Take Baby Steps3 min read

Procrastination happens when you remember to take action but don’t—to avoid some form of pain (physical, mental, or emotional). The three methods to overcome it, as covered in the book, are: 

  • Decreasing the pain of action
  • Increasing the pain of inaction
  • Embracing the pain

Since procrastination is a mechanism to avoid pain, one of the most effective ways to overcome it is by making the activity less painful. You can do that by learning to enjoy the activity itself, or by breaking down the task into baby steps.

TaskBaby Step
Meditate for 30 minutesMeditate for three minutes
Write a 200-page bookWrite 250 words per day
Stop eating junk foodEliminate one junk food item per week
Declutter the basementGet rid of five items every day
Do your taxesFill in the first field in the form
Go for a runPut on your running clothes
Go to sleep at 10pm instead of midnightGo to sleep every night at 11:45pm

This technique is an extension of the concept of minimum action, which is the minimalistic version of the desired habit. But baby steps is something we can apply not only for establishing habits (e.g. meditate, run, write), but also for routines, projects and action steps that are not necessarily habitual—such as cleaning your garage or completing some boring research.

The principle is very simple: when you feel stuck, break down your task until procrastination either disappears or becomes manageable. The rule of thumb is this: if your next step feels difficult or confusing, it’s too big. Break it down further, until the next step is so simple and clear that there is no reason to postpone it or run away. 

What if you don’t know what you should do next? Then figuring out the next step is the next step.

Breaking down your tasks like this gives you a small yet meaningful win. Moving forward, one step after another, builds confidence and motivation. It increases your momentum.

Building confidence with small wins is extremely important. If you believe that you have limited willpower, you will have less willpower. If you keep trying to do something that is above your current level of skill or motivation and you keep failing, that will hurt your confidence and demotivate you. This decreases your willpower, making it even harder to move forward. 

So please don’t spend all your motivation and energy on the first obstacle in front of you. Instead, take many baby steps, keep moving forward, and build up your confidence and capacity over time. With this confidence boost, your motivation and willpower also grow.

Using baby steps also builds momentum. Newton’s first law of motion states that an object at rest stays at rest, and an object in motion stays in motion unless acted upon by another force. The hardest part—with momentum and with life habits—is always getting started. 

Therefore, all you should focus on in the beginning is just getting started. Don’t be idealistic, and don’t be in a hurry. Use baby steps to move from inertia to motion, and build your habits consistently; make it as easy as possible for yourself. 

Don’t aim for perfect—aim for better than yesterday. Aim for 1% improvement every day. This compounds into huge results over time. 

Finally, a caveat: if you are procrastinating to avoid a deeper psychological pain—such as shame or fear—you may need to work through it before baby steps can work. Seek coaching, therapy, or other personal growth to support your forward movement.

This article is a summary of key ideas taken from Chapter 6 of Mindful Self-Discipline. To dive deeper, get the book or audiobook.

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