The Best Way to Pursue Your Life’s Work

The other week, I received an email from a young writer, asking this question:

I want to write a novel, but I can’t seem to focus. I carry around a notebook to capture ideas, but I struggle with sticking to one story for very long. Can you help?

This is a typical battle for anyone in search of their life’s work, the major issue facing most who aspire to do meaningful work in the world. The problem is this struggle is often based on one dangerous, false assumption: You have to start big.

Life's Work
Photo credit: Man Alive! (Creative Commons)

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The mistake we make

Every day, people pursuing their dreams make this mistake. They shoot for the moon without taking the first step. Here are some common examples:

  • If you want to become an actor, you move to Hollywood.
  • If you want to get a music career started, you buy some studio time and try to record a full-length album.
  • If you want to be a writer, you start writing an 80,000-word manuscript.

This is WRONG. If this is your strategy, you will end up frustrated, unfocused, and bitter. So what’s the right way?

Start small.

How a creative habit is formed

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

We become what we practice. If you do something long enough — anything, really — it becomes habitual. Second nature. Like you’ve always done it.

So if you want to “put a dent in the universe” (as Steve Jobs once said), you have to start where you are, not where you want to be. You have to take the first step.

Before you can play like Jimi Hendrix, you have to learn scales and chords.

Before you write the next Pride and Prejudice, you should begin with a short story.

This is the secret to a successful career as an artist: small increments of effort that build up over time to create something meaningful.

The ugly alternative

The only other option is to kid yourself. To create a lofty goal or aspiration and never practice, only dream. This will leave you (and others) feeling disillusioned.

Don’t do this. Your passion deserves better. Instead of going big, go small — really small. Start with something you can do today, even if it’s only for five minutes. And tomorrow, do it again. Maybe for ten minutes. And so on.

Everything from meditation to auto mechanics involves practice. So just begin. Don’t plan or make lists. Just pick up that guitar, sit in front of the computer, or jump on the treadmill.

The more you work, the more effortless it will become. And soon, you’ll find yourself falling in love.

Here’s to taking small steps that lead to big impact. Good luck and Godspeed.

Free Download: How can you tell if you’ve found your calling? Click here for a free download that will help.

What’s something small that you can do today to begin your life’s work now? Share in the comments.

118 thoughts on “The Best Way to Pursue Your Life’s Work

  1. Such good Advice Jeff. Nice work. So many artists shoot for the stars with unrealistic goals. As you say, one step at a time is best. I really like your thinking and concise approach to writing posts. Straight to the point. Short sentences. Congratulations. Definitely retweeting this one.

  2. Love this, Jeff. Small habits over time create big results. Your friend is doing something. He or she is carrying around a notebook. Creativity starts with small captures, bits of focus in the crevices of the day. Love it.

    1.  good call, Joe. often, we don’t think we’re doing much. but something is better than nothing. and i’ve found that little somethings regularly done are better than big somethings done infrequently.

  3. Hi Jeff, I love reading this, especially as I did exactly this with my blog post today.
    I’ve started small, much smaller than I’ve been imagining, but am so very proud to have taken one of many steps towards my dreams.
    For a long time, I’ve been making the mistake of ‘shooting for the moon’ (or at least of imagining myself doing that!), and have held a couple of big dreams just out of reach.
    Yesterday, I realized just what you’re saying here: that I will actually never achieve these things if I’m not prepared to start small and, in a way, prove myself, to both me and others!

    1.  Brigid, I’ve found that if you take small steps every day (as opposed to large leaps once in awhile), you actually end up further down the road. It’s the magic of incremental change over time.

  4. Nothing is more disheartening than seeing a dreamer with good dreams not do. Well said regarding disillusioned. Good thoughts Jeff.

  5. As silly as it sounds this reminds of of the old saying, “How do you eat an elephant?  One bit at a time.”

    Dreams are the same thing.  Everyday we decide to start.  Everyday we take a bite.

  6. Jeff, I’m calling you out!

    You are practicing the oldest skill and the first art form, Mentoring. We mentor what we are. What we know, are learning, and what we share are mere steps across the thresholds into other people’s lives.  You are mentoring every fiber of your being.

    Thank you for mentoring us!!!

  7. Nice post Jeff. Good to be reminded of the basics. In music speed comes with practice. In carpentry it’s the same. (Which is why I still have all my fingers) I sometimes forget that when writing. An epic takes time. Making a difference takes caring about others.

