Monday, July 8, 2013

Accomplishing Big Things One Small Bite at a Time

The title above makes perfect sense, and we have all heard this saying in some form. But few take advantage of its potential…I guess because few of us realize just what can be accomplished using this approach.

How about an example? When my daughter became an adolescent, we realized that the public school system wasn’t meeting her needs. Plus she had a special interest in art and art appreciation. So we put her in a private school where she could get the learning she was ready for. Next thing I knew, she was wanting me to help with her art history studies. You can imagine how flabbergasted I was that my teenage daughter wanted to spend quality time with her dad. I certainly did not want to pass up this opportunity.

The problem was that art history wasn’t even close to being my cup of tea. Looking past the joy of receiving her request, I could see the drudgery of hour upon hour of studying dense, boring art history books—in this case, Janson’s History of art. But I was determined, so I dove into it with determination. The course was already a month or two along, so I needed to catch up to where my daughter was in the book. This took a couple of two hour sessions, and the fatigue factor was high enough that my resolve was sorely shaken. I couldn’t keep this up. I needed a better solution I could live with. But what could I live with? Well, I decided I could certainly live with reading four pages of text per day, six days per week. Yes, I could put up that effort indefinitely, but would it be enough to meet daughter’s need? Fortunately, it turned out to be more than enough. I put in the committed effort, and with time I pulled ahead of her in the course. This had unexpected benefits, as it gave me ammunition for asking better questions.

And something else occurred. I began to enjoy the study effort. After all, it typically took less than a half hour per study day, and if the day was hectic, skipping a day a week was okay. My daughter’s course ended, but my study continued, only at a reduced, two page per day rate. Eventually I completed both volumes of that particular edition of the Janson series. And the study has always paid dividends beyond measure. My daughter and I continue to use museum trips together as a special sort of bonding.

One of the big advantages of this technique is that it makes formidable projects easier to start. Fifteen years into my engineering career, I realized I would need to finally get professionally registered. This involved months of study as preparation for being able to pass two eight hour, open book tests. I had plenty going on in my life at the time, so this was an effort easy to keep putting off. But I was able to overcome my inertia by committing to studying just twenty minutes a day. It worked! As the test neared, I would be studying an hour, then an hour and a half per day. But by then I was hooked on this project and determined to succeed. The commitment to small bites of effort early on set the stage for the larger effort needed later for the project to be a success.

Now, this approach won’t work for everything. Recently, I decided to install plastic screens as guards to keep leaves and twigs out of my home’s rain gutters. But I dreaded it, so I decided to do it one small section of the house at a time. But it didn’t work as I had hoped. The effort to get set up and put all the tools and ladders and such in place was so large, I didn’t want to have to repeat all that work. So I broke out the sunscreen and got the whole job done in one long day’s effort.

 The small bite-at-a-time method works best when completion time is not much of an issue, and the set up time for each work session is small—as in pulling a book off a shelf. But if those conditions are met, then this approach can melt away resistance to getting large projects started, and it provides a structured routine for accomplishing even the largest undertaking.

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