Little by Little

In Bikram yoga, no one ever expects you to walk in and do a posture full out and perfect. I’ve been averaging four days a week for about a year now and no one would expect that from me in any posture. All that anyone expects from me is that I come in and do my best in each posture for that day. And what counts as my best can and will vary from day to day. I come in, do my best, and then do just a tiny bit more than my best. I push just a little bit. The push is so small that I might be the only person who knows it’s there. In the end, that’s what matters. I know if I pushed myself or if I cheated myself. I have to live with myself and what I did or did not give for that class.

The idea though is that if I push a little bit today, and then a little bit more the next, and so on by the end of the month my posture will have changed radically. A teacher should notice the improvement. I should definitely notice an improvement. It’s small changes over an extended – yet really short – amount of time that add up.

And so it is with life.

I’m lucky to have a job as an academic. I have lots of freedom, and yet freedom can also be a curse. Having the freedom to schedule most of my time as I choose can present the illusion that I have all the time in the world which can lead to getting nothing done. I seem to have a knack though for not letting time get the best of me. I get stuff done, and I get a lot of stuff done. I also do a good job at it. How?

It’s not because I show up at the last minute and push through the night working away. I would do mostly crap work if I came at my life like that. Nope. It’s because I apply this concept of little by little to my work – particularly the part that requires me to be creative and write.

Part of my job, actually a good portion of it, involves writing papers and getting those papers published. But these papers can’t just be published anywhere. They have to go in really, really good journals. The kind of journals that reject most of what people send in and the kind that most people don’t read. That’s where my stuff has to land.  And overall it does land there.

Writing for publication in a journal that has a 90% or higher rejection rate is really, really hard. In some ways, it may be harder than practicing yoga for 90 minutes in a hot room. But if I don’t go in and think I’m going to shoot out an awesome draft right away, if I understand that I have to work at it little by little, then over time big changes happen.

I like to think about it in terms of standing forehead to knee which looks something like this:

When I first began my practice, all I could do was stand on my right leg and bend my left leg. Maybe, maybe, I could get my hand underneath my foot. Balancing on one leg – no matter how I went about it – was super hard. Fast forward two years later. I can kick my leg out like this guy is doing and hold it there for at least a count of five. I can’t touch hy forehead on my knee yet, but that will come. I am getting there little by little.

Just like with writing. Yesterday I wrote two pages for a book chapter. They are not very good. I added those not very good pages to the other 10 or so not very good pages I had already written. Little by little the page count adds up. Day by day I do a little bit more. Then I’ll start revising it – little by little. Eventually it will be March or April and I will have this amazing chapter. I’ll look back on the first draft, and what I wrote will look nothing like the finished project. Just like standing forehead to knee.

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