Why we don’t do small things


The song remains the same friends.

  • What’s the use of doing something small?
  • What’s good would this do?
  • What’s the point?

The question is phrased in different ways. But—in all incarnations—it asks the same thing:

Why me do small thing?”

Let’s move past your grammar and begin with why NOT to do a small thing:

Let me know if I’m missing anything. 

It’s easy to be flip about these questions. But they’re so fundamentally human that everyone has to deal with them. So, I guess we’d better give them some stage time.

A small thing is not a big thing

Big things are made of small things. The stuff you’re touching (and breathing) is made of molecules. So are you. Molecules, atoms, particles, turtles. You know the drill-down.

High-level skills are made up of innumerable low-level skills—each performed performed automatically. These are habits that largely function without conscious intervention.

Exercise isn’t just doing one big thing.

Exercise is taking a thousand skills and putting them on autopilot. From there, you have the option of focusing on one or two complex things. Working really hard counts as one of those, by the way.

Nutrition isn’t just doing one big thing

Humans suffer. But few of us suffer by choice. So, abject deprivation is not a sustainable strategy. However, we will tolerate more discomfort when it helps us feel successful.

If you are feeling severely restricted, you might roll with it if you are experiencing amazing progress. Patience tends to wear thin when progress stops. So, it makes sense to clear out every bit of clutter on the track before you even try to sprint.

Relationships aren’t just doing one big thing

With all affection to John Cusack, The Grand Gesture is a Hollywood device. Anyone in a real relationship will tell you that the most important thing you can do is to perform a zillion tiny gestures. Grand gestures are the spice on top of your rice.

You don’t feel successful doing it

I was originally going to talk about enjoyment. It’s definitely a broader frame than feeling successful. However, I suspect that things work better by focusing on success.

So, instead of trying to change our emotions, we can change the frames we view our experiences through.

E.g. “I am always up for trying an exercise.” vs “I am a leaky bacterium who quits everything.”

Those judgy statements often imply that growth is not possible. The leaky, quitty bacterium seems like more of a fixed state. The “Try anything once” person has room to become more playful or scientific as time goes on.

We can look at changing from a fixed to a growth-mindset through the lens of skill acquisition. It begins with recognizing false borders, crafting new identity statements, and giving yourself the opportunity to consistently succeed at confirming those statements. Yes, usually through doing small things.

You don’t know how to do a small thing

Learning to execute an easy thing with amazing consistency is a transformational skill. I can’t think of anything that feels more like the process of mastery. The goal here isn’t necessarily to make things easy. Instead, it’s to find the hardest thing you can execute at near 100%.

Big things are made of small things. Big things done exceptionally well are made up of small things done exceptionally well. That’s what deliberate practice is. That’s what life life is.

“A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system.”

– John Gall

Sometimes, the small things are all we’ve got. When compared to nothing, they feel huge.

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