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The Most Important Moment

By Marty Nemko

Have you ever thought, “I want to do this project.” but get derailed by a worry such as:

It’s too hard

It’s so much work

I’ll be embarrassed if I fail

If I do it, they’ll give me even more work

Ageism could impede me

Failing at this will confirm I’m a loser?

Of course, there are projects you’ll decide aren’t worth the effort, but once you rationally determine a task is worth tackling, key to getting it done (and to improving your psychological health) is to immediately replace any negative thoughts with “What’s my next tiny step?” If you don’t know, get help: from an expert, a book, whatever. And then, with all the laser-beam focus you can muster, work on that next tiny step.

I use that approach, not only at work, but outside. For example, for the first time in my life, I’ll be auditioning for a part in a community theater production: Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.

If I get the part, I will no doubt be afraid of forgetting my lines, so it’s tempting to avoid the stress and not try out, but the moment I become aware of the fear, I’m forcing myself to think, “Okay, what is my next tiny step?”

To ensure I know what my next step is, I call on free experts by googling. For example, I recently googled “auditioning,” which revealed wonderful articles written by top acting coaches. If I get cast, I’ll google terms like “memorizing lines” and will likely find great advice on that.

Then I’ll start memorizing, one line at a time. I will not allow myself to think ahead to how much more I have to memorize. I will not allow myself to imagine the audience murmuring as I stand there unable to remember a line. I will say “Stop! Learn your next line.” And I hope that, like the mountain climber who puts one foot in front of the other, I will soon look back delighted to see how far I have come.

I’ll also try to calm myself by facing the worst case scenario. If, despite my best effort, I forget some lines and find myself having to ad lib, the world won’t end. Perhaps the audience won’t even notice, and even if they do, in the larger scheme of things, it’s of small consequence. They’ll sniff, “He couldn’t memorize his lines,” and, at worst, enjoy the play a bit less. No tragedy. And if I give my best effort, which I definitely would, that worst-case scenario probably won’t occur.

Even at work, it’s useful to face the worst case scenario. Let’s say you fear that if you do a bad job on a project at work, you’ll be fired. Realize that if that’s all it took to get you fired, you’re probably in the wrong job and your next job will probably be a better fit.

I’m using the next-tiny-step approach as I’m writing this column. For example, before starting it and often while writing it, I was worried I’d have nothing to say or that it would come out badly, but I forced myself to stay in the moment: “What should I try now?” and then I tried something. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t, but I kept forcing myself to think, “Okay, what should I do next?” And amid the failing efforts, there were successful ones, which provided fuel to go on. And then it was done! I reread it and although I’ve written hundreds of columns before, there is a joy, or perhaps just a relief that “I did it!”

In my 55 years on this earth, among my greatest pleasures has been conquering those little tasks, which together lead to accomplishing big ones, such as having written five published books.

So, what is the most important moment? Now. Don’t look back; don’t look forward. Whether you’re doing a term paper, a project at work, starting a business, or even trying out for a play, key to success is forcing yourself to remain fully focused on your next tiny step.

What’s your next tiny step on a project you’ve been procrastinating? Do it now.

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