Think Small, Act Big (but still think big)

photo by phitar

I have no shortage of ability to dream big. When I think about what I want I imagine working from home, managing my own time, having the freedom to do what I want when I want. I would love to travel the world, learn how to tango, become a martial arts master, produce an album, and write a best selling book.

Thinking big has always been easy for me, I’m sure you probably don’t have an imagine deficit either. But if you’re like me, the action part probably hasn’t always been as easy.

Unfortunately, contrary to what some Law of Attraction cultists would have you believe, thinking about what you want all the time doesn’t accomplish much. I used to smoke pot every day and think about writing music and starting a prolific band. 5 years later, I can still barely play the guitar. Which leads me to a little story I’d like to share with you…

An irreverent tale

A couple of years ago, I was at the local bar across the street from my old workplace. Anyone who knew me or worked there could attest that I was a little more than a regular there. At the time I drank around nearly every week day and smoked pot daily. This was a few months before my catalyst for change. Anyway, I was sitting at the bar and happened to start talking to a guy I had never seen there before. One of my favorite bands was playing on the stereo and I made a comment about how much I liked them. It turned out he liked them too, so we got to talking about music.

This guy (can’t remember his name) let me know he was a record producer. I told him that I was a musician, but hadn’t really recorded any songs yet. I don’t remember word for word, but I’ll never forget what he said to me: “You look like a thinker. Am I right? (I confirmed his hunch) I have some advice for you. What do you do when you take a shit? (I told him, I never really thought about it) Exactly. You just shit. That’s what you need to do with your music.”

While my new friend didn’t exactly deliver his wisdom in the most elegant way, it was so compelling that I remembered it several years later.

The reason I wanted to share this story with you is because I think there’s a slight flaw in the way most people attack goals. They think big, they want to lose 50 pounds, buy a new house, pay off $30,000 of debt or run a marathon. These are all great aspirations, the only problem is thinking this big when taking action tends to paralyze most people. Running a marathon or buying a house is a daunting task. Especially if you’ve haven’t even run 3 miles or even purchased a car before. I’d like to suggest a different approach…

Think Micro, Act Macro (but still think macro)

Most people say, think big, act small. Think about your project and break it up into smaller, digestible chunks. If you want to run a marathon, it might mean making a training plan, setting a goal to run 1 mile a day and gradually increasing the distance you run monthly or weekly. The part where most people go wrong is when they break up their goal into smaller chunks, they’re still focused on the daunting completion of their larger goal. This usually gets people frustrated because they’re not performing as well as they think they can, or their goal is so far off in the future, it seems they’ll never make it.

Instead, I find it much easier to think micro and act macro. I think about the smaller goal that I need to achieve, but act big. If I want to write an article, I set the goal of writing an outline, or the first paragraph. I think small so I don’t let myself get paralyzed by the intimidation of the final product. Finishing the first paragraph is usually easy though and my motivation tends to snowball afterward. It’s easier for me to think “I could write one more paragraph” (thinking bigger) than it is for me to think “I need to finish this 4 page article.”

Similarly, when I’m lifting weights it’s easier for me to commit to doing a set of reps and after it’s completed, push myself to do one more. If I were to try to pump myself up to go to total muscle failure in the beginning, it might seem too daunting and I could get discouraged from even trying to start. Instead, I think micro, but act macro.

While thinking small and acting big, it’s important to remember that thinking big is still important. If I’m thinking small about my health and just focusing on working out everyday, I might lose sight of my total health. It’s important to remember the other aspects of health that are important as well, such as; spiritual renewal (meditation, reflection), mental health (reading, learning), eating right, and building relationships (social health). It’s important to remember the big picture, but to think small and act big when determining the actions you’ll take to reinforce your aspirations.

Thinking big also helps you to maintain a greater perspective on what’s really important. Imagine you’re writing a song and all you focus on is the different aspects of each instrument. You focus on the sound of the drums, the guitar riffs, the base line and the vocals. You diligently work to think small and act big. You think about how each instrument sounds and how they interact and blend together. You focus on the transitions of the song, the verse and the chorus and the fills.

Getting too obsessed with this can lead you to neglect the big picture though. Imagine you focus on all of these smaller aspects (thinking micro) of the song but you neglect to think about the meaning and the emotional impact it will have (thinking macro). You’re likely to end up with a great sounding song, that has very little meaning or impact.

So think small, act big, but still remember to think big.

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Comment & Add Your Voice

Clay Collins | The Growing Life July 9, 2008 at 2:42 am

that picture kids ass.

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Andrea Hess|Empowered Soul July 9, 2008 at 6:40 am

This is a very interesting article. Love the sage advice you got in the bar … I don’t think I’ll forget that one, either! :-)

It seems to me that the biggest obstacle to taking action IS thinking. So many people spend so much time and energy thinking and thinking – about their goals, micro and macro, and how they want to get there.

