The First Way: Learn To Start Small

Pebble Stack In Water

Start Small

In which Mike learns to start small

“Hi Mike” said John at the start of their fourth meeting “What’s begun to change already since our last session?”

Mike chuckled to himself, he was used to these abrupt starts now. ‘At least I’m getting value from every minute of our time’ he thought, John makes every second count.’ He thought hard for a moment.

“Two things” he said “Firstly I’ve been practicing thinking like a driver and I’m really annoyed with myself about how far I’ve let others make decisions for me.”

“Go on.”

“And the other thing is I’ve been noticing how many agreements with myself I’ve broken. You’re not going to believe this but the other day I wrote a list of all the jobs around the house that I’ve been putting off and even though I haven’t started doing many of them, just writing it down was like remaking the agreement again. It felt better even though nothing had really changed.”

John looked at him “Something had changed though hadn’t it? Only now do you realise how much tension these broken agreements were causing you. Sometimes it feels like you’ve been holding your breath for ages.”

Mike nodded as John continued “As you begin to notice the changes that are happening you’ll see yourself edging closer to knowing what you want and being able to get it. Now let’s talk about the Seven Ways Toolkit. Over the next few weeks I’m going to give you seven different ways to figure out what you want so that you have loads of choices about how you will decide.”

“Sounds good” said Mike “What’s first?”

“The first way is to learn to start small. It’s simple and easy to do, in fact when I explain it to you, it may seem too easy and you may wonder what the point is but first let me ask you a question…”

Training Show Jumpers

“How do you persuade a horse to jump a six foot fence, against the clock, in a hot crowded arena, with 200 lbs of human on its back?”

“I don’t know” said Mike, puzzled by the sudden change of focus.

“Well,” paused John, “it seems to me there are two basic approaches you can use. The first way is to set the bar really high, gallop your horse madly towards it and see what happens. If it fails then repeat but this time hit it hard until it it is so filled with fear and adrenaline that it crashes over. Then raise the bar again and keep beating the horse to make it jump and so on.”

“The other way is to walk a young horse over a rail that is lying on the ground. Soothe, reassure, make it feel safe and when it is totally comfortable with stepping over it then raise it an inch or so. Repeat until the horse is confidently jumping over fences.”

“You’d be surprised how many people try to use the first approach to figure out what they really want. They charge at the problem and then beat themselves up when the answer does not reveal itself instantly. If you are struggling to figure out what you want, then raising the bar on yourself is just not going to work. You’ve probably already tried beating yourself up about it all. (If you haven’t, it might be worth giving it a go so that you can convince yourself for all time that it just does not work!)”

“I’m going with the second approach – starting small and gaining confidence with easy achievements. All I want you to do is learn to work out what you want AND achieve it, by lowering the bar until you can win every time.”

“What do you mean?” asked Mike

“Simple” said John, “the point of starting small is to get you to use the ‘Decide – Act – Get’ cycle. The idea of this exercise is to build your decision making confidence by collecting loads of small wins; so you get used to winning.”

“First you decide that you want something – a really small thing that is easy to get – then you take the required action, then you notice that you have got it. Decide – Act – Get. And you start by picking really small, ridiculously small, things so that teach yourself that you CAN decide what you want, you CAN take the right action and you CAN get it.”

Mike frowned “Why would I want to do that?”

“Why? Because NOT knowing what you want has become a bad habit you need to break. It goes a bit like this, You struggle to think of something, you half decide that you want it, you don’t take the required action and then you get disappointed or angry with yourself that it didn’t work. Then you conclude that having what you want is too difficult. And it becomes a habit, pretty soon you are doing it all the time! By using the First Way ‘Learning To Start Small’ we are going to break that habit.”

Build Your Decision Making Muscles

“For the next week or so I want you to let yourself off the hook, give up any worries or thoughts about the big questions in life, what you should do and where you should go or which choices you should make. Take a week off from all of that and practice lowering the bar until you can decide what you want and get it every single time. I want you to fix your practice so that you win every time and that means lowering the bar until all you are doing is winning. Let me explain…”

“As you get up ask yourself ‘What do I want to wear?’ The black trousers? Find them and put them on. Check how you feel. Is this really what you want?”

“Seems trivial and silly doesn’t it? And it probably is. And the reason you’re doing it is to practice the winning cycle of Deciding, Acting, Getting.”

“Now, breakfast. ‘What do I really want?’ Decide, Act, Get. Suppose you decide cereal but halfway through the bowl you realise that it wasn’t actually what you wanted, in fact you are only eating it because it was the last commercial you saw before bed and, in truth, you now realise that you hate this particular cereal. What then? Get up, throw it away and go back to the beginning. ‘What do I really want?’ If it’s been a long time, then this may take some practice.”

“Pick five things you will do before you go to bed tonight. This is not the place for stretch goals or outstanding items from your to-do list, the sole purpose of this exercise is to decide you will do them, do them and hit the pillow tonight having done them all. Fix the exercise so that today you win. If you do this properly, for the next seven nights you will hit the pillow having done every single thing you decided to do – if you make them small enough.”

