kevin MacLeod, and thanks, as always, to Caroline TeSelle for her help, as well as my furry intern, Ginny. I’m Tsh Oxenreider — thanks for listening to The Good List.