If you’re anything like us, you make to-do lists in your sleep. You also make them in the shower, while commuting, cleaning, food shopping (a list within a list!) and performing your skin-care routine. And yet, as our lists grow ever longer, we never seem to check off more than a few items. The result is a sense of stuck-in-the-mud inertia that’s the opposite of all the productive “life hacking” allegedly going on all around us.
We’re going to take a controversial position here and say panda journals are not the answer (*girds loins*). Neither are detox cleanses or “Inbox Zero.” In fact, lots of experts say the key to actually getting anything done is doing next to nothing—or at least doing the absolute bare minimum.
Getting-enough-sleep guru Arianna Huffington calls this breakthrough “Microsteps,” aka “The big idea that’s too small to fail.” Making meaningful lifestyle changes, she writes, should require laughably little effort. That’s how you make them stick. Huffington quotes Stanford behavioral researcher B.J. Fogg: “To create a new habit, you must first simplify the behavior. Make it tiny, even ridiculous. A good tiny behavior is easy to do—and fast.” This idea of “micro-progress” has also been championed by the New York Times: “For any task you have to complete, break it down into the smallest possible units of progress and attack them one at a time,” writes columnist Tim Herrera. Setting and achieving what he calls “micro-goals” actually tricks your brain into producing dopamine—or what we like to call “productivity juice.” And any amount of productivity begets more productivity.
If you feel easily and frequently overwhelmed, join the club. When you think about it, to-do lists are really just menus offering choices of what action to take next. What paralyzes us as we confront our lists is something called the “paradox of choice.” Human beings are hardwired to shut down in the face of too many options. Water flows toward the path of least resistance; when our ambition outweighs our bandwidth, we tend to flow toward our couch, where we passively scroll through Instagram till two in the morning while eating Nutella from the jar.
Want to read more books? Read a paragraph (or a sentence!) every night before bed. Plan to overhaul your health? Replace one—and only one—daily diet soda/vanilla latte with a glass of water. Or, eat any meal you can on a real plate using actual utensils while sitting down (it all reportedly helps us slow down and make better choices). Down on yourself because you can’t seem to meditate? Sit in silence for a few seconds. Yearn to purge your closet into a chic minimalist dreamscape? Donate or resell one barely-worn item a week (or target one a month; don’t be a hero). Desperate to clean your entire house from baseboards to ceiling fans? Attack one highly visible element, like the kitchen counters, with wipes. Hoping to sound more sophisticated at work? Try to nix the word “like” or “literally” or “basically” or “actually” from your next conversation. Bleeding money? Download an app that converts your loose change into savings. It’s all about baby steps. Start small. Easier is better. Don’t try to take on the world. It’s your best shot at conquering it.