Before and After: Do a Little Work, Every Single Day.

I’m writing my next book, Before and After, about how we make and break habits–an issue  very relevant to happiness. Each week, I’ll post a before-and-after story submitted by a reader, about how he or she successfully changed a habit. We can all learn from each other. If you’d like to share your story, contact me here.

This week’s story comes from Caroline McGrawyou can also check out her blog, A Wish Come Clear.

I changed my habit of working on “scary” writing projects sporadically. Now, when I’m working on a big creative writing project — a book, a proposal, a guest post, etc — I work on it every day. With the exception of 1 weekly day of rest, I make sure to do at least a little bit each morning.

 

I love (and often repeat) the Anthony Trollope line you quote in your books, “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the efforts of a spasmodic Hercules.” Committing to a daily task helps me maintain momentum, and it also helps render the task less terrifying. (If I work on it every day, it simply CAN’T be that scary — it’s just part of my routine, after all!)

 

I’ve also noticed that, if I skip a day, it’s that much harder to get back to the habit. And if I skip yet another day, it’s as though Mt. Everest springs up between me and getting back on track. If I write every day, though, the barrier between me and good habits is more like a pastoral English countryside hill. Like something out of a Jane Austen novel, a rise that Elizabeth Bennett could scale without breaking a sweat.

 

Working on big writing projects is challenging because so much uncertainty is involved; often, I have no assurances of acceptance or publication. No assurances but one, that is: that the very process of doing the work is its own reward. And that’s why I write every day: to enjoy the process itself, and to give myself something to count on in an uncertain world.

A couple insights jumped out at me from this terrific Before and After story.

First, I too have noticed that weirdly, it’s often easier to do something practically every day than to do it once in a while or four times a week. The more you do something, the more it becomes a part of your ordinary day. It doesn’t make you nervous, it doesn’t feel intimidating, it doesn’t feel like a special burden or extra credit.

Also, one of my habit strategies is the Strategy of Starting, and I’ve noticed that while starting is hard, starting over is often much harder. Once we’ve started down a positive path, it’s very, very valuable not to let ourselves stop. Because starting over is hard.

Another strategy used here is the Strategy of Scheduling. Whether daily, weekly, or whatever, just putting a task into your schedule–finding an exact place for it in your calendar–makes it easier to get it done. There’s an odd power to the schedule.

Have you found that making a daily habit of a certain task makes it easier?

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  • peninith1

    I have learned that is really WORKS to do something EVERY day if you want to make it part of your life. I have been walking outdoors every day (but two) since the end of September. It was really hard to start, and would have been harder if I had been forced to start over after a weekend, or every other day, or three times a week. Now that I am used to walking every day (I aim for an hour and get it more often than not) I MISS it if I don’t get my full walk, and I go out of my way in horrible weather to take at least a 20-minute walk because I do not want to miss out on my time outdoors.

    Also I learned from your ’15-minutes-a-day’ suggestion to tackle a big task in very small bites, at least to start with. I learned to make photo albums using Shutterfly.com, and recently made a photo album for some cousins-by-marriage as a wedding present. It was almost a first anniversary present, but I DID get it done, and I did it by working in short sessions.

  • Caroline McGraw

    Gretchen, thank you for sharing my story — my best friend, with whom I’m rereading ‘Happier at Home’, just called me in excitement to report that the post was live! I/we so enjoy your work — can’t wait to read the forthcoming book on habit change. xo

    • gretchenrubin

      Terrific!

      Thanks so much for sharing your experience with everyone. We can all learn from each other. It’s so funny to me how often just hearing a quick report what worked for someone else is the magic key to unlock a great new habit.

  • Marcia

    I have also found that it helps to have a “schedule”… so for example, I’m doing a 30 day plank challenge. I do not have to do a plank every single day but I do have a schedule for every day. Some days are “rest” days. It’s helpful to follow a schedule.

  • BKF

    Thanks for sharing your inspiring story, Caroline.

    This (doing something everyday is much easier than doing it sporadically) is so true; I’m going to adopt this really valuable tip right away.

    • Caroline McGraw

      You’re most welcome, BKF — glad to hear that it spoke to you!

  • Jeanie

    I find this exciting because I have my own, terribly uninspiring example that it works–cleaning the dreaded cat litter box. I would think, oh, I’ll do it every other day, and of course I would forget and it would get disgusting, further discouraging me from tackling it. Now I do it every darn day, and it takes 30 seconds and gives me a feeling of accomplishment (I know, I’m a pathetic person). So my battle cry for tackling other, more important things, like exercise, is–“Clean the cat box!” Thanks for the great idea and the inspiration!

    • peninith1

      Many years ago when I was newly divorced and living in a cramped apartment with two kids and two cats (was I CRAZY?) I was very discouraged by the chaos. As I so often did, I retreated into a book, and on one happy occasion this book was about Mahatma Ghandi — I was impressed by how he set an example for fellow villagers by cleaning up after them when they casually defecated in public places. After that I always knew what was the first thing to do – clean the cat box! That always got me started toward better things!

  • rubyratt

    I’ve learned to use this method when cleaning my home. I get so overwhelmed when I think about cleaning everything at once. It has been tremendously helpful to tackle a little at a time. Clean one bathroom, fold one load of laundry, mop one floor EVERYDAY. I am rewarded by my efforts which makes it easier to do daily, and feel much less anxious about the mess. Thank you Gretchen for your suggestion! I don’t know why I couldn’t think of this myself!

