I had a friend back when I lived in Tennessee who always had the perfect bit of folksy wisdom to dispense whenever I found myself in a bind. He lived his whole life right around the border of Tennessee and Alabama and worked numerous jobs, his most recent was as an electrician. One of the more memorable nuggets was when I was stressed over a girl, and he said, in a deep southern accent, “Bryan, I believe you’re chasing something that don’t need chased.”
Since we worked together we had a lot of time to get to know each other. He built his house from scratch using lumber he felled on his property, he worked on classic cars, and I’d get advice and help from him when I got stuck on a project because he had so much practical knowledge. The best advice he ever gave me was during a suspension rebuild I was doing on a truck, and I had been getting overwhelmed with the incredible amount of work that was going to have to go into it. He told me that, no matter what, I needed to do at least one thing on that project every day. Even if it was just tightening a bolt, I just needed to get in there and do at least something. If I did that every day, eventually I’d be finished.
It’s kind of like “divide and conquer”. A project might seem difficult when viewed as a whole, but when it’s divided up into smaller bits each bit becomes a solvable problem. Before you know it, the project is complete. This works on everything from restoring a car to remodeling a kitchen to building a relationship with a person to starting a business. Any big, complicated problem is a series of smaller, easy problems.
The hidden genius here is that a lot of the time we’re afraid to get in and start. Starting is the hardest problem of all, and once we start, we find that the things we want to do are actually the things we like doing. We’ll often accomplish much more in one sitting than simply tightening a bolt once we get started. One thing I enjoy is working on cars. I get intimidated when I start a big rebuild of some sort, and I have to practice thinking about that huge, overwhelming project in terms of lots and lots of tiny projects that I can slowly chip away at.
I’ve also just started this blog, so I have to get myself into the habit of writing a little bit every day. I need to metaphorically tighten the bolts on my writing, rather than sitting around waiting for writing to magically pop out of thin air. If I write a little every day, not only will there be lots of blog posts to read, but I’ll hone my skills as a writer, little by little, and hopefully become better at it. Just as working on cars more makes you better at working on cars, writing more makes you a better writer. (To put it simply, “experience” makes you “experienced”. Nuanced!)
(As an aside, I really like how Joshua Fields Millburn goes about developing a writing habit. Two of my favorite essays of his are Creating Daily Writing Habits and How To Improve Your Writing: 3 Tips. The latter really struck a chord with me because it talks about how he was an “aspiring” writer long before he actually became a writer. You have to actually write.)
There’s often no time limit for our life projects, either. You don’t have to fix a relationship right now. You can do it slowly, methodically, and carefully over time. In fact, you should strive to work on projects a little every day. Otherwise you’ll end up with a rusty junker in your front yard that’ll never get fixed. Both literally and figuratively.
So what bolts do you need to tighten in your life? Do you have an empty room in your house that’s been under renovation for months? Do you (like me) have an old car you’re constantly restoring? Do you have a marraige or relationship that needs attention? Do a little bit at a time, at least one bolt a day.
Photo: I-95 and Florida’s Turnpike by helicopter. Florida is very flat. The blurriness in the picture isn’t because I was using a bad camera but rather because the air from the helicopter rotor moves down so fast that it distorts the incoming light.