How to Get Big Results in Minutes*

*(every day, over years)

Asthmatic as a child, small for my age and kind of clumsy, I learned early on the story that I was not built for physical activities. I was an easy target for bullies. Even before I knew what organizing was, I daydreamed of a large group of people coming together to confront the bullies and change the power dynamic.

I was in 5th grade when I was diagnosed with Neurally Mediated Syncope, which means that my brain would sometimes neglect to tell my heart to pump and I’d pass out in public places, which gave me a fear of my own body. I felt that my mind and body were separate; my mind was the real me and it was trapped in this thing that could betray me at any time. The fainting episodes continued into my twenties. One time I passed out in a crowded theater during a play, and fell on top of someone I didn’t know. I’m told that she screamed, “Oh my God, he’s dead!” and the play stopped and the lights came on. EMTs soon rushed in. “I’m sorry I ruined your play,” I called out as I came to and they carried me horizontally out the door. At least I wasn’t on a date at the time.

I had thought that bullying would stop when one became an adult, but I saw that it was at least as, if not more, frequent with even graver consequences. In the adult world, bullies often have systemic power supporting them, and titles like Boss or Governor. I learned about community organizing and saw that my childhood daydream could be realized by entering into a community of fighters for justice that spanned all the continents and has existed practically since the dawn of our species.

A critical moment for me as an organizer was learning that anger could be a tool—that when we channel anger at injustice into the work, it can provide us with tremendous energy resources. But when anger is the daily guiding force, it can start to spill over beyond the point where it’s productive. I found myself angry at the injustice heaped on the community; angry that my friends were being deported or forced to leave the country; angry that for all our victories, another bully was right around the corner and the bigger systems weren’t changing; angry that the coalitions we were a part of were full of once-idealistic people who mistrusted each other, criticized each other, and competed with each other. As an executive director, I was becoming a person I didn’t recognize. I was frequently short with my coworker. I felt anxious all the time, and had trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. If I grabbed a bite out after a long day, my body would sometimes reject the food so violently I would find myself laying on the restaurant bathroom’s cold tile, pressing my face against it trying to cool myself down.

For years in organizing, I was making small unhealthy choices. I was sitting all the time—sitting in the car driving somewhere, sitting at my desk on the phone or typing up grants and reports, sitting with people in meetings at the office or in their homes. Even our civil disobedience campaign was a sit-in! I grabbed food between meetings—even though I enjoyed cooking, years went by where my refrigerator held nothing more than the leftover slices of takeout pizza and some ketchup. My waistline kept expanding and I went through several rounds of maxing out my pants and needing to upsize. By the time I was 34, I had high blood pressure, stomach problems, and frequent sharp chest pain, not to mention a whole host of other yucky problems. There wasn’t any particular event that signaled the change. Rather, the cumulative effect of years of making bad decisions (or just not paying attention to the decisions I was making) had made a significant impact. Even a couple years after leaving the intense day-to-day organizing routine, the symptoms stayed with me.

I went to a naturopathic doctor, and she wrote me a prescription for running—10 minutes a day, at least 6 days a week. I had always heard that you need to exercise for at least 30 minutes a day for it to have any effect, and I felt I didn’t have 30 minutes a day to spare, nor could I imagine exercising for 30 minutes straight. But 10 minutes seemed like so little it was hard to make excuses. “You need to start right away,” the doctor told me. “Run for your life. Run for your daughter.” It was January, in New England, which meant snow, ice and temperatures rarely above freezing.
The first day, I tried to run. I got less than a quarter mile before I was sucking wind, hurting and having to slow to a walk. The next day, I tried to run/walk/run, and after a half-mile I was dry heaving. But I kept at it, the doctor’s words echoing in my head.

Run for your life. Run for your daughter.

I made a pact with myself that at the very least, I would put on my sneakers and step outside every day. Once there, it felt silly to not, at the very least, move a little.

I went back to the doctor six months later. Inches had dropped from my waist, and my blood pressure was at normal levels. I entered my first 5K. I kept at it, running every day through the below-zero temps and snowstorms of the Polar Vortex of Winter 2013. Last month, I hiked a Presidential Traverse–23 miles with 9000 feet of elevation gain over 10 of New Hampshire’s highest mountains in two days. I have a new possible. Still, most mornings, before the sun comes up, I only run for about 10 minutes. But, adding it up over the past 1¾ years, I have run between 600 and 700 miles.

Tiny actions, even ones that seem miniscule or insignificant, add up quickly to produce big effects, for good or bad. Where can we weed out the microaggressions we commit against ourselves, the sarcastic remarks, the bad habits, and replace them with microprogressions, appreciations, and healthy habits that are incremental steps towards the world we believe is possible?

For some brilliant reflections on tiny habits, check out Leo Babauta’s blog

This post is the first in a series of posts about minimalist organizing–wherein minimalism is defined as “lifting up the essential.” It will be an exploration of how microprogressions in the right direction can yield big changes, and how understanding our role within an interconnected network can allow our work to be more effective. I look forward to your thoughts, suggestions and questions!   

2 thoughts on “How to Get Big Results in Minutes*

  1. This is so smart. I often find (especially in the month of October!) that when I’m deep into campaigns, I slip into terrible habits. I order something different from McDonald’s just to change things up a bit. Today I decided In N Out at 11am seemed more appealing than McDonald’s at 2pm. And my organizing suffers for it- I’m exhausted, I get tired easily, and I’m constantly fighting off a headache. I commit to bringing something to eat for lunch every day. Even if it isn’t perfect, it’s a small gesture I can make to remind myself that I still exist outside of the work.

    Thanks for the reminder that small changes lead to big changes. I needed that.

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