  8. Love this post Jeff; you have such a powerful way with simple words that drives the message right through to the reader’s heart. You pinpointed exactly what I have been doing wrong – dreaming but not practicing. And then I end up frustrated, wondering why! I love what you say about starting where you are, not where you want to be. Which is why I’m in the process of writing short articles for a newsletter that gets passed out at the place I currently work, though I won’t be there much longer. I think it was Theodore Roosevelt who said: ”
    Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

  9. I think that sometimes starting out small (baby steps) is a wise thing to do, but I also think that jumping in with both feet and being “totally committed” is the way to go at other times.  Every situation differs and each person is unique.

    Choose the process that work best for the you rather than jamming yourself into someone else’s box.

    1.  True. But after you leap, what does tomorrow look like? Another leap? For me, it’s often just a simple step. That seems to best describe most days for me: a choice to move or stand still.

  10. When it comes to “your life’s work” the idea of developing a habit can seem so counter-intuitive. By nature our desire is to go big…our dream is big (and typically always bigger than what we are at the time). I think that is what makes starting small so hard for so many. But it’s essential. This is such practical, truthful, and powerful insight, Jeff. Thanks for the reminder. 

  11. Ha ha! This is the exact reason that I write devotional books instead of full-length works. It’s okay to keep them short and sweet. 🙂 I am planning on starting a full length book in the near future, but I’m taking the time to plan it out and make sure I have enough material first. After 3 years of writing devotions, I finally feel ready to take the leap. 

  12. This is so true. Lately, I have been applying myself to reading until I get a good idea for a story, and then writing. It’s been working great. It was such a simple plan, but it works! 

    I have found though, that my blog has been getting a bit of the short end of the stick. Whereas I used to use it as an outlet for my creativity, it’s now fallen to the wayside a bit because I’ve been applying myself elsewhere. I’ve always loved photography, so I have reasoned to start actually carrying my camera around with me, like on a strap around my neck. That way, I can take more pictures that I can write about for my blog. Life is always happening around me. The weather is starting to get warm. Who knows what new pocket of creativity I will come across just by taking this step.

    Great post. Very True. Thank you.

  13. I’m applying to volunteer at an existing non-profit that focuses on what I am passionate about. I have a “dream” based on my own experiences, but need to be in the trenches with others and THEIR stories in order to truly understand need and scope and focus going forward. 

  14. Yes. Starting small is the reason I started a blog. I’ve always wanted to do something big and creative, but was constantly overwhelmed and stymied at every turn. One day I thought, “I’ll just write something. That’s creative.” So I opened a free account and wrote something. Then I wrote another thing. And another. Then I started a Facebook page. I entered a small blogging contest. I tried my hand at Photoshop. I bought an inexpensive audio mixer. And so on, and so on.

    Now I’m working on recording a cover song one track at a time, and who knows what my small steps will lead to? 79 blog posts later, I haven’t exactly “made it,” but that’s no longer the focus. Looking back over the past year, I can’t imagine starting out where I currently stand without all of the knowledge I’ve gained.

    I wish I’d learned this lesson sooner than age 35, but there’s no time like the present.

    ~ Chris

  15. Great post Jeff – something we all need to hear, again and again. Thanks for sharing this. 🙂

  16. Awesome advice, Jeff. When I wrote my first book (unpublished, but hey, it’s written, right?!), I didn’t know I was writing a book for about the first half or so. So that diminished the intimidation factor. When I went to start my second book, I totally freaked with how overwhelming the process felt. Now I am focusing on 1,000 words at a time (or less, depending on the day!) — very small chunks. It’s a lot easier on the mental health to focus on 1,000 words rather than 70,000.

  17. Good advice, Jeff.  I know I’ve read many times (even here I believe) that it’s like running a marathon.  We have to train.  I used to stink at running and could barely run a mile. (I still kind of stink at it but love it any way)  Now I’m training for a second 1/2 marathon.  But  it all started with a commitment to start small and then add to that.   Now, if I can only learn to consistently apply this to writing…hmm. 

  18. Hey Jeff

    This is great. A book you might enjoy that I read recently called Little Bets talked about about this exact process. The author said that a guy like Chris Rock goes out to stand up clubs locally and bombs multiple nights in a row. But what he does is use that feedback, and continually refine it for the big shows that we see.

    We tend to underestimate what we can do in a year, but overestimate what we can do in a day.  I recently talked to the founders of this company called Leanpub which allows you to publish an in progress book, and get feedback from your readers  while writing the book. So, I  imported the feed from my blog and hacked it up a bit into a book. So, no book deal, no publisher, but a starting point.

    The one other thing I would add to start small is that you have to continue. If you start small and do nothing then you wont get very far. But if you take baby steps every day eventually those baby steps turn into giant leaps. 

