The best place to start climbing Mt. Everest is on the sidewalk that takes you out of Tribhuvan Airport in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Can I convince you of that? Will you buy that base camp isn’t important? Not even the death zone. Nope. The most important part of climbing Mt. Everest is the flat part that every single human being is capable of doing.

The majority of people who have failed to summit Everest never even made it out their front door.

The concept of starting small is so important I want to lead with it in our discovery. The mantra I will advance is this: if there is something we are not doing and wish we were, we have asked too much of ourselves. When we are tasked with an action that has value to us and we believe we are capable, we do it every time.

Now you may be rejecting that straight away. “There are tons of things I would give anything to be able to do. I know I can do it too. If I could just…”.

And there it is. Doubt. A lack of belief in one’s ability.

Still don’t buy it? Let’s investigate more examples of when humans are innately effective. When attempting to learn about the relevant components of an unmet goal I always like to look away from it. As we discussed before, this minimizes bias and pre-planned Ego defense systems. Try to develop a habit of that process .

For example, in this case we are evaluating the accuracy of my statement that when we truly want something and believe we are capable of achieving it we do so. The tendency may be to dive into large-scale, extreme-valence examples that prove or disprove this idea. Rather let’s assess something happening innately.

How about reading this blog?  You are currently in the act of effectively reading this aren’t you? Let’s break it down. By virtue of reading this you accessed an electronic device. That simple act required a number of preparatory steps. 1. You charged this device. 2. You likely downloaded an app to access this article. 3. You learned how to use this device. 4. What’s more you bought this device or at least access to it. 5. You furnished it with internet access. 6. Within a few of these (electricity, internet access, and the purchase of goods) means you either mobilized a trade in compensation for money or you developed an intimate relationship that rendered an expression of its value (i.e. a gift).

Wow, look at you! Six steps! You likely did that all without significant effort. Well maybe the trade thing. Or the learning thing. Still. Damn! That is some extensive and complex executive functioning. And you think you can’t burn off that holiday cookie weight.

It is the easy, mindless achievements like this where we need to look for our unique pattern of effectiveness. That pattern likely started somewhere small. You also probably found some of those steps fun.  Maybe you really enjoyed the first moment of wanting to get a new phone. Researching which one to get. Pouring over YouTube leaks on the newest features. You probably got one in your hands prior to buying it. Gave it a test drive. A practice run for what your future-self would be like with this phone.

In this way the Apple Store is full of people unknowingly engaging the best practices of goal achievement. For a brief time they get to pretend they are the owners of that device. All day, every day dozens of people stand happily in Apple Stores to play make-believe. This positive feedback loop is likely tied to our childhood engagement of imagination which is why we enjoy it so much. If you buy that humans are engineered, either by an entity or a random-ish process over time (or both), this subconscious fondness for imagination is a very effective program to promote auto-upgrades. Which remember is what we said is our constitution.

This theme of incremental gains toward a goal is repeated over and over again in Tools of Titans. Rick Rubin says to make your task laughably small: “write one word.” Matt Mullenweg recommends getting over that initial hump with something “embarrassingly small”. Meng Tan had hacked mediation this way by distilling this extremely high-yield activity down to “breathing one breath.” Pavel Tsatsouline insists you start strength training with “half the reps you are capable.” Tony Robbins talks about the importance of adding something simple to his daily “I am grateful for…” exercise. Reid Hoffman talks about solving “the simplest, easiest, and most valuable problem.” James Altucher says “no idea is so big that you can’t take the first step” and “if the first step seems to hard, make it simpler.” Jocko Willink finds that pre-planning a day with simple structure promotes further movement on other needs. Shay Carl looks for simple clichés to explore for testable actions. Tim’s chapter on fear-setting utilizes “simple steps” to “get back on track if all hell struck.” While not overtly speaking to our method, you can see a theme of people placing their mental energy on simple and small first. In fact, I recommend using the Kindle version of Tools of Titans and typing in the word “simple” and see what you will gain.

Doing things small and simple is our best way of achieving momentum and later effectiveness. Our cognitive ability has afforded us the luxury of leisure. As a result our motivation muscle has become relatively weak. We don’t need to be good at the action of doing. Our culture moves increasingly toward making things faster and requiring less effort from  humans. This leaves our motivation muscle weak and atrophied.  Unless a persona conditions it, when we ask it to do some heavy lifting it won’t. Like the Central Governor Theory in sports, it tries to tell you “STOP!”. Only here it’s not pain, it’s the snooze button.

We have to build our motivation muscle. Small simple steps is how you build any muscle.

Let’s now turn this into something concrete and work through developing an incremental plan of small steps toward a goal. Since fitness is a big one at this time of year let’s start there. Let’s use the goal of losing 10 pounds. We will get into optimal goal setting another time, but for now we will work with that goal.

Weight is a great ultimate goal. Especially if it carries a significant emotional attachment. However it is a very poor intermediate or short-term goal. We need to make it smaller. Your intuition may have left you saying “okay, smaller goals… 1 pound a month.” That may seem easier. Did it work? Are you on your way?

