Four Ways to Tap into the Power of Thinking Small

by Jean Marie Johnson

It was a classic case of approach-avoidance. A passing glance at the January cover of Real Simple magazine and I was both drawn in and, yes, intimidated:  How to Live THE BALANCED LIFE. I had that sinking feeling mixed with a small dose of self-recrimination. I stared at the cover while my thoughts raced, unchecked: Didn't I just put up these Christmas decorations? And why is it that the process of taking them down, packing them back up and making those many precarious trips down the basement stairs seems to take forever? 

Jean Marie, you need to chill…

Right. Breathe.

Then I opened that magazine, which seemed to both taunt and tantalize me. I found the reminder I didn't know I was looking for in the spare words of wisdom quoted by editor Kristin Van Ogtrop: "How you do anything is how you do everything." I know that. How have I managed to forget? 

That timeless concept stoked the flame of my recent fascination with thinking small, a notion that has knocked on my consciousness and taken root somewhere in my soul. Flash back about 48 hours and it's pre-dawn on New Year's Day. I was walking my dog, Miss Noelle, on a loop we have coursed literally thousands of times before. Down the hill, up the crest toward the village green, past the church, the library, the corner store, the trio of restaurants that comprise our town's food scene, now up the road near the volunteer firehouse and the resident state trooper's semi-resident post, past the post office and on to…And that's when I paused. My feet hesitated; Miss Noelle thought I'd lost my footing or, worse, my way. That is exactly what had happened.

But not this time.

It was New Year's Day. And granted, there were 18 people at the house, but surely I could digress from my well-worn path of habit and duty, to mark this fleeting moment. I veered off-course, walked into the corner store and extended a Happy New Year to the two long-time residents already sharing a morning coffee. I lingered for a few minutes. John bought me a cup to warm me the rest of the way, and I moved on.  

Maybe you had to be there, or to have walked a mile or so in my shoes to understand what that New Year's Day course correction meant to me. Or maybe you just get it, because you know that by staying so focused on the To Do's, Must Do's, Have To's, you miss so many of those priceless and fleeting "small moments."

Four Small Strategies with Big Promise

My thinking small led me to a simple clarity of purpose in a single moment in time. Unlike small thinking, which is infused with self-limiting resignation, thinking small is about full-out expression. I have made a fresh commitment to thinking small, because unlike resignation or limitation, it's a graceful embrace of what is present—what is here, right now. It's a form of attention that I'm nurturing every day. Here are four specific ways to tap the power and the beauty in thinking small:

1. Do The Next Right Thing

Let's say that you are feeling overwhelmed by too many demands and too little time. Your thinking is scrambled, you are not sure where to turn your attention, and you may even feel the unique resentment that comes with being pulled in too many directions at once. You feel utterly out of control.

First, acknowledge what's going on for you right now, in this moment. Accept that you can't do everything at once. Doing so is a strength, not a weakness. Then, take a deep breath. It's the small pause you need to consciously ask yourself, "What is the next right thing that I can do?" Maybe you identify three or four "right" things. Okay, so make a mental note, jot those down, whatever. The point is to first halt the tailspin and then act, one small thing at a time.

2. Build a Right Thing String

Here's a concept that I stumbled upon with deep gratitude to Henrik Edberg, author of the Positivity Blog. Henrik's idea focuses more on "what matters" than on what needs to be done." He suggests that you "do something that you deep down think is the right thing." That right thing could be for others, as in helping someone out, or extending a compliment. It could also be just for you, like taking a few minutes to work out, or, in my case, pausing to be amazed by the perpetual song and dance that plays out at my bird feeders.

Then, Edberg adds, "Continue the string during your day as best you can…After you have added a right thing to your string – no matter how small it is – make sure to take a few seconds to pause and to appreciate the good thing you did. This boosts the positive mood within and ups the motivation to add another thing to your string." Most of us think in terms of grand gestures or enormous acts of self-sacrifice. Certainly, these may pass muster. But what Henrik writes so aptly about is a moment to moment mindfulness about small things that matter.

3. Create Something Small, Every Day

We're all familiar with the concept of the starving artist eking out a living, or barely so, at her craft. In some way, we are all starving artists; there's some part of you that is alive in your soul but receiving scant attention. It's a talent or an interest, a poem to be written, a song to be played, a craft to be nurtured or, or, or. You know what it is.

There are so many "good" reasons to bypass that hum in your being. There is of course, the practical push-back: There's no time; it's a waste of time, or a bad use of time. And there's the "I'm not worth it" rap: Who do I think I am? Get real, or Not in this life. Most of us have a go-to response we can glom onto.

Writer Austin Kleon, in addressing how to get creative work done, says the key is to do something small, every day: "Figure out what your little daily chunk of work is, and every day, no matter what, make sure it gets done…People often ask me, "How do you find the time for the work?" And I answer, "I look for it." You find time the same place you find spare change: in the nooks and crannies. You find it in the cracks between the big stuff—your commute, your lunch break, the few hours after your kids go to bed. You might have to miss an episode of your favorite TV show, you might have to miss an hour of sleep, but you can find the time to work if you look for it."

Kleon reminds us to focus on what is small and manageable. He reminds us that "Building a body of work (or a life) is all about the slow accumulation of a day's worth of effort over time." Indeed.

My "something small, every day" may be a bit of a stretch, but it's mine:  I am attracting a bird following. They wait for me, and call out to one another when I appear. You may call it co-dependent, but to me, it's well, magic. Some days, I only manage to hastily sprinkle some generic seed along with a mumbled apology. And on other days, there are choice fixings for everyone, lovingly-offered and strategically placed. I am learning to accept that it is my "something small, everyday" that counts.

4. Make Progress with Simplicity

When you really think about it, the things in our lives have built-in obsolescence. Your medicine cabinet has lotions and potions with expiration dates long past, and your closet has clothes you will never again fit into or dare to be seen in. That "past due" concept applies to the things in your garage, your pantry, your attic, your basement and in the trunk of your car. You have your reasons for holding onto them. Hey, you never know, you may need that someday. Or, that so-called "thing" is attached to a memory of someone or something that makes you feel good, or good about yourself. I keep a memory box underneath my bed. To anyone but me, it's just a bunch of junk, old greeting cards and tchotchkes . But in some way, that box is my life's love story.

You may have resisted unloading and de-cluttering because the task seems so "big." So, think small, manageable, one task or area at a time. This year, no, this month, I'm planning to make progress with simplicity by keeping just a single item that represents a specific memory. Those 20 or so Get Well Cards I received back in 1990, after major surgery and a short-term medical leave of absence from work? I will hold onto one symbolic representation of the good wishes and love of the many.

There's another way that I am already making progress with simplicity and building my right thing string at the same time. I'm giving things away. Lots of things.

Thinking small is about moving forward with a simple clarity of purpose in the moment. As for me, it's filled with big promise. 

Jean Marie Johnson is a Communico facilitator and has helped clients with their MAGIC initiatives. And for 20 years she has specialized in cultivating the customer experience as a key competitive advantage.

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