"The secret of getting ahead is getting started."
-- Mark Twain
The New Year is coming. Self help books are (probably) flying off the shelves as people craft their plans for personal development. Lose weight, read more, meditate daily, etc. etc. January 1st is a helpful and convenient starting point for change. Last year, I wrote myself an essay and created an exhaustive checklist of self improvements I wanted to make in different areas: Health and Fitness, Knowledge and Advancement, Finances, Relationships, etc. I will do the same this year, because I think those exercises are healthy and helpful and I have no doubt that they contributed to my growth and happiness over the last year. I think New Year's resolutions are fantastic. Everyone should make one or two or twelve and jump in with both feet. What's the worst that can happen?
I do have a problem with phony launch dates and fake deadlines, and sometimes the New Year serves as a phony launch date. I know this from personal experience. Waiting for arbitrary dates or setting artificial timelines have reinforced the idea that I'm "not ready yet" or that there are some things I have to do before I can actually begin. I think most people do this pretty regularly.
"I just need to get through the first few weeks of this term, then I can start reading for leisure." Or: "I really need to buckle down on finals, but after that I'll start exercising." Or: "I need a couple weeks to finish up this project, then I can start writing every day." Or: "I will start studying for the GRE after I've finished up this busy time at work." I've said all of these to myself to justify waiting and inaction -- anything but starting.
When there is so much to change, it becomes almost impossible to start. It becomes easy to delay, to make excuses, to set fake start dates and deadlines. So we put it off.
The most common New Year's resolutions are fitness related, so let's use "losing weight" as an example. Most people know before December that they need to lose weight (and, likely, before this year) -- but they don't take action until the arbitrary start date of January 1st.
It's really hard to start, but as Mark Twain wrote, "The secret of getting ahead is getting started." No truer words have ever been written. It's incredibly simple in theory but incredibly difficult in practice. The rest of Twain's quote breaks down the mechanics of getting started: "The secret of getting started is breaking your complex, overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, then starting on the first one." It takes a lot of willpower to take on challenges big and small, but it always starts with a manageable task.
I've gotten better at this over the last year, but it still plagues my approach to academics on a daily basis. I put things off and nearly always wait til the last minute. So one thing I'll be working on this year is killing my fake deadlines, and not waiting for arbitrary dates to work on self improvement.
Some strategies I recommend:
- Mark a time in your calendar when you'll do things and block it out -- it has to be untouchable or it will fall apart
- Make your goals into daily habits (work out every morning, read for 30 minutes before bed each night -- this is how I've succeeded at writing daily for the last three months. My day is not complete until I've done it.)
- Make your goals "checkable," and make a real checklist if it helps (read one article from the New York Times every single day)
One key thing to remember is that you don't have to have a full plan to get started. This was my go-to internal excuse for the last few years: "I need a plan before I can start. I'll make the plan this weekend or next weekend if I get too busy." No, I didn't need a plan. I needed to kill my excuses.
Just start and figure it out on the way. A few years ago, I wanted to get in shape to run a marathon, and I literally delayed getting started for weeks while I casually researched marathon training plans. I hadn't run three miles since high school, and I was getting caught up on finding the right marathon training plan. Yes, this really happened. It was pretty dumb, but it's easy to rationalize delays when you're scared of starting. I didn't need a plan, I just needed to go for a run.
That's the key, the secret, the magic. Just start. If you don't know how to start, start anyway. Write something, ask somebody who will know, or try. Just don't wait until tomorrow or next weekend or January 1st -- do it today.
The earlier that you can figure out that simple idea and apply it to the areas of your life that you want to improve, the better off you'll be.