I don’t have goals – I set some intentions, and then I just ACT. You’d think I’d float around and never get anything done. Every productivity blog out there will tell you to write goals down, put a timeline to them … I’m too busy actually DOING for that. And my book got finished, and I have my professional intuitive development programs done (Level I alone is another book, plus 10 hours audio lecture …), and I’m about to launch into yet another niche in my business. And I’m working from home doing exactly what I want. And it only took two years to do all that.

All that just to say – thinking and planning has become a bit of a disease that makes us feel productive, but we’re not actually doing anything. I say set a few intentions and just DO. It’s amazing how far we get without all that goal-setting and planning.

Sorry for the long comment … you got me going, here! :-)

Blessings,
Andrea

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Tom Volkar / Delightful Work July 9, 2008 at 10:26 am

Whether it’s thinking small so one isn’t intimidated or simply setting an intention the key seems to be whatever gets us moving. Let’s face it the marketplace does not reward ideas that are undeveloped. We are paid for completions and action is the only way to complete anything. Have you wondered how the guy in the bar pegged you for a thinker?

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Daniel Richard | WE July 9, 2008 at 4:17 pm

That record producer sure is a wise guy. You too! For sharing this awesome article that works. Liked your quote too: “think micro and act macro”. Rock on Johnathan!

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Jonathan July 9, 2008 at 8:57 pm

@ Clay: You’re a clever one. =)

@ Andrea: I like long comments. It shows you paid attention. Okay, I’m not a teacher, maybe I shouldn’t say that.

I agree, just do. Think about it, but don’t obsess over a plan. Just rework your plan when you learn something new and always strive to learn.

@ Tom: I’ve wondered that quite a bit actually. I think I just come across as a contemplative person. I’m always the one to talk about deeper meaning to other things. Like we could be watching a UFC fight and I’ll say something like “wow, I wonder where his motivation and mental dexterity comes from” and someone else will be like “did you see all that blood! dude, crazy.”

@ Daniel: Thanks for stopping by man. It’s good to see you around here.

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Peter | Pick The Brain July 9, 2008 at 8:57 pm

That “not-so-elegant” story is gold. Nice article Jonathan.

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Mary@GoodlifeZen July 10, 2008 at 3:25 am

This is a very interesting article, Jonathan.

The interesting thing about goals is that the posts shift continually. For example, I can remember when I first started my blog last November. One day I counted 10 – gosh, TEN!! – subscribers. I can still remember the thrill.

These days I think that getting ‘only’ 10 new subscribers per day means my blog isn’t performing particularly well :-)

The creeping shift of goal posts breeds a sense of dissatisfaction. What I do to counter, is to keep a journal in which I record my achievements and goals. Then I can look back and say, “Ah, only 6 months ago I was here – and look where I am today!”

It’s like ascending a mountain. We need to stop at times to catch our breath and look down into the valley to marvel at how far we’ve come.

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Ari Koinuma July 10, 2008 at 12:22 pm

This was a very useful insight for me. Like you, it’s not hard for me to get ahead of myself, and then get crushed by the sheer weight of my vision. I spend a lot of time being overwhelmed, because there are so many steps left between where I am and where I want to be.

It’s like there are different levels of “zoom” in terms of our vision. We need to start with the big picture, but then zoom into specifics. Actions can only be taken in small dosage, so that makes sense. But once in a while, you zoom back out to see the big picture, to make sure you’re still going the right way.

Kinda like driving and looking at the road in front of you vs. checking the map. (And don’t do both at the same time, while driving!)

ari

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Sara at On Simplicity July 10, 2008 at 10:54 pm

Awesome picture. Seriously.

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Avani-Mehta July 11, 2008 at 8:50 am

I love this approach. Trying to achieve a one year goal ‘today’ is not possible – it’s quite overwhelming actually. Being able to see what needs to be and achieved today makes the long term goal looks possible as well.

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Erek Ostrowski July 11, 2008 at 4:47 pm

Jonathan, this is a brilliant post! I’m a big thinker myself. In fact, I have a big idea about 250,000 times a day!

When it comes to taking action, it all comes down to how the world occurs for you. In other words, if what you’re up to occurs as overwhelming, daunting, or impossible, there’s little reason to take any action at all!

Thinking small, in the way that you’ve described, can definitely shift the way something occurs, so the mind is more willing to embrace possibilities for action.

Thanks!

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Zsolt Balla December 26, 2008 at 3:06 pm

Liked this twisted argument :-) It’s nice to get rid of the pressure a real goal puts on you, I guess

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MEDINA TADELE April 21, 2009 at 8:49 pm

This is an oldie but goodie method, it aleays works and yet I haven’t used it in such a long time… I’ve been thinking big my whole life and my modest accomplishments are from this exact process. I always called it The List. Start with your main goal and reduce that to a few things that you need or must take place.

For instance wanting to be a successful model, then you think portfolio. That may get reduced to head shots and next thing you know, you start as small as a skin regumin to clear your acne lol.

It seems silly but if you are dillagent about the small task at hand while tucking away yet pausing the ultimate goal in your minds eye, you will accpomplish your dreams.

Thanx for writing this blog :)

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