Gregory Trubetskoy

Notes to self.

The Next Smallest Step Problem

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“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”

Most of my journeys never begin, or cannot continue because of that one single step, be it first or next. Because it is hard, at times excruciatingly so.

Here I speak of software, but this applies to many other aspects of my life just as well.

I recon it’s because I do not think in steps. I think of a destination. I imagine the end-result. I can picture it with clarity and in great detail. I know where I need to be. But what is the next step to get there? And it doesn’t help that where I travel, there are no signs.

The problem of deciding what to do next is so common for me that I even have a name for it. I call it “The Next Smallest Step” problem. Whenever I find myself idling, clicking over to online time-wasters, I pause and ask myself “What is the Next Smallest Step? What’s the next smallest thing I can do, right now?”

It doesn’t matter how much further this small step moves me. A nanometer is better than standing still. It has to be something that is simple enough that I can just do. Right now.

I always plan to do big things that take days, weeks or months. But of all that, can I pick that one small simple and quick thing that I can do now?

Sometimes focusing on the next smallest step is so difficult that I pencil this question on a piece of paper, and sometimes I just type it on the command line or in the source code. My short version is:

bash: WHAT: command not found

(that’s right, in CAPS)

This simple question has taken me on some of the most fascinating and challenging journeys ever. In restrospect, I think I would not be able to travel any of them without repeatedly asking it of myself, over and over again.

It has resulted in most productive and gratifying days of work. Some of my greatest projects began with this question. In many instances it established what I had to do for months ahead (years, even?). All beginning with this one small question.

Conversely not asking it often enough, if at all, led to time having gone by without any results to show for and many a great opportunity lost.

I must also note that some of my next smallest steps took days of thinking to figure out. Nothing wrong with that.

And so I thought I’d share this with you, just in case you might find it helpful. Whenever you find yourself at an impass and progress has stopped, ask yourself:

“What is the Next Smallest Step?”