Tiny Actions

Jan 17, 2024

What’s on your heart that feels too big to start? Perhaps it's a dream you've been nurturing – writing a book, launching a new business, or planning an unforgettable vacation. Or, is there a significant project casting its shadow over your life, one that promises fulfillment on the other side…if only you could get it done? Whether it's a home redesign, a website overhaul, or any other substantial endeavor, the weight of such a big project can be overwhelming

When I feel like doing something really big is futile, and I’m therefore likely to not do it at all, I can gain a little momentum when I focus on the benefits of tiny actions.

One of my goals this year is to write a book. I’ve done it before so I know what I’m in for. It’s a massive project that can feel like a big amorphous blob with no clear entry point. Tiny actions may seem insignificant but a few important things are happening.

Set The Filter

Any action or thought is a vote for that action or thought.

Here’s the math. We are in an energic sea of All That Is. Our brains can process anywhere from 10 to 40 million bits of information about this sea, but our conscious mind can only handle about 40 to 50 bits of information each second. Which bits of this tiny fraction are selected is based on the brain’s filtering system. This is called the RAS – reticular activating system. It’s like a bouncer at the door of a very popular night club. Not a lot gets through.

The coolest thing about this bouncer/filter is that we get to set the filter. Repeated thoughts and emotions tell the filter what to let in and what to ignore. In this very real sense, we’re creating our own reality. Examples of this abound.  My friend stopped by yesterday and set a fairly large bag on our bench by the door. As she was leaving, I looked at the bench, making sure there was enough room for her to sit down to put her boots on (and not cluttered with mittens, the dog collar and mail). But I didn’t see her bag. It wasn’t in my filter and she left without it. It was right there, but I didn’t take in that piece of information.

Tiny actions set this filter. When I set a timer and write for 25 minutes, I’m creating an “I’m a writer” filter. This leads to new ideas about writing, places to publish and people to read what I write. 

When I meditate each morning, I’m opening my mind up to what lies beyond my filter – which is literally almost everything.

Don’t Wake The Sleeping Giant

Another benefit of a tiny action is that it doesn't scare my brain. Big actions feel like big changes and any change is seen as a threat to the primitive brain. I can sneak up on this process by taking small enough steps that don't wake up the alarm center in the brain. If I were to rent an office where I can go to write for four hours a day, it’s likely the shift would be so big that I’d scare my sensitive self.

The more ancient part of the brain has one job – to keep us alive. That’s it. It doesn’t care about pleasure or joy. It’s not interested in art or friends. It certainly doesn’t want me to waste any energy or take any kind of risk. There’s a mechanism that sounds the alarm whenever change is detected. This is why change is hard, even good change. Sameness equals safety in this part of the brain.

Tiny actions are a way to sneak past this sleeping giant of an alarm system. They stay within the bounds of routine, avoiding drastic deviations. This is how I can make progress toward a goal without being seized by fear and anxiety.

This reminds me of a story from a traveler friend of mine. She was tucked into her sleeping bag on a safari in Africa when she became aware of a large snake snuggled in there with her. True story. A friend nearby started chanting in a slow, soft, lilting voice, “no sudden movement” as she almost imperceptibly made her way out of her sleeping bag and away from the sleeping snake inside. Tiny actions are these "no sudden movements."

This is a key area where most of the business advice out there is contraindicated for a highly sensitive person. Many people can handle a higher level of stress. Some even thrive on it. But for a highly sensitive person, stress can be destabilizing and exhausting. Of course, stress is a functional component of the nervous system. It gives us the ability to take action and avoid or fight off danger. But chronic stress, which is what happens when constantly making big moves beyond the familiar, is not a helpful component of bringing our work into the world.

Gain As You Go

Another benefit is that tiny actions teach. Answers come through action. I love to research and plan, but at some point I need to set out and test my theories.

That reptilian brain wants to be sure, wants to be safe, and wants to set out on a known course.

But the course ahead can only be known through experience. Tiny actions serve as teachers, providing insights and understanding along the way.

Slow and steady does win the race. I’m going nowhere when burned out under the covers. Tiny actions can be the bridge from not doing it at all to having realized the big dream or done the significant project.

What’s one tiny action you can take today in the direction of your dreams? Make that call, write a page, sign the document, make the thing.

Leave a comment to share what it was.

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