Go Smaller

Do less of everything. And more of it. 

I started writing morning pages about seven months ago. Morning pages are a practice evangelized by Julia Cameron in The Artist's Way in which one writes continuously in pen on a notepad for about three pages. I do this while waiting for my morning coffee to brew. The practice now takes about ten minutes. When I shared this with another practitioner who struggled to keep up the habit, she was astounded. How could I write so fast? I shared my secret: my notepad is half-size. In contrast, she wrote on a legal pad. She was writing over twice as many words per page as I was.

The difference in results between us was that I had a habit I had carried forward for over 100 days (at that time). While perhaps more "correct," my friend's ritual was harder to maintain because it consumed so much of her morning. By going small, I enabled consistency of habit. 

Another recent example is meditation. I started the practice several months ago and wondered what would drive value. The key to getting started was keeping each session brief. A mere five-minute meditation could teach me techniques and give me a rest from the screen. I found fitting the five-minute window into my day to be manageable - and repeatable. 

I later moved up to 10-minute sessions as part of an app-enabled curriculum. The meditation became a transition between different parts of my day to recover focus and energy. I hear that master practitioners meditate for an hour each day - such is the best practice. But if I can get half the benefit from one-sixth of the time investment, I can build a consistent habit. 

Shrinking scope enables consistency. In my experience, sustaining small habits done frequently will trump doing bigger things done once in a while. It's a harder sell to ourselves psychologically: often, the difficult part is just getting off the mark the first time. We ask, "if it is this much trouble to start, why not take a big swing?" But if we permit ourselves to do it small, we create the space to do it again. And that's the critical part - repetition leads to consistency. We can always grow the size of the initiative later. 


Habits can even be valuable when they shrink. In recent weeks, my morning pages shrank rather than grew. Increasing time pressures made completing all three pages a challenge, and my brain wanders to the next phase of work - like editing this essay. But even at the again-reduced size, the bit of writing in the morning continues to provide value every day.

Another great way to go small - and go "wrong" - is to allow elapsed time to do the work for me. Processes that take some extended period can be to my advantage. For example, allowing a Google Ads campaign to play out over time at a relatively throttled dollar amount will generate helpful information when I come to check on it. 

Elapsed time rewards patience rather than hustle; the initiative needs time to bear fruit. And while it might reward occasional review and a little tending, it is more productive when you let it elapse while doing something else. This relationship is true of all initiatives that create value "while you sleep." 

Consistent small habits and leveraging elapsed time have power if you develop them. The ability to have experiments working for me while I focus my energies elsewhere makes me feel like a farmer: I till the field, wait and reap. The land and the calendar do much of the work for me.

Social pressures push the other way. Many founders and would-be entrepreneurs have stories about seemingly super-human efforts and wild successes popping to the top of our newsfeed or social media. We read well-meaning tweets and posts on the importance of "hustle." The intended meaning is as a call to action. But "hustle" often reads as a reward for looking busy: the antithesis of the patient, compounding efforts discussed above. 

One needs a clear idea of value to penetrate these social pressures. People attempting an entrepreneurial venture for the first time often want to "do it right" and so go down a path that nobody could call "wrong." These pressures lead to activities that "look like" entrepreneurship. I quit my job! I'm building a product - here's the daily update! I went into debt! However, the many experiments that need to be "wrong" to find one's north star and the investments in building consistency required to reach it are missing. 

To have a clear idea of value, one must understand the domain one is entering. When one does not know the goal, social pressures mount to "not be wrong." But when you have greater confidence in your objective, doing "wrong" and "dirty" work is easier because you can see how it builds toward your goal. 

Bringing this back to morning pages, I concluded that if I wished to work on more significant ideas, I had better learn to write better. The more words I write - total - the better I would get. In morning pages, I have written over 60,000 words. I credit starting this habit - as small, wrong, and dirty as it was - for this essay series. Sustained writing lets me develop ideas.

What makes "doing it wrong" easier? I see more successes in businesses founded by people with deep domain and industry expertise. Partially, this is because they have repeatedly invested time in being wrong about their industry to find what is right. Those who are more confident in their domain "core" will be willing to take more risks. Seeing where you are confident, and starting there, is playing on easy. 

A second pattern I have seen is taking social cues from customers and the market than from other entrepreneurs. The market is more excited about unleashing value, and the innovative end is interested in risks that matter to them. 

A third pattern that I adopted is getting up earlier. I find it easier to build habits in the morning. When I have time before routine and external obligations set in, I find it easier to create. That's why morning pages are called such - by making them the first activity, they are easier to anchor. 

Nobody gets it right the first time, so we invest time doing it wrong and small first. Form more small habits to build aptitudes. Attempt more small experiments to learn more. 

Do it fast. Do it wrong. 

And do more of it. 

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My thanks to the community at foster.co for editorial feedback. As always, errors are my own.

Photo by Daniel Cheung on Unsplash