So, I was out in Estes Park, Colorado last week…
My daughter and I were playing around on the rocks beside a creek when she saw a few crayons and pieces of paper littered around the edge of the water. She reached into the water to pick them up, ran up to the trash can and dropped them in, even though they weren’t her litter, without anyone asking. Then, I joined in, while she went back and looked for more to clean up.
I was so proud of her.
But, here’s the fascinating thing, the streets we walk down in NYC every day are caked with litter. Probably more in a 6-foot stretch than in the miles of that mountain stream. And, this is our home town…but neither of us would think of stopping to pick up someone else’s trash to clean the place up. Not our job, plus it’s nasty and we didn’t create it, why should we have to clean it up.
So, what gives?
Why is it our almost moral imperative to act when we see a small bit of someone else’s human detritus mucking up a pristine mountain stream, but we’re blind to heaps of the same in our own backyard?
The question really bugged me.
It’s not that we don’t care. We do. Theoretically even more, since we have to live with that squalor every day.
I think it comes down to two things – overwhelm and futility.
There’s something about the enormity of the task that leads you to believe it’s futile to even begin.
Standing on the banks of a pristine stream, the effort needed to return it to it’s clean state seemed so small it was almost indefensible not to undertake it. The momentary effort and passing ickyness of picking up someone else’s stuff was outweighed a thousand times over by the instant glory we’d helped restore.
Contrast that with the city. The effort needed to clean even a small swath of street and keep it clean seems so much more gargantuan. And, the impact of your effort seems so nominal in the context of trying to keep an entire block, neighborhood or city clean.
You just end up shutting down and saying “why bother?”
I don’t like that I feel this way. But I do.
And, I began to wonder, is there something you can do to bring the same engaged, action-oriented mindset we brought to the mountain stream to a task that seems monumental to the point of being futile? Is there a way to approach it differently, to reframe it in a way that inspired you to begin to take action it. Maybe even rally others to the cause?
One thing that immediately came to mind is the notion of chunking.
It’s something I learned from my daughter when she was first learning to read. Not that many of us remember, but learning to read is a pretty monumental task. So, her teacher told her, instead of trying to read entire books, paragraphs or sentences, chunk it down.
Start with a letter, then a syllable, then a word, then two, then a sentence. And, before you know it, you’re reading.
And, I think that’s pretty good strategy for a lot of challenges we face in daily life that would be deeply meaningful to conquer, but seem so enormous and futile, we can’t even muster the will to begin.
Chunk it down.
Keep the ultimate goal in back of your mind, but keep your attention and actions focused on the smallest, most-doable thing.
Commit to that and only that. Maybe it won’t make a difference. But, it sets your wheels in motion. It sets your spirit and will in motion. And, once you turn that little action into habit, you can add another, then another, then another. Maybe that’ll inspire a friend to the cause. Then, they’ll start taking tiny steps daily. And, as others see you and your friend, maybe they’ll join in.
And, over time, that monster challenge, the one that seemed insanely daunting, impossible, unbeatable…gets beaten.
Think about it.
What can you chunk down and begin to act on today?
Okay, gotta run.
Off to throw someone else’s soda-bottle in the trash…