… “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”
– Lao Tzu, Chinese philosopher from the 6th century B.C.E.
All journeys, whether they are physical journeys by foot, by car, train, or plane, or journeys of the mind where you work small step by small step to solve a problem, resolve an issue, or explore some new idea, begin from where you are, from the current step you are taking.
Carl Richards makes this point as he begins his essay “A Journey of 1,000 Miles Begins With the Current Step, Not the Next One.”1 He writes there, “As a culture, we tend to be obsessed over the next step [the one beyond the current one]. But how often do we hear people talking about the current one? My guess is not a lot, even though we have to take [and finish] the current step before taking the next one.”
I think Richards is right. We easily tend to be more focused on what is coming next than we are on what is coming now. And, as I reflect back on the three recent Tuesday Readings about procrastination, I think that over focusing on the “next step” may be a big piece of why we procrastinate. Too often we get hung up on visioning too far into the current task or even the next task(s) on our calendar. As a result, we may be reluctant to take that first step that we know how to take.
To illustrate his point Richards talks about a bicycle race from Logan, Utah, over three mountain passes to Jackson, Wyoming, about 200 miles and 10 to 12 hours away. Although a race, he and his friends rode as a team supporting each other along the way.
Though his original plan had been to ride the entire race, the night before this race Richards became very ill, throwing up all night. By morning he knew he couldn’t ride. Yet, he didn’t want to disappoint his team.
He decided that he could ride the first leg of the race, at the front of his team members, bearing the brunt of the wind, letting the team draft off him and save energy. That first 30-mile leg seemed to him like a lot that morning, but he reasoned he could make that leg and then exit off. Riding that first leg would show his support for the team.
His coach always emphasized focusing on what was going on right now; the exhalation, the inhalation, current stroke, the road, other riders, etc. So, Richards began that race focused on the current moment. And, as he reached the point where he planned to exit, he felt strong and decided to ride the next leg. At each possible exit point, he decided to continue the race. He rode the entire race and ended up with his best-ever performance in that race.
Richards is convinced that he won the race by focusing on the process at the most basic level. And, that what he learned in that race is broadly applicable: “The current step comes first.” And, that is where your focus needs to be.
Too often we are so focused on completing the entire task we are working on that we forget that the overall task is composed of a large number of smaller steps which must each in turn be completed before we take on the next one. Just as Richard’s coach emphasized the importance of focusing on the series of small micro-tasks that constitute the larger task, we too must focus on the small tasks that compose the sequence of current tasks that we must complete to execute the overall task we are working on correctly.
I know this is something I need to work on as I’m often in too much of a hurry to just get the “big” task completed that I don’t deliberately focus on the smaller ones that also need to be executed. Or, I let myself interrupt what I’m doing to contemplate or do something associated with a later point in the current task or even part of another task on my agenda.
I plan to work on this in the coming week and hope you too will endeavor to step up your game in this area as well.
Make it a great week for your team and you. . . . jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates. He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
- Carl Richards, “A Journey of 1,000 Miles Begins With the Current Step, Not the Next One,” The New York Times, April 17, 2019.
- Remez Sasson, “The Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with One Step,” SuccessConsciousness –Skills for Success, Positivity, and Inner Peace (undated).