What we actually need to focus on are the means by which you can lose that one pound. When I wake up and say “okay week one, lose 1/4 pound, let’s do this” it doesn’t help. Even breaking that down to a single day, “let’s lose 1/28 pounds” won’t work. We need to give your brain instructions. We have to eliminate any questions of “how-to” because that is where your status-quo brain will insert doubt. “Well it’s 1/28 today so maybe tomorrow I could do 1/14 and make up for it. Let’s go back to bed!”

A higher yield approach would be to set a clearly defined, objective, non-negotiable action for the day. “Run for 15 minutes.” “Go to the 8am spin class.” Make that as specific as possible. “Go to the gym” is so vague you technically could accomplish it by walking in the front door, turning around and going home (we’ll use that entity another time). Your mind knows that so it tries so talk you out of it. It knows it will be effective at changing your mind.  This is just like parent-child relationship when a parent who can be nagged into staying up for 5 more minutes or getting a new toy. That language may still be hardwired from years of success. It may be exactly where our mind learns the “6am-no-gym-sleep-more” language. We can unlearn that by indirect techniques where we slowly sneak up on our bratty-kid, self and attack it with effective, intentional effort (more on indirect techniques and The Art of War another time).

Back to our goal. You want to set your incremental plan in place and start testing. That requires knowing where is your starting point. What is the first small step? You will know when you are done breaking it down into small steps when you hit that embarrassing/laughable stage.

Here’s a  hypothetical breakdown of a goal and the person’s internal monologue: “To lose 1 pound in need to create a 1000 calorie deficit over the next month (yep, there’s a number, this step feels good), to do that I will go to the gym once a week (that seems too little but everyone says start small and I believe that), to go to the gym I will wake up at 6am, get dressed and go (ugh I hate 6am but this is it, I’m doing it this time).

This person took their plan to a great spot – specific and measured. Our friend here goes ahead with plan. It works for two days. Then it’s done. Willpower was burnt out and sorrow entails.

The approach now needs to be smaller. Where did the error occur? It likely was the AM wake up. Very few people have ever said “I didn’t achieve my goal, I went to the gym every time I said I would and did every workout I said I would and it didn’t work.” Usually it is engaging the plan where the wheels fall off. Let’s assume this person never got out of bed on day 3.

The plan needs to now shift to a goal of overcoming the hump. If two days can happen every week, great. Lock it in and let’s work on three days. If not, if one day killed your momentum let’s pull back. Forget the gym for now. Now your goal is to wake up at 6am. You might have actually started there. How much easier would gym-ing have been if you could have said “I already wake up at 6am every day”?  A New Year’s Resolution to wake up at 6am might have sounded silly, maybe even embarrassing. See…proof you should have stranded it your goal.

Now let’s get you out of bed. We are going to assume that this person gets 8hrs of sleep a night because most morning failures are actually evening failures the night before. But that’s a bigger topics.

First step, break down a 6am wake up and look for your silly-small step. What’s involved? Setting an alarm. The alarm going off. Getting out of bed. No, before that. Throwing the covers off? Opening you eyes.  Now we have it. Getting out of bed may actually be REALLY hard!

Let’s break down getting out of bed. Sound wakes me up. Eyes open. Sound off. Covers off. Swing feet. Stand. Now you are out of bed.

Can you open your eyes every day at 6am? Don’t go to the gym. You’re not allowed yet. We proved it’s too much. No just open your eyes. However once you open your eyes I want you to execute a planned productive action that you don’t already do automatically (i.e. check your phone). Something you can do from your bed. One small breath. A specific stretch or pose. Roll over and do a push up. ANYTHING that will tell your system “hey, newness happening, dust off the old machinery and get it out here.”

Good. Now do that for 7 days. But today, now, plan the next step. Write them down.

Week 1: Open eyes + action.

Week 2: Open eyes + Get out of bed + action

Week 3: Open eyes + Get out of bed + brush teeth + action

Week 4: Open eyes + Get out of bed + brush teeth + take shower + action

If you are willing to add + 30 seconds cold shower I guarantee you will be in the gym that day. More on that another time.

If you are sitting there rejecting this idea because it’s silly or doesn’t seem like it  work, good. That silliness is your proof you think it’s possible. The rejection of efficacy of the idea is your super ego sensing a threat and attacking it. That reaction proves this idea has merit. Note that this silly, ineffective plan isn’t being rejected because you can’t.

That is key!

This algorithm is applicable to any need. Finance (it’s the basic structure of any wealth development), fitness (all endurance sports focus on building a base of easy effort FIRST), education (why do we start with 101 classes and not straight to 400-level?), dating (aren’t most first dates shorter and simpler?). It’s the way we do EVERYTHING.

If it works for a genius music producer , an elite big wave surfer, the founder of WordPress, and a Google pioneer maybe it would be worth you trying too.

But just a small part of it. The most embarrassingly small part.

2 thoughts on “Just Breathe One Embarassingly Small Breath

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