We’re bad with timelines. James Montgomery Boice once said that we overestimate what God will do in one year and underestimate what He will do in twenty. That goes for ourselves as well—we want to cut to the chase, be done with the project, seize the moment, change dramatically. I’ve pointed to Elisabeth Elliot’s classic instruction—just do the next thing—as the best way through a difficult situation, but it is really the best way through any situation. If you’re having trouble making progress, just take all the things you know you need to do, select the smallest increment, and do that. Then repeat.
It’s obvious advice, but because it’s not dramatic or esoteric we don’t care for it much. All I know to do is repeat it in different ways, and point to others who say the same. Today it’s Leo Babauta of Zen Habits, who offers it as a good route to a disciplined life:
What do you do if your life is a mess, you have no discipline or routines, can’t stick to anything, procrastinate, and feel out of control?
How do you get started with the discipline habit when you have so much to change?
You start by washing your dishes.
It’s just one small step: when you eat your cereal, wash your bowl and spoon. When you finish drinking coffee or tea, wash your cup. Don’t leave dishes in the sink or counter or table.
Please read the rest, it’s very short. All I can add is an observation that may help counter the natural reaction of “Is that it?” Well, it’s not nothing! Do this much, and the dishes get washed. Do only this much, and you are still in a better place—your dishes are clean, and you are now doing something you ought to be doing, however small. That accomplishment will not be sufficient to turn you into a disciplined person. But it will enable you to select another small, needful thing and do that. And so on.
Each increment will make your life better, not worse, so even if you choose to stop there you will have accomplished some good. But you will likely find yourself thinking: that wasn’t so hard—why not add another?