Small Steps

What is it about the cold, clear light of late December that makes us all start barking orders at ourselves? Things like: learn Chinese, get a new job, lose weight, exercise more, save more money, find a mate, be a better parent, friend, lover, worker, blogger. YAGH.

Except for the occasional moment when I think to myself, I’d better set a goal or two here or I’ll be 600 years old before I find an agent for my novel, I try to avoid bossing myself around. Lord knows, I have enough people (children, I mean) to boss around already. And so, in place of resolutions, I give you one of the simplest, loveliest pieces of advice I know. Here’s Mark Twain on getting things done, a few words that have the elegant simplicity of something that is absolutely true:

The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small, manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.
– Mark Twain

You know what your dreams are. Now find one small, manageable thing you can do to make them come true. And then begin.

Happy New Year to all of you.

xo, Lily


54 thoughts on “Small Steps

  1. Is it the light of December? I hear those orders in my head constantly, every day. They only get a little louder this time of year. But I do love the Mark Twain quote. I must apply it rather than my mental whip cracking, which really hasn’t been all that effective.

  2. Welcome Sheri! Ha. When I think of a “to do” list I think of a bunch of daily jobs I’ve scribbled on a piece of paper I’m lucky to find by the time I get to the grocery store. What I love about this bit from Mark Twain is the admonition to look down from the dizzying height you’re trying to scale and focus on the fact that there’s ground under your feet and a way forward that won’t plunge you into an abyss. Good luck getting started, by the way! Best, BL

    HMH (You know, Her Magical Highness) — You’re absolutely right. Put that whip down right now, young lady and go eat some chocolate. xo, BL

  3. I believe I’ll print the quote as well and place it in my wallet, on bookmarks, on the wall, anywhere I think I might place my eyes this coming year and then I’ll take the first steps towards bringing some dreams to life. Such a simple but powerful idea.

    Happy New Year BL !!

  4. And a very happy New Year to you too dear Kerryn.

    Thank you Phil! I loved it that your first big book present was Shel Silverstein (and that he looked like your uncle!) and that many years later you can still recite this great little poem word for word:

    The baby bat
    screamed out in fright:
    “Turn on the dark!
    I’m afraid of the light!”

  5. Hi Lily,

    A few resolutions to follow through in the New Year, following Mr. Twain’s advice… thanks for that end of the year gift.

    Happy New Year to you and yours…


  6. In essence Twain’s advice is what I always say to my students when they stand at the beginning of their dissertations terrified as to how to set about a task that seems so daunting. Thank you for providing me with just the right words to help them.


  7. Thank you for the Twain quote to carry into the New Year, and for so many interesting and informative posts throughout the months since I’ve discovered your site. This is a great gift you give to your readers, and I would just like to say “thank you”.

  8. Hey BL,

    Nice post and a lovely quote. It is funny that when you break down everything to the tiniest achievable element it always seems easier.

    Funny too that several people have built large businesses by selling the idea to other people!

    Have a wonderful New Year!

  9. Bloglilly,
    Thank-you for sharing the Mark Twain qoute! Nothing happens without action, the key is to take the first step, no matter how small.

    Happy New Year!

  10. Of course Mark Twain, one of the most sensible human beings ever to have walked the planet, would have the most sensible advice. I think I’ll break one task down into ten small parts and call all ten of those my New Year’s resolutions.

  11. Your quote is lovely. As a collector of quotes, myself, this is one I will save.

    Congratulations on making it into 9rules! I have been a member since Round 4.

    Your site is lovely…good luck.

  12. Wonderful quote – if only I didn’t have the tendency to break tasks down into a hundred small pieces and try to start them all at once…. I must remember that one at a time bit! And a very very happy, peaceful and productive New Year to you, dear BL!

  13. Happy New Year to you too SS — I’m a huge fan of librarians, for their collecting of what matters, for the way they’re so fierce about protecting my privacy, for the wonderful, free spaces they create for children and people without much in the world, for ordering and preserving the books I want to read and for being such gentle reassuring presences when needed.

    Hello Jana — You’re right, it’s a good idea to go easy in the rush to get where you want to go. I’m looking forward to seeing your show in the New Year.

    Right you are, litlove. One thing at a time. I’m terrible at that. It’s hard for me to stay focussed when so many things look like so much fun. The same New Year’s wishes to you — a peaceful, productive year for you, your husband and your son.

    Have a lovely weekend Courtney. It sounds like an ideal way to end the year. And good luck with that new job.

    Lorri, Thank you so much. And thanks for visiting. 9rules seems like it’s just bursting with interesting sites, and I’m looking forward to poking around and seeing what’s there. Happy New Year to you.

    Emily, that’s such a good idea. A very happy new year to you & Bob. I was thinking when I wrote this post, by the way, that Twain is usually busy cracking his audience up, and I wondered, just whom was he speaking to when he delivered this piece of sound advice? Us, of course, don’t you think?

    Why coffee, you’re very welcome. And if I haven’t said so before, it’s wonderful that you’ve come by to visit. Happy New Year.

    TBM — You’re right, nothing happens unless you act. As with most very good pieces of advice, you think to yourself, good heavens, is that all? And surprisingly enough, sometimes it is. Wishing you a terrific New Year.

    Well, Eoin, how about building one of those large businesses in the New Year? (NONO, just kidding, those who love books do not build large businesses — or do they? I love reading about the business of books, and am grateful to you for making that possible this year.)

    Hello Tokyo Reader, Goodness, it’s such a thrill to hear from someone who’s been reading this blog for months. Welcome, retroactively I mean, and don’t be shy about speaking up. There’s lots of room to talk. And a Very Happy New Year to you.