  19.  For a while I was busy and had to force myself to work on my music which is my dream.  I’ve had to realize that every day is either wasted or moving forward however small.  I’d take at least five minutes a day no matter what, however tired I was.  I ended up getting far more than I would’ve thought.  These small steps really do move further in the long run than taking big steps that don’t work out.

  20. Silly humans, we expect to go into the gym and walk directly to the 100 pound dumbbell, after having spent the last five years on the couch, and easily lift it, AND have larger and more defined muscles immediately, and if we can’t do that, well, it must be impossible, right? It is absolutely my experience that if you want something to happen, you have to stop waiting for it and happen, just start, take the smallest step and then another and you’ll be amazed how they add up. I also find as an artist that you can’t possibly know how something will turn out or what it will be until you begin, and as you work, show up and remain open to what happens, the thing begins to emerge and form, but it’s only through “working it” that it becomes, not imagining it. Most of the time, the idea doesn’t drop fully formed into your lap from the sky, you have to carve away at it. Great post!

  21. Also, we don’t want to compare our beginning with someone else’s middle (forget where I read that) – but, it’s a good point.  Anyone that accomplished something big started somewhere.  Maybe they even started off way worse than we did.  Develop those habits and you’ll get there.

  22. Jeff, 

    This is a great post, and even applies to more than just our biggest dreams. If I want to be good at my job, I have to find the incremental steps I need to take to grow in my role before its expanded. Loved the Aristotle quote, definitely ripping that one 🙂


  23. Totally agree Jeff… 

    Something I hope I’m learning…Maybe I’ll get to the 80,000 word manuscript some time, for now its enough work to crank out an 800 word post that makes sense.

  24. Yeah, I have to agree. Getting started is so hard, and I finally reached a point where  something inside me said, “JUST DO IT!” I’d spent a great amount of time learning the how-tos of novel writing, such as how to create good characters, dialogue, scenes and other stuff. Finally the time came for me to start. I literally sat down, created some semblance of a plan and just did it. I’ve been chipping away for months. I’m not sure when or if I’ll ever consider myself a writer. My mind does not work like novelists I’ve read about. They say their minds constantly find stories in everything around them. They create so fast they can hardly keep up with themselves. Unfortunately, I don’t work that way. I literally have to train myself to think like they do, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to pull it off like them. But I know one thing, I’ve done more than I ever thought I would do. 

  25. This is inspiring. I used to dream a lot about being a novelist until I decided to quit procrastinating. That was when I encountered the problems you mentioned – jumping straight into a long story without ‘warming up’. Ended up tired and sick of conceptualising my story but never seeing it come to pass. I decided to begin small and managed to write a short story titled 4:00pm I've been reading your blog posts daily, and just wanna say you’re such a motivating force for me personally! Thank you Jeff!   

  26. Another great post. The way you used Jimi Hendrix and learning scales and chords really got the point across to me since I am a musician. I play drums and people tell me how great I am now but they don’t know that I’ve been playing for 15 years and when I started I couldn’t even read music. The same goes for writing and everything else in life. Nothing happens over night. If it did, I don’t think it would be that fulfilling anyways.

  27. Sounds like the young writer probably also goes through the fear of missing out on something. When he/she has too many stories, options, ideas or choices you can’t help but fear that you might miss out on something better so you can’t focus on what’s infront of you – this creates paralysis. 

    The grass is always greener on the other side, focus on one thing at a time and start somewhere, anywhere.

  28. So simple,  yet so challenging- so true, yet sometimes so hard to believe. So obvious, but deceptively hard to see at times. Really helpful encouragement, thank you. 

  29. So true, in many areas of our lives. We want to do BIG things, not accepting that we have to work consistently at the small things to achieve the BIG things. Things like writing everyday. Or exercising everyday. These are 2 that I am working on right now!
    Great words Jeff!

  30. I agree that we have to go small first then build. Rome wasn’t built in a day after all (or however that expression goes). We need to be able to focus on doing the small tasks and gradually build from there.  

  31. Jeff, this is a great post!  I appreciate your emphasis on just starting and being willing to start small.  I needed to be reminded of this.  Very helpful.

  32. Excellent advice about talking small steps. It’s funny because I just recently finished putting a post together about enjoying the process of the small steps in writing, rather than the big step of publishing (or in the case of this post, finishing a novel).

    It was something that I struggled with for the longest time: writing to get published. Though publication is a noble pursuit, you can’t show up everyday to write, if all you have to motivate you is getting published someday. 

