Half way through last year, I decided that I wanted to learn to speak Chinese. It was largely inspired by the trip I took in February to Beijing and then Hong Kong which was an amazing experience. However, like many other people have found, Chinese is quite difficult and I was in a hurry to make progress. I had naively figured that a couple of months of self taught lessons would see me chatting conversationally in Mandarin. When I struggled to make progress as quickly as I wanted, I soon got dispirited and put it to one side.
I told myself that it would just be temporary until I found a big chunk of quality time that I could dedicate to it. Well, surprise surprise, I never found the one big chunk of time and I still can't speak Chinese.
I'm sure I'm not the only one to experience something like this. Most often we are in a real hurry to reach our goals as quickly as possible, and run the risk of giving up entirely if we don't see the results we expected.
So, we end up framing the problems in the same way over and over again: What's the fastest way to lose 30lbs? What's the quickest way to learn a new language? How quickly can I read this book?
However, there are other frames that we unduly neglect. How would you approach your goals if you had 2 years to achieve them? Or 10 years? Is it possible that small things done consistently are more powerful than a whirlwind of intensity that goes nowhere?
Take, for instance, reading books. The power of small actions, done consistently are impressive.
Making some conservative estimates, let's say it takes 2 minutes to read one page of a book, and that an average book has 250 pages. If you could dedicate 15 minutes every day to reading a book, you would get through nearly 11 books over the course of the year. Sure, that's not exactly a world record, but it's a decent number and with the absolute minimum of effort required. The only difficult thing is that you do it every day.
Now imagine it took you only 90 seconds to read a page, and you were able to dedicate 30 minutes per day. Now you're on track to read 33 books in the next year!
This is a lesson that may be obvious when it's spelled out, but it's hard to put into practice. If I had broken my Chinese learning goal into small, daily steps that I could stick to consistently, most likely I would now be in with a chance of seeing some results! And what's more, once you have decided to commit yourself to the small, but consistent approach, you give yourself permission not to see results right away and to go easy on yourself.
What good is the ambition to develop yourself if your learning cycle consists of bursts of enthusiasm followed by beating yourself up that you didn't achieve what you wanted? I still want to learn Chinese, but all I have to show for the last 6 months is frustration that I've not been more self disciplined.
No doubt, sometimes fast and intense are the right approach. It is possible to learn a new skill quickly. There are super efficient ways to get in shape and lose loads of weight. If I had moved to China last year and immersed myself in the language, then I'm sure I'd be speaking at least conversationally by now.
But sometimes, it's okay to take the slow and steady approach. What would you change if you decided you were going to do one small thing consistently for the next 365 days?