13 Mar 2018

Start Small and Show Up

I’ve previously shared some tactics I use to motivate myself to learn. I thought I’d take some time to add some more detail to one of those sections, “Start small and show up”, which is a tactic I used when writing my book, The Angular Tutorial, which is scheduled to be released next month.

I think the biggest error people make when building a new habit is to go from 0 to 100 overnight. This approach is not only nearly impossible but demoralizing as well. Your first step towards a new habit will be a failure to take the first, gigantic step you’ve set up for yourself.

It’s far better to be realistic with your goals. It not only makes the first step attainable but it also gives you the positive feedback that will help motivate you to take another step.

I like using sports as my examples for performance because they’re just so hard to deny. Even the most fundamental advocates for gender and racial diversity for the sake of diversity have a hard time making the case that diversifying the Golden State Warriors would lead to even better results.

If you were going to start working out, whether its cardio or weightlifting, even complete, uneducated amateurs know you don’t start day one by trying to run a 10k or trying to hit a 300lb squat. You start small and slowly increment your way to a higher number.

So what does this look like with a habit that isn’t physical? Something like writing more often or learning how to draw?

It’s essentially the exact same approach you would take with weightlifting in the way that you break up your lifts into “sets” and “reps”. You may do three sets of bench presses with six repetitions within each set.

You can take a similar approach with anything else, even if it isn’t physical. Let’s say you’re trying to write more often. First, start with a small goal. Don’t try writing for an entire hour your first day. Start with 20 minutes. Then, break this up into reps and sets. Rather than 1 set of a 20 minute rep, try 4 sets of 5 minute reps. So you write for 5 minutes, take a 2 minute break, then write for another 5 minutes, take a 2 minute break, and repeat.

Do this for a few days and once it feels comfortable, try writing for 30 minutes. Write for 7.5 minutes across 4 sets, or lower it to 3 sets and write for 10 minutes. Do whatever you think you can manage based on your previous days of writing.

You can’t just tell yourself, “I’m going to write more”. That’s an extremely vague goal. You have to have a specify a measurable goal. Jordan Peterson explains this point brilliantly in his latest book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.

Why refuse to specify, when specifying the problem would enable its solution? Because to specify the problem is to admit that it exists. Because to specify the problem is to allow yourself to know what you want…and then you will know, precisely, and cleanly, when you don’t get it, and that will hurt, sharply, and specifically.

Why refuse to specify? Because while you are failing to define success (and thereby rendering it impossible) you are also refusing to define failure, to yourself, so that if and when you fail you won’t notice and it won’t hurt.

With a goal like “write more often” you don’t end the week with a sense of success or failure. With a goal like writing 2 times a week for 20 minutes, you either succeed or you fail.

Don’t be too ambitious at first. Be realistic. But at the very least, specify a goal that defines what it would mean to fail.


If you’re interested in learning web development I have a book, The Angular Tutorial, that’s scheduled to be released in April. Sign up for the mailing list here to be notified when it’s available.