Baby Steps

Doesn’t it all just feel like too much sometimes?

At the beginning of 2017, I made a list, titled “Seventeen for 2017,” of—guess how many—seventeen things I wanted to do or be working on before the year ended. Except a year didn’t seem long enough, so I added a footnote: “or before I turn 25.” Seven extra months.

I wrote that list in my journal, and then I shut my journal and didn’t open it again until the summer, when a friend started asking me questions I didn’t have answers to about my current goals and aspirations. It was a terrifying moment. In my mind that list had become the yardstick by which I was subconsciously measuring the value of my life, and I didn’t even remember what was on it.

What I found surprised me. I could already check off six items and I had plans that would take care of five more—and I wasn’t even 24 yet. Even though I couldn’t remember the specific goals I had listed, I had internalized them and started making progress toward them by just living life and embracing opportunity. Sure, I’d listed some bigger, long-term goals that I hadn’t really started pursuing at that point, but knowing that I had already completed some of my objectives made those bigger goals feel a little less insurmountable. Where I expected to find condemnation and cause for self-beratement, I instead found encouragement.

I think about this experience often, especially when I start feeling like I’m not enough, I’m not doing enough, I’m not driven or motivated or passionate enough. It’s not that I need to be constantly checking off list items to feel like my existence is justified (although I do fall prey to this line of thinking on the regular), it’s that even the little things matter. Something is infinitely better than nothing—I’m not a numbers person, but this is a concept I understand: you cannot multiply zero by anything and get anything other than zero. Inactivity will never generate any results, but the smallest action can become the catalyst for any number of things.

The other day I read this post by a woman whose honesty + insight are inspiring (plus, awesome photos!) and I was reminded again of all the things I want to do and be better at and learn. Something about the Christmas/New Year’s season, I think—I start making endless mental lists of all the ways I do not measure up to the proverbial yardstick. My gifts weren’t all homemade or fair trade. I won’t have given as much to charitable organizations as I wish I could. I’ve probably lashed out at a well-meaning family member at some point. I haven’t improved upon myself as much as I should have in this past year. I still have a whole pile of books I have yet to finish reading, and another pile that I haven’t even cracked open yet, and another pile that I need to return to the library and various friends. I’m not fluent in Spanish. I didn’t start playing guitar again.

That sort of thought spiral gets overwhelming in a hurry. But in the middle of it I remembered my list, and how knowing I’d already checked off small things gave me the confidence I needed to think about tackling the big things, and I rallied. Because I can do anything, but I can’t do everything. And that’s okay. What’s important is that I don’t decide to do nothing because I can’t do everything. The small things matter. Not being able to compost at work doesn’t mean recycling my cans and bringing my reusable bags to the grocery store are wasted efforts. Not having the means to give hundreds of dollars away to organizations working in impoverished countries doesn’t make my $20 contributions to causes I care about insignificant. Not knowing what the novel I’ll write someday is going to be about doesn’t render what I’m writing today useless.

It’s okay. I don’t think we tell ourselves that nearly as much as we should. Where we are is okay. Making small changes is okay. A guest on a podcast I listened to recently talked about how much of a positive impact making her bed every day has on her life, and that was a profound thought. Small changes can make radical differences. Consistency and persistence in the actions that seem inconsequential build the foundation for staying power when it comes to the challenges that threaten to undo us. To begin on a small scale is to take steps toward great future success.

I’m still working on my list. There will probably be items I haven’t checked off by the time I turn 25, and that’s fine. I’m going to pick up one of those books I haven’t finished when I get home from work tonight, and before I go to bed I’m going to listen to conversational Spanish for five minutes, and tomorrow I’m going to find a way to access world news that forces me to engage with events outside my tiny sphere of influence on a daily basis. This is a psychological principle: you’re more likely to do the things you actually state that you’re going to do. It’s the chief benefit of lists, I think—they demonstrate specific intention. I am specifically intent.

I am also human, and I disappoint myself every day. But I’m learning, and I’m starting small.

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