The First Step: Just Take it 'Bird by Bird'

Roxana Murariu Hacker Noon profile picture

The scariest moment is always just before you start. - Stephen King 

A fascinating book about writing is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. The title comes from a family story about her brother. He was assigned a school project about birds. As children do, he procrastinated and delayed starting the project until the very end. Now, with the project due the next day, the boy sat at the table and cried. Where should he start? Will he ever finish the project? Lamott describes their dad telling the boy: “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” 

The power of making the first step is something that Admiral William H. McRaven recognized during a commencement speech he delivered in 2014: “If you wanna change the world, start off by making your bed.” 

If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right. 

And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made — that you made — and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better. 

Making the first step is not only a remarkable way to fight procrastination, but it is also the only way to start fighting the darkness.

Nobody can escape the dark moments in their lives. The passing of loved ones, war, pandemics, natural calamities, social injustice, something will come that has the potential to crush our spirit and leave us despairing about our future. In those dark moments, remember that those tiny, unremarkable habits we picked along the way help us get back on track

But for these habits to work they need a first, small step and an understanding that it is essential to recognize, accept and adapt to new emotional landscapes. Because of that, productivity advice should have various colors of meanings that are mindful of the ebbs and flows of our lives.

Productivity book authors must acknowledge that productivity strategies that work for highly motivated professionals might become inefficient for struggling people.

For example, I will never forget the first few weeks of motherhood when I was drowning under the rivers of well-meaning advice and todo-lists. Nothing seemed to work: breastfeeding was a bleeding pain (literal bleeding pain), I counted sleep by minutes, my daughter had jaundice and didn’t seem to gain weight, etc. I had to learn, unlearn, and relearn things about myself. To admit that the only way out was through. To focus on taking it breath by breath, choice by choice, step by step. No frogs to eat in the morning, no Pareto or SMART principles, no Eisenhower matrix, no weekly planning, nothing that might be too much to grasp.

As Lori Gottlieb writes in her book Maybe You Should Talk to Someone:

That’s one thing I tell patients who are in the midst of crippling depression… There’s the bathroom. It’s about five feet away. I see it, but I can’t get there. One foot, then the other. Don’t look at all five feet at once. Just take a step. And when you’ve taken that step, take one more. Eventually, you’ll make it to the shower. And you’ll make it to tomorrow and next year too. One step. They may not be able to imagine their depression lifting anytime soon, but they don’t need to. Doing something prompts you to do something else, replacing a vicious cycle with a virtuous one. Most big transformations come about from the hundreds of tiny, almost imperceptible, steps we take along the way. 

Gottlieb also mentions Andrew Solomon that wrote in his book The Noonday Demon, “The opposite of depression isn’t happiness, but vitality.” Yes, the vital power to make it day by day, hour by hour. 

Taking small steps is one of the 20 strategies that Sydney Smith wrote to Lady Georgiana Cavendish in February 1820 against low spirits. The 16th principle is: Struggle little by little against idleness. 

In Frozen II, the gentle wisdom of taking a step at a time is put down brilliantly into The Next Right Thing lyrics. What a beautiful and hopeful message Frozen 2 brings that will empower children of all ages! 

Sometimes it pains to look too far ahead and plan future work into tiny, concrete tasks. Sometimes, looking far ahead, having a system, periodically reviewing it, and making changes is the only way to keep the dark away.

Days are floating clouds. Some clouds are still and calm, and some clouds bring rains of grief and winds of hurt.

Sometimes, it is about thriving. Sometimes, it is about surviving. We would be wise to adjust our strategies accordingly.

Previously published at

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