If you ask me what kind of projects are my favourite to work on, my answer is clear: the ones where you can move forward a little bit each day, but take a long time to achieve. I love the process of getting better each day and working towards a goal. Whether that goal is finite or open-ended doesn’t really matter to me. What matters is the process.
That’s why I love writing and drawing. I get to take some time each day to try my hand at creating something new. Most days, my work isn’t anything remarkable, but every so often, I create something I like. Being on the hunt for that is what keeps me going.
It’s easy to feel like your work isn’t any good and that you aren’t making any meaningful process. This is exacerbated when you start comparing yourself to others, which is only getting easier to do. The important thing to realize is that your work won’t always feel amazing. Even if you love what you do, there will be days that are difficult. There will be times when you aren’t motivated to work, when you just want to quit. That’s normal. What is important is your reaction to this drop in motivation. Do you immediately drop what you’re doing and move on, or do you persevere? It’s alright to take breaks once in a while, but I would say that those who fare best with their work are the ones who persevere even when the work is difficult.
This is why I love the idea of taking small steps every day. On any given day, you are unlikely to be impressed by my work. I might write a few more words or make one more mediocre drawing, but judging my day solely on that is missing the larger point. By showing up consistently, I’m sending myself a clear message that improvement is something important to me. By going after my work again and again, I can improve in ways that aren’t immediately apparent from just looking at what I do on a single day.
For example, I’ve been drawing for about a year now. Say what you want about my poor skills as a drawer, but something that is clear from my continued persistence at this is that I’ve gotten better than I was a year ago. Whenever I see one of my older drawings show up on the site, I sometimes cringe due to the strange proportions and uneven lines. But that’s a good thing! It shows that I have learned something during this year of practice. I’m definitely not the best, but I am better than a year ago. To me, that’s fantastic.
Moreover, I didn’t consciously seek out this kind of improvement. It happened naturally as I made more and more drawings. That’s what drawing three hundred comics will do to you. At some point, you can’t help but refine your work. Day by day, I’ve improved as a drawer, and it shows in my work.
I think it’s safe to say that this applies more broadly in our lives. We all have work that we want to do, but aren’t motivated because it takes so much time to see results. We want to read more, but finishing a book takes so long. We want to be healthy, but developing an exercise habit is a long term process.
We want the results of the work without putting in the time.
What I do now is I forget about going after the rewards. I know that they only happen after a while, so it’s no use fantasizing about them now. Instead, I think about what kinds of processes I would like to have in my life. Right now, this means running, drawing, writing, and reading every day. I’m not looking for specific outcomes from these practices. Rather, I want to enjoy doing these activities each day. In particular, I just want to take small steps. I’m not seeking to transform my life in a month. That’s difficult and rarely possible. To me, it’s much easier to incorporate these changes gradually.
One note about this is that you shouldn’t underestimate the effort needed to accomplish a small step. It might be tempting to look at my list above and think, “Alright, what four things can I do every single day?” That would be a mistake. I didn’t suddenly adopt these four activities and incorporate them into my life. I’ve been running every day for years now, and I slowly filled the other three items into my life. I didn’t decide one day to radically shift what I did. I suspect that, had I done that, I wouldn’t have lasted long. Even if you take small steps in each one, they add up.
Why do you want to do this activity? If you are seeking a specific outcome, that is fine, but know that it likely won’t be a lifetime activity. On the other hand, if you want to establish some practices to do for a lifetime, I’ve found it to be more effective to start small and gradually increase. Don’t focus on the end, because there isn’t any. Focus on putting in the effort each day, and sooner or later you will see that you’ve made a lot more progress than you thought possible.