The Power of Turtle Steps


Here’s the truth about me: I don’t like to do things partway.

Sometimes this can be a gift, and sometimes it can be a curse.

Case in point: I don’t like to go for a run unless I have time to do a whole 2.5-mile loop. I don’t like to do my Egoscue stretching menu unless I have 35 minutes to do the entire thing from start to finish. And I don’t like to write unless I have an hour of uninterrupted time at my desk.

Enter the idea of turtle steps, care of Martha Beck. When I first read about turtle steps, I thought the concept was kind of stupid. The idea is to break down a task you don’t want to do into such a ridiculously small increment that you can’t refuse it.

She gives two examples of turtle steps at work. The first is from her own life – she procrastinated writing her PhD dissertation until the timeline became truly dire. She beat herself up every day for not spending 8 hours a day on it. The idea of slaving away for 8 hours made her want to die, so she guiltily did nothing.

Fed up, she finally asked herself what increment of time felt manageable.

An hour? Nope.

Half an hour? Still nope.

Fifteen minutes at a time felt manageable, so she started writing her dissertation in 15-minute increments.

It’s easy to underestimate the power of a productive 15-minute block of time – especially added up over days and weeks. Especially if the alternative is doing nothing at all.

She gave another example of a coaching client she worked with who wanted to start exercising. Martha asked her what her ideal workout looked like. This woman was a complete novice who never went to the gym, but she described a grueling two-hour workout that included cardio, weight lifting, and stretching. She wanted to do this every day.

No wonder she couldn’t get started. Zero to two hours is a lot.

Martha told her that her job for the next morning was to put on gym clothes and drive to the gym. Full stop. The next day she could put on gym clothes, drive to the gym, and go inside. The day after that, put on gym clothes, drive to the gym, go inside and spend 5 minutes pedaling on the exercise bike.

You get the idea.

Because here’s a truth that sounds obvious, but in practice can be life-changing: a little bit is better than nothing. It’s better to run one mile than not to run at all. It’s better for me to do 10 minutes of e-cises than none at all.

Which brings me to writing. I’ve been wanting to start a new novel. Enter fear: I’m afraid because I’ve started a couple of new novels, and they haven’t gone anywhere. So there’s a lot of fear that I wrote the “one novel” and now I’m done, that’s it, the jig is up! I’m also afraid because it took me seven years to write my first novel, and I’m sort of terrified of taking that long again. But if I don’t start … in seven years, I’ll have nothing to show for it.

ANYWAY. I have a general idea for this new book, and I haven’t been working on it. At all. Also, I no longer have the flexibility to work on my book for an hour every morning like I used to.

But, thinking of turtle steps, I asked myself, what increment of time could I dedicate to working on the book, 5 days a week?

Fifteen minutes? That felt like a lot. Ten minutes? Honestly, that still felt too long.

Five minutes? Yep, I could do five minutes.

So, after I eat lunch, I set a timer for 5 minutes and I make notes about the plot of this new novel in the Evernote app on my phone. And guess what? The more I think about it, the more ideas come. The more I see the characters and the plot start to take shape.

Eventually, I’ll probably want to spend more than 5 minutes a day on this. Maybe I could work up to 15 minutes in the morning before I start work.

Turtle steps, people. They’re not glamorous, but they get shit done. Little is the new big.

What big project are you dreaming of that could benefit from turtle steps?

 

September 11, 2017

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