“So think of something that you are going to do today, something you want, something you want to do. If there is the slightest doubt that you will do it then pick something even smaller until you have something that you have decided to do, that you are willing to act on and that you will notice when you have done it.”

Decide then Act then Get

“This seems silly” said Mike, “Why?”

“It does seem silly but think about that horse learning to jump and think about you approaching the problem of figuring out what you want. If you drive a horse at a barrier with no training and lack of practice then the horse will very quickly come to the conclusion that it can’t be done. It happens to people too, wrestling the problem of figuring out what they want and not resolving it, many simply conclude that it is not possible even though they can see it’s possible for others. ‘I’m just not that kind of person’. The point of this exercise is to break the cycle and convince yourself completely that you can decide what you want, take action and get it. Think of it as training your decision making muscles.”

“I cannot emphasise enough how important it is that you lower the bar until you win every time. The key to beginning to figure out what you want is to practice the skill of figuring out what you want over and over again with small things so that you embed the behaviour of always having an outcome for whatever you do.”

“What do I want from this phone call? OK I’m travelling home, what do I want from this journey? What do I want from this meeting? What do I really want to eat at this meal? And if it is not what’s in front of you then put it aside and go get what you want. Build the habit of deciding, acting and getting.”

Mike frowned, he was still dubious about this “What do you mean by small?”

“Well let’s start with something really small – ‘As I leave work I will walk to my car, get in, turn the engine on and start driving’. Yes” said John seeing Mikes expression. “That small, that simple”.

“For the next seven days take all those habitual, automatic decisions you make and make them conscious. Decide to do it, do it and notice that you have done it. Begin to walk over those training poles with confidence and authority. You are a person who can decide what you want, take action and achieve it.”

“And remember, the idea of this is not to start you off making huge changes straight away (although that might happen), the idea of this is to practice being someone who decides what they want and then goes and gets it.”

“And practice deciding what you want from every experience this week. Before each meeting ‘What do I want from this meeting?’ Before each phone call ‘What do I want from this phone call?’ Before each conversation with co-workers ‘What do I want from this conversation?’

“That’s an odd thing isn’t it? Thinking about what you want from a conversation with co-workers. Consider it though. Unless you’re just making a noise, you probably have some outcome – you want warmth, connection, friendship, laughter, you want to share a story, you want to feel better by being with them. What is it you want from these conversations? Decide. Act. Get. Teach yourself two important things. First, that you are the kind of person that keeps his word (even to yourself) and secondly that you are the kind of person who can decide what you want, take the right action and get it.”

“All this low level practice builds muscle memory for the big decisions in life. More on that later.”

Man shall not live by habit alone

“We live on autopilot a lot of the time. Someone asked me once whether I ever work with the blind or deaf, and I do, most of the time! It is amazing how much we cede control of our life to habit or to our boss or our partner so we don’t really make choices at all. Often we just drift along eating the same food, having same conversations about the same things with the same people all out of habit not out of choice.”

“From now on I want you to make everything a choice. ‘Do I want this?’ Start, though, with the very smallest things.”

Mike frowned “Still feels silly but I’ll give it a go. Won’t making all my decisions conscious slow everything down?”

“It’s just a week”, John smiled, “think of it as a week free of concerns about what you want or big decisions, a week spent showing yourself that you can pick something you want, take the right action and then achieve it.”

Powerful Stuff

“A word of warning though. Even with this very safe level of practice you are going to surprise yourself and may surprise others. Be prepared for this.”

“It’s a day or two later and you’ve been assiduously practising deciding what you really want in the small things. Now you’re out to dinner with your partner or perhaps your family. You always have the chicken but as you sit down you’re asking ‘What do I really want to eat?’ And it comes to you that you would like the fish and you’d like to try a different drink. How will they react do you think?”

“Will people be pleased for you? Glad that you are trying new things, encouraged by your creativity? Of course not ‘But you always have the chicken’ they will wail ‘what’s wrong?’ ‘Nope, I’ve having the fish’ you say and your conviction surprises you (and them). Now they are really worried. If you are lucky, they will leave it alone and move on to something else. They may not though and this will be a test of how firmly you are prepared to stand your ground. Sounds astonishing doesn’t it? But wait and see.”

“Once you begin to be clear about the trivial things in your life, your conviction may surprise you. You may blurt out ‘I think…’ ‘I’d like to…’ ‘Actually, I’ve never liked….and I’m not doing it anymore’. You’re beginning to have a view, to develop a perspective, to value your own opinion.”

“This may not be totally comfortable for you and for others but it’s a sign of growth. It’s also a sign of originality, you are discovering that you do have a view, that you know your own mind. The only reassuring thing I can tell you is that this kind of original thinking is very charismatic and in the long run you will enjoy this far more than just drifting through your life eating chicken because you don’t want to offend anybody.”

“Here’s a worksheet to complete before we meet next time.”

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