The First Step and the Thousandth

The first step in a run has the same impact as the thousandth, both moving you a meter or two further. But while the distance is the same, the mental activity to take the first step is completely different than the thousandth. The first step is going from sitting on the couch to getting out the door. The thousandth is just another boring step within a long chain.

I think it’s important to master both kinds of steps in life. You need to master taking the first step, because without starting you just sit inside staring out the window. But you also need to master the thousandth step, because after nine hundred and ninety nine steps, it’s easy to get bored and stop to do something else.

More than just mastering the first and thousandth step, it’s important to know which is which. Knowing when you need to motivate yourself to start the race, and knowing when you need to calm yourself and be patient to continue with the thousandth step.

Motivation and Patience

I dislike a lot of stock self-help platitudes because they fail to distinguish between first and thousandth steps. The speaker who tells you to burn the ships, commit everything and work non-stop is telling you how to take the first step. But, excess motivation on the thousandth steps results in burnout, frustration and impatience. Great for the first, lousy for continuing.

Similarly, the advice to keep life balance, avoid obsessing over a goal and lower stress is great advice for the thousandth step. But that same approach results in a false start for the first step. Static friction is greater than kinetic friction and if you don’t get a big push in the beginning, you won’t move.

Filtering Advice for 1st and 1000th

Whenever I read an article suggesting an approach to life, I ask myself whether it is intended for starting the race or finishing it. Often the author won’t specify. But often the same advice can be fantastic for getting started and lousy for sustaining over the long-term.

When I start a new habit, I commit to it firmly. I write it down in my to-do list every day. I force myself to do it, even when it is inconvenient. If it is really important, I’ll research it to back my motivation. For the first steps, I’m so motivated that only an impossible obstacle could stop me.

But after a month or so, I switch my approach. That kind of obsessive motivation can’t be sustained, so I focus on ensuring my habit can be run as quietly as possible in the background of my life. I continue with it, but with as little focus as is necessary to keep going. This way I can have the energy to focus on a new pursuit.

When I started writing my new book, I spent a lot of time brainstorming ideas, emailing fellow bloggers their thoughts on the topic. I was intensely motivated to get started and that motivation fueled my creativity. But once I got into the writing, I slowed down and focused on actually completing all the work. Turning off the creative tap allowed me to finish what I had started, so I wouldn’t become overwhelmed by new ideas that would derail the project.

Are You Doing Your 1st or 1000th?

Sometimes it isn’t as obvious which step you’re taking. In running this website, for example, I’ve written over 700 posts, so while this article might not be the 1000th step, it’s definitely getting up there. But at the same time, I’m constantly experimenting with new strategies for improvement. So should I treat blogging like a 1st step or a 1000th step activity?

I end up doing both. For routine writing, I behave like I’m on my 1000th step. I write enough, but not an unsustainable volume. I write articles that are good, but I don’t stress over trying to create a masterpiece each time. That attitude allows me to sustain my writing over time.

But while running the marathon, I also do smaller sprints. New books, new project ideas and strategies get a 1st step focus. They don’t replace my continuing pace of writing, but supplement it allowing me to focus on new ideas without disrupting my regular flow.

We’re Obsessed With the First Step

Too much writing, in my opinion, is devoted to kicking off that first step. It’s not surprising, since that’s the moment that gets all the glory. People talk about the moment they stopped smoking or started a business. They don’t glamorize their 1034th day of sobriety or invoicing their 123rd client.

This overemphasis in advice influences people’s attitudes and they begin, in my opinion, to apply 1st step advice to 1000th step situations.

About a month ago, I commented that my fitness goal was a little behind schedule, but that I’ve learned not to worry about these things. I pointed out that, even if I don’t reach my deadline, I’ll continue working hard at it and I’ll eventually meet my target.

A reader responded with earnest advice that perhaps I had the wrong attitude. She suggested that I was being too pessimistic and that I should focus on believing there is no way I could fail to reach my goal. The reader was polite and genuine, and I appreciated the feedback.

However, with no intentional disrespect to the commenter, that’s a 1st step attitude. After working out for four years and reaching a decent level of physical fitness, the last thing I want is to burn myself out chasing after a fitness goal. I’ve already completed my first step (and even my thousandth) so I’m going to adopt a more patient approach that is easier to sustain and won’t sacrifice all the work I’ve already accomplished in the hope of making a few short gains.

Over Motivated

You can get too much of a good thing. Motivation is no exception. Being too motivated (or trying to sustain peak motivation for too long) can often result in overwork, burnout and an unbalanced life.

I’ve made mistakes of being over-motivated at least as much as mistakes of apathy. In all, I’d rather make the former mistake than the latter, but it’s better to avoid both altogether. Over-motivation results in taking on goals that are too big for you to swallow, and nobody likes to choke.

After you complete the first few steps, you need to switch thinking from impulse to sustaining your momentum. Because the first step will get you started, but you need the thousandth to finish.