Keep Stacking Little Wins

I easily get annoyed when I don’t have enough white space on my calendar. Most of my projects that move needle require long blocks of deep work, and so it’s easy to feel that “if I can’t put in four hours, why even start?”

The same thing can happen on bigger time frames. I catch myself fretting about having two big vacations back-to-back. Part of that is just being self-employed, but another part is, I think, a bias many of us succumb to: We think we’ll have more time as time goes on.

Career-wise, we tend to expect that the further we get, the more time we’ll have to spend on work we enjoy. To some extent, that’s true. As you build up seniority, you gain autonomy. As your income increases, you don’t need to fret as much about every additional dollar. But especially when you’re still young, in your 20s or 30s, the buildup of these buffers is often offset by something else: Your personal life will only get busier, and that, too, takes time.

Let’s say that, at 35, you finally have your ducks in a row. You make enough, and you control your schedule and projects to a large extent. Yay! But then, over the next five years, you get married, buy a house, and have two children. Oops! So much for that big art exhibition you wanted to host just for the sake of it.

There are many versions of this fallacy. It doesn’t have to be your personal life that’s eating your work hours. It could be the other way around — something that’s occasionally happening to my dad in his 50s — or a medical issue sapping your energy altogether for months. The point is that we can’t neatly silo life into various categories, let alone protect those categories from affecting one another. The hours you’ve earned back at work might go straight into quality time with your partner, and your minor car crash might find its soft landing in your unexpectedly large year-end bonus. That’s life!

The lesson is that we shouldn’t expect our lives to magically get easier, and we shouldn’t wait for better times to do big, important things. Instead of hoping we’ll have more time, we must use the time we have.

Chances are, I won’t be able to make a big dent in a 10,000-word piece in just an hour. But I can make a small one, and that’s better than no progress at all. Equally, just because working hours are cut short by a vacation does not mean the whole month goes out the window. That only happens if we throw out our attitude first — but if we keep stacking little wins, we’ll likely still be proud at what we can do in any given 30-day period, no matter how torpedoed by outside forces it may have been.

Don’t wait for the perfect stretch of open road. Use today. Keep stacking little wins.