  • Beverly Conway

    Doing our taxes is my dreaded project every year. So on the 1st of January I start scheduling a little bit of work on it every day. And I schedule my appt. with our tax preparer to give me a deadline

  • Jeanne

    Funny, I was just thinking about a quote I have up in my studio (along with zillions of others) that says “Do at least 1 thing toward your goal every day.” I put this up years ago when I was looking for a new job (but with not a lot of pressure – the wolf was not at the door). So many aspects of the job hunt are dreadful, but if I did something each day, I was amazed at how much progress I could make over the course of a few weeks or months. Of course, many days I did much more than one thing. But one thing for sure every day, even if it was to make one phone call or visit one website or line up one reference. All the little efforts added up, and boosted my confidence that I could do this thing. After all, I WAS doing it.

  • Leanne Sowul

    I love so many things about this post! I think the key to breaking down a big project into a daily habit is reasonable expectations. While it’s often impractical to do the exact same thing every day (i.e. go to an hour-long class at the gym) it’s easy to do related tasks every day (i.e. go to the class a few times a week, but take short walks on other days). That way, you’re always working toward your goal, but there’s flexibility to fit your schedule.
    Favorite quote: “Starting is hard, but starting over is often much harder.” I always find this to be true.

  • Chris

    Caroline, I simply adored your description of how Mt. Everest looms over you if you have to start over with a project! It feels the same way for me and for many others out there but I could never have put it into such great words!

    • Caroline McGraw

      So glad it spoke to you, Chris! It’s such a relief when you give voice to something like that and learn that you’re not alone in it.

  • http://www.thispicturebooklife.com/ Danielle

    Well-put!!

    • Caroline McGraw

      Thank you Danielle! I appreciate the affirmation & the tweet too. :)

  • Reader

    Wow, this really really resonates with me. Caroline, the way you wrote those few paragraphs impressively captures some random thoughts that have floated through my head but never been put so concisely! I especially like this line: (If I work on it every day, it simply CAN’T be that scary — it’s just part of my routine, after all!) — I think it might be one of those that plays in my head over and over again. Thanks for taking the time to write this.

  • Margo Marshall

    I’m amazed at the timing of this for me! I started browsing your blog after posting on mine, where I was lamenting having stopped an (admittedly, new) daily habit of going for a walk in the bush, for a couple weeks… and am finding it harder to get back into it, than I did to start it in the first place! Walks that I found almost boringly easy a month ago, I’m now struggling to do, and am sore afterward. I think the Stopping was more detrimental to my fitness than the holidays were.

  • http://www.ahappyknack.com/ Katie

    I so connect with what Caroline says. I’ve used similar strategies in my own life for exercise and meditation. I give myself Saturdays, Sundays and days that don’t go by a regular schedule (holidays) off.

    Caroline’s blog is beautiful; thanks for sharing it.

  • Brooke Binstock

    I agree about getting something going everyday and not skipping. It does become more like climbing Everest the more days pass without doing the task you set out to do. For example, I started doing the Artist’s Way, which is a 12 week journey to unblock creative blockages. Everyday you are supposed to write morning pages, which are 3 stream of conscious pages in your journal each morning. The pages could be about anything that pops up and it’s intended to clear your mind of anxieties, fears and worries that might otherwise linger around the entire day. I love this practice so much and it makes me feel a million times better to do it. I stuck with it for 6 weeks straight. Every morning I would write. Then the dreaded holiday season came upon us and I got more caught up with family things and thus neglected my morning pages for one day, then two, then a week. I finally convinced myself to get back to it and know that skipping a day throughout this process only makes it harder to get back to this really healthy practice. I am trying to gently ease myself back in instead of shaming myself for getting off track.

    Another thing I’ve been up to lately is going to the gym. I’m an avid yogi and yoga teacher, but I wasn’t getting enough cardio for happiness and an energy boost. I decided to join the gym finally, another Everest-like step and started going every single day. Nothing crazy, just the elliptical and some weights. I notice what goes on when I skip a day for some reason, is that a teeny tiny bit of momentum goes away and makes it harder. So I’m telling myself now to go because it’s like taking prozac daily and I know wholeheartedly that it makes me feel happier. I just have to give myself a little nudge.

    Finally, something that had been on my mind forever was to lead a yoga workshop. I was terrified of this for a long time, having built it up in my head as this highly esteemed thing that only really seasoned teachers should do. I’ve been teaching for four years now and had an idea of what I wanted to do for months. I finally worked up the nerve to talk with the studio owner about this idea I had and viola, like magic a workshop appeared with a name, flyer, tagline and plan. And I’m slated to lead it on March 1. I think when we commit to do the things we want to do, the ones that keep circulating around in our heads day in and day out, it’s a big step. We can only become stronger and less bothered by the things we are not doing; gym, sleep, paying bills etc.

  • Zeeshan Parvez

    This is very true. You can get a lot done by doing a little everyday provided, as the post has mentioned, it is really everyday. Not only that but it gives you the satisfaction of having accomplished something which goes a long way in preventing burn out. I incorporate this into my every day chores and have found great success. Hope others also give it a shot.