    Well, maybe there is someone out there who only needs that goal. It certainly isn’t me.

  33. Thank you! Such a great reminder. I’m a musician for fun (with a sensible day job which, thankfully, I also love). My small steps are…15 mins guitar practice 4/5 times a week, and loading demo versions of songs on piano onto…I got sick of waiting to be ready to record a “proper” album and just wanted to spend time on music! You’ve given me the encouragement to continue:)

  34. This is SO true. It took me a long time to realize this, but some of that realization came with maturity. Thank you for posting this.

  35. Hi Jeff,

    You know I love this post, as it clearly gives a live example of how you have written a beautiful article, explaining the problem and tackling with solutions giving examples. Now, that’s true creative.

    Yes, I totally agree on your point of ‘starting small’.

    You know, in his book ‘Eat That Frog’, Brian Tracy says in order to eat an Elephant, you need to eat it one bite at a time. And that requires focus. Eat one bite a day, then doing the same other, and one day

    Remember, it took Thomas Watson, the famous inventor 1,000 tries to make a light bulb! So, if he would have stopped at 500 tries, wouldn’t we be living in the darkness? So, I think the point is to not quit, and keep on walking, and enjoy the journey. And have fun along the way.

    Thank you for sharing this insightful article.

  36. I really needed this today. As a writer who hasn’t yet “made” it, I’ve been creatively stifled for the past few weeks. I’ve got the next great book I want to write, but when I make the time to sit down and do it, I find myself at a loss. Good reminder that sometimes just writing three sentences of absolute crap might free you to write the next five pages of absolute gold! Thanks for sharing. Something tells me I’ll be referring to this a lot in the next few weeks.

  37. Yup, “Nice and Easy” explanation.

    What I can advise, based on personal experience, develop in you these two habits:1)Choosing the Hardest Difficulties each time and overcoming them;
    2)Live for Work and not pleasure;Takes time (I’m still developing them), makes your life a bit uglier, but so much worth it in the end 🙂

  38. Thanks so much, Jeff! Awesome post! For me the baby steps started with your 12 week program, I joined up with (brilliant guys by the way!!), got an idea, and started writing. For me, baby steps includes listening to constructive criticism, as well as the fun of learning how websites work!

    Thanks again!

  39. Like the idea of baby steps. Very true and a nice wake-up call for those of us, who dream and dream, but don’t take that first step. 

  40. Thanks, Jeff. It gave me a new perspective. I was more like “if you want to be an actor then move to Hollywood”. I needed this 🙂

  41. Ahh! Thank you so much for this. I’ve started small, but sometimes I do wonder if it’s insignificant and worth it. That voice is my worst enemy. The other part of me realises that I’m kind of enjoying the baby steps, the practice and the daily routine of writing in itself. 

  42. Man this is divinely inspired….I just came to the exact realization a week ago!  Reading this today is like an exclamation point!!!  Thank you for posting.

  43. Hi Jeff!

    I just found your blog, and I’m loving it! This post especially was very relevant for me..I often find myself wondering if I’m not being bold enough, if I’m playing too small by just posting to my blog 4x a week. But you have a great point – the little things add up. I don’t need to spin out a crazy-long book (yet) to be a writer. Meanwhile, I’m getting great practice!
    Thanks for the great post. 🙂

  44. To find the balance between “dreaming big” and “doing small” in order to make that dream happen is certainly where I am. I finally made the commitment to blog once a week and be accountable to that. I truly believe it is the first step to creating the habits I need to write in the ways I aspire. If it’s not too self-promoting, I’d like to share my blog with you and your readers (at least the readers of your comments! :)). I’d love any feedback.

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  46. The words about “habit” have come to mind several times this week as I made small choices. Habits make dreams come true. That idea is easy to implement.
    Thanks, Jeff!

  47. As someone with a raging case if ADD and who is guilty of dreaming more than doing, I find if I can somehow block myself out time to dream and use that as my reward after I’ve put in a good day or week of the tough stuff, the ditch digging, the little things that sharpen the tools and skills that will build our dream, I am more fulfilled and see true progress.

  48. For some reason I want to say “move into the attic and change my name to Stephen King”….Actually, I did do something small today that moved me forward. I followed your 3 buckets tips and I finished a post and drafted a second post. (My Evernote notes need a reorg. anyway :/ ) Thanks for the tip!

  49. You are so inspiring Jeff. I have no desire to write a book but I do like to write short stories about life and the travels I have been on and poems. People that see them and hear them say that they should be published but I have a hard time getting started. I read everything on your blog on facebook and I am getting a lot of inspiration from it. Thank you.

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