Why ‘just get it written’ is rubbish advice and tiny steps work

You wouldn’t tell someone wanting to lose weight to ‘just eat less’. Neither would you tell someone who wanted to get fit to simply ‘move about a bit more’. It might be true, but it’s not very helpful. So why would you do the same with writing? Having a big goal – whatever that goal is – needs to be approached right and we think that means having a system and breaking it down into tiny steps – Kaizen style.

Kaizen is a both a philosophy and a highly practical way to achieve your big goals faster, more effectively and with less pain.

Translated, Kaizen means ‘small steps for continual improvement’ and it’s an approach to achieving anything you want incrementally – whether that’s writing a novel, losing your muffin top, learning how to sing sea shanties or saving your marriage (those last two might be connected by the way).

Why tiny steps work…

It all originated in ancient China. Wispy-bearded mystics emerged blinking from their temples and laid down pithy proverbs for time eternity to ponder.

‘A journey of a thousand miles must begin with the first step’ said Lao Tzo.

And so on.

Scoot forward a few millennia to the 1970s, Kaizen was appropriated by be-suited corporate types who figured it could help them jazz up the quality of their widgets and keep their employees happy (they were right).

Later still, it was popularized by Dr Robert Maurer, a clinical psychologist working at the UCLA School of Medicine who started applying Kaizen and its small steps methodology to health, fitness – and life in general.

He found that people who took on too much and decided to max-out and strain every sinew to achieve their goals were far less likely to achieve them (or even start) than people who took it slow, steady and generally tortoise-like.

What the whiskery mystics proclaimed, Maurer wanted to prove. He asked whether there was a scientific basis for the success of the Kaizen approach – he found there was.

Related reads: Why mastery matters and writers should stretch themselves >>

Monkey magic

His research discovered that the very idea of setting a large goal and going at it hammer and tongs was more likely to trigger your brain’s ancient ‘flight or fright’ wiring than if you approached the same size goal, step-by-step.

That’s because tackling a large goal in an all-or-nothing kind of way sends your Amygdala – the bit of the brain that controls your emotions – into a sweaty-palmed tiz.

A large goal makes our ancient primate selves want to run and hide – metaphorically and biologically.

When we attempt very large steps, we either become so daunted that we never even start or we begin well, but become so deflated and exhausted by the whole experience that we throw in the towel half way through.

So instead, Maurer recommends, tiptoeing past your brain’s ancient monkey wiring and fooling it into thinking that you’re not really taking on a large goal at all.

In short, think small.

Productivity guff

Maurer believes that a lot of the productivity advice out there is just all a bit too simplistic – and we agree.

That to take on a big challenge you need to just get on and do it. Exercise more, eat less, just write the goddamed thing.

Accurate of course, but unhelpful.

Unhelpful because we’re wired to run away from intimidating goals. Unhelpful because when we do try and throw everything at it – you’re less likely to start or stick at it long term. Partly because you’ll loathe the whole experience and partly because taking large steps is thoroughly depleting.

Related reads: Grasshopper or woodpecker? What’s your writing type >>

Mini micro

But how small is small?

Of course, that depends on you and your project but the Kaizen method suggests that small can mean really tiny. Microscopic even.

When first starting out, your steps can be so teeny tiny they might at first seem a bit embarrassing. And that’s just fine – in fact it’s jolly good.

Writing for one minute a day, flossing one tooth a night, marching on the spot for one minute a day.

So small that you cannot fail.

At the beginning, the point isn’t to make lots of progress, it’s to adjust your mindset and attitude – and build your confidence so you start taking on more each day.

It’s to creep up on your big, scary and hairy goal so slowly that you don’t even notice that you’re doing it. So you don’t trigger the biological alarms which can make you flee.

Tiny steps, tiny questions

Everything about Kaizen is diminutive. The steps you take and the questions that help you move between them.

Maurer says that one of the most powerful ways to programme your brain into a Kaizen way of thinking is to ask regular, small and crucially – constructive questions to move your project forward.

What small thing can I do next to move my project forward? What one thing can I achieve in my writing session tomorrow?

Make your questions tiny. The Kaizen method never asks you to consider your progress towards your project as a whole – that would be too intimidating.

It asks you to keep your blinkers on and only consider the next thing you can do to move forwards towards your goal – step by step. It also warns you against considering those big questions that keep you tossing and turning at night and ultimately, don’t help you reach your goal.

Why can’t I do this? Why am I doing this? What if I fail? Why does nobody love me? (sea shanties, say no more…)

Unspecific, large and mostly negative questions like these only ever lead to nonconstructive soul searching, guilt and creative paralysis. So…

Don’t try to just ‘get it written’, take it slow. Here’s 5 reasons you should keep your steps tiny:

  1. A big scary goal is great to have but don’t approach it in a big scary way. Achieve your goal in small steps and don’t trigger your brain’s flight or fright, monkey alarm bells.
  2. When starting off, make your first steps embarrassingly small – so small that you can’t fail. Once you’ve achieved that, then slowly give yourself more to do.
  3. Think one step in front of the other. Never think about your progress towards your project as a whole, just think about the next thing you can do.
  4. Ask yourself really small, regular questions – but try and be as specific as you can and don’t fall into the trap asking yourself big negative ones.
  5. Remember, whilst taking large steps might feel like progress, ultimately they lead to burn out and failure. Pragmatically and practically, taking small steps works.

About the author: Co-founder and writer in residence at Prolifiko | Ex-philosophy lecturer | maker of unpopular short comedy films.