When project planning – or designing your ideal life – we are often encouraged to look at the end goal. What is it that we are trying to achieve? The more detailed the better. From there, you are to break down the goal into smaller, more attainable steps.
If you are anything like me, you like to know how something is going to play out before you begin. A new workout routine, healthier eating, Christmas gift shopping. I keep lists, binders, and notebooks to keep track of all the plans. So, this idea of knowing the end goal – what it will look like, feel like, be like – I always thought that was supposed to be helpful.
But it turns out – at least for me – it isn’t any more helpful than a million pinholes in a water balloon during an epic water balloon fight. On December 29, in the new Coffee Klatsch feature, I briefly spoke about reasons why we should start small. The number one reason: Our ego.
What is ego?
Our ego is the subconscious part of ourselves where our patterns, habits, and identities are stored. It is the voice inside your head that convinces you that you should forgo the new mission to make a change and instead, curl up on the couch with a good book. Our ego’s job is to keep us safe.
Safe, however, doesn’t always mean what is best for us. Safe, to our ego, means to maintain the status quo. Safe means cancelling a first date, staying in the job that makes us miserable, reaching for that bar of chocolate instead of an apple.
Our egos become unsettled when the equilibrium is thrown off – when we are trying something new and there is a risk that we will look foolish. Our ego will remind us of how risky something is and convince us we shouldn’t go.
“You’re going to make a fool of yourself,” she might say to you.
“That’s too dangerous. Let’s just stay home,” she will convince you.
A story about my ego
Recently, during a session with my life coach, I was given an assignment. It was a simple assignment, one that would allow me to be creative. It was due during our next session one week later. When we signed off our call, I was excited. I immediately started thinking about how I would present the project and what items I would need. I planned every possible detail about this project: color scheme, paper patterns, font, pictures, quotes. I knew exactly how this project would look when I was finished.
But then my ego chimed in.
“You’re going to mess this up,” she said. “It will never come out how you want it to. Why are you even trying? This is a stupid assignment anyway. What good will this do you? You don’t have time for childish arts and crafts. You have bills to pay.”
She is so nasty. She says things to me that I would never say to a friend – things I would never even think about a friend.
And so I waited. Days went by. And every day, I looked at the pile of craft supplies on my office floor and sighed. I felt defeated. The morning of my next session with my life coach, I was panicked.
My ego was panicked.
I was about to show up to a call without my homework finished. If there is anything my ego does not like, it is showing up unprepared. It means I will get called out. I will have to defend myself – and I didn’t have any defense. I just didn’t do it.
And so, with an hour left before the call, I got to work. In the hours’ time, I was only able to get a few affirmations lettered, cut, and glued onto the paper, but it was something. And I had started the project – something I should have done the week earlier.
On the call, I showed my coach the partially finished project. Her face was blank. Her eyes a combination of amused and disappointed.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?” she asked.
“What do you mean? I did it. It’s here,” I held it up again to show her.
“But it isn’t finished. Why?”
“Well … you see. I had every intention. I planned it all out. I know exactly how I am going to finish it. Here, let me show you,” I stuttered.
“And it looks very pretty,” she said, interrupting me. “But it’s so much more involved than it needed to be.”
“Well, yes,” I said, shocked that she would suggest anything less. “It needs to be something I would be excited to look at. Something I am proud of having finished.”
“Tina,” she said while holding up a folder. “You could have found a folder, scribbled 20 affirmations on a piece of paper, printed out a few comments from your blog, and put them inside. Done. That would have taken you 20 minutes.”
I stared at her. She wasn’t serious, was she?
“But my perfectionism,” I started.
“There it is,” she said, leaning back in her chair, clearly proud of her ability to get me to call a spade a spade.
And suddenly I understood what she was getting at.
Outsmarting the Ego
You see, my excitement and passion did the planning. They designed the project, figured out the color schemes, the lettering, the affirmations, and chose the comments from my blog.
My ego derailed the entire project. My ego convinced me the project didn’t need to be done. She wanted me to believe that the assignment was useless and it would get me nowhere.
My coach wanted me to create something to help me when I was stuck – but she taught me a bigger lesson.
One tiny step.
And when that is done, do the next step.
It doesn’t need to be perfect at first go. But it needs to be something.
The idea isn’t to have the perfect finished product at first attempt. The idea is to just start.
And by starting with a small step and taking additional small steps every consecutive day, you are outsmarting your ego. Your ego can handle five minutes of an activity before her nastiness surfaces, so use that five minutes to your advantage. Before you know it, those five minutes will be ten, ten will be fifteen …
If you want to build a running habit, you aren’t going to go out and attempt a marathon on Day 1. If you want to save $100,000, you aren’t going to immediately deposit $100,000 into your bank account.
We know these things, but yet we don’t start. And if we don’t start, we won’t ever get there.
So start. Start small.
You don’t need to know where it will lead. You don’t need to have the finished project in your mind.
But you need to start.