    Ann, What fortunate students you have — they get to end up in your office to be encouraged to get going rather than left to drift along, terrified to begin writing the first word. Happy new Year.

    Happy New Year dear Mike. I’m so looking forward to showing my boys your post on the heavens with all those great links. One of the reasons what could have been a difficult year was not at all that way was because you have been (and are) such a consistently kind blogging friend.

    Did I mention to all of you how very grateful I am for the wondeful conversations you’ve created and the kindness you’ve all shown? If I haven’t, then I will now. A most happy new year, to everyone — to those who comment and to those who read along. It means the world to me. xo, BL

  14. Greetings, good quote. I am reminded of my all time favorite verse by Goethe, Until one is committed…. Boldness has genius, magic and power in it. (Way paraphrased)

    Onward and upward 2007
    GP in Montana

  15. GP — What a beautiful blog you have. And a lovely inn, not to mention gorgeous muffins. I wish I was in the snow in Montana right now. Thank you for pointing the way to Goethe and a wonderful new year to you.

  16. And you too Nova! The harsh light overly high expectations shed on our lives is going to be turned down in a matter of days, I know. Until then, I’m drinking tea and trying to stay warm (oddly, it’s freezing in our house today). I don’t know if I said so already, but many congratulations on getting that story accepted for publication. And even more, for perservering through it all.

  17. BL, what a great thought! Me, I’m going to have my apartment professionally cleaned next week. How’s that for a small step in the right direction??

    Hope you have a great and rockin’ New Year!

  18. Hello Cat — Wise, wonderful & awfully funny, huh? I love Twain.

    Hey W — A fabulous idea. You will be changed forever, is my prediction. Happy new year to you too.

    A Very Happy New Year Dorothy!

    Pretty soon, we won’t be able to keep up with your small steps, Nova. It’s going to be a great new year. xo, BL

  19. Lily darling. I emailed that quote to myself at my office first thing this morning when I read your post. I then went into the office (yes, it’s Saturday) to finish my way overdue timesheets (you understand). First thing I did, I printed out the quote and taped it on the wall next to my monitor. I hope to GOD it helps. It’s a good quote. Love you. Debs

  20. I like that Mark Twain quote. Something to keep in mind as I’m drawing out my resolution for 2007. I rarely do resolutions, but 2007 seems like a good time to try.

    Small and manageable. Hmm…

    You wanna try the Aubrey/Maturin novels for 2007? You can read it with me. It’s only 20 books. Small and manageable. One book at a time. *grin*

  21. Pingback: A new year « Of Books and Bicycles

  22. Excellent advice! I think I we’ve all been writing about “getting off our arses” the past little while. Here’s hoping the New Year brings us all a strong tail wind!


  23. Oh, that Twain! It seems he had something wise to say for every occasion. For years I resolved to publish a novel. The writing wasn’t so hard, but the publishing part seemed beyond my control, no matter how small or manageable the steps. Now, like all of us, I publish every few days, and the novel? Well, sometimes the way to accomplish the goal is to redefine the goal.

  24. Happy new year to you too! While reading your refreshing post I have recalled one more quote.
    Martin Luther King said “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

  25. Thank you for those wise words. One of my favourite things about 2006 was discovering your blog and I look forward to more of your eloquence and fabulous insights in the new year. Have a very happy new year!

  26. Wow, BlogLily: I just suddenly woke up at five in the morning, made a pot of tea, decided to work on my novel which is on deadline and which is beginning to scare me with its immensity…and was drawn somehow to come to your beautiful site, which I had never seen before. (Some might call this further procrastination–I thought so myself–but now I see it was divine fate.) Between the inspiring idea of how to make a proper pot of tea and this quote to be gentle with myself, I feel as though I can honestly start the day (not to mention this new year) without quite so much beating up of myself! I’ve always loved Mark Twain’s quotes, but had never run across this one. Thank you for this lift! I’m going to become a regular reader of your wonderful blog, and maybe it will help me get my novel done without so much angst.

  27. Welcome Sandi — I’m immensely thrilled to be involved in someone’s divine fate! Good luck with that novel. It would be so lovely to just do our work without angst, for the pleasure of it. And I do think that one small step at a time might be the right way to get there.

    Hi Cee — S.M.T. Small manageable tasks. I’m sitting at my desk chanting that to myself right now.

    Oh Kate, that’s such a nice thing to hear. I feel the same way you know, about your work. xo

    Margaret, I’m so glad! I’m looking forward to hearing how that adoption goes.

    Tomas — that’s perfect. When I was writing my master’s thesis, I had a piece of paper taped to my notebook: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” MLK was a genius with words.

    David, What a great place to end up. You’re right about there being no control really over what happens once you put your work out into the world. But we do want to be heard, and that is where the blogging world is so helpful.

    Hey Dre — You too!

    Yes Doug, a strong tail wind is what’s needed. I hope you find that (and post more pictures!!)

    Happy new year to you too ex libris. I think it’s going to be a very fine one indeed.

    Hello Edwin, You always, always make me laugh. It’s a week into the new year and from where I sit it does really look pretty good. Fine weather, lots of nice ripe oranges in the kitchen, and hot tea available to assist in whatever creative endeavor’s going on. Happy New Year to you too.

    My dear Dark Orpheus — I love Maturin and Aubrey. I feel sometimes like they sleep in our bedroom in fact. If I do decide to read the entire series (and I can’t see how I could avoid that!) I’d be delighted to have company. (But by the time I get around to it, you’ll be terribly far ahead of me!)

  28. Hi Blog Lilly,

    I came upon you quite by accident–typing into Google some words of a Twain quote I remember.

    And aren’t you great too? I love everything about your blog.

    Serendipity is not yet closed to us.

    Happy seasons.


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