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Why is the First Step Always the Hardest?

One of Mark Twain’s more famous quotes is ‘The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”

For so many of us, it can be very difficult to begin a new task, because we are looking at it as a whole, large and overwhelming and looming over us. This sense of overwhelm leads us to back off, when in fact, the best action we could take in that instance is to simply BEGIN.

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An Activity is Always Hardest Before It is Begun

What is that one big, overwhelming task that you are staring down right now?

You know the one – you recognize it because it just seems so enormous that there is no possible way you will ever even get started working on it. And so you avoid it, only to find it looming ever larger. It gets in the way of achieving your goals, and it saps your self-confidence.

The worst course of action you could take is to spend too much time thinking about the job. There is a better way, and talented writer, speaker, and humorist Mark Twain has shared it with us.

He knew that there is actually a secret to getting the job done.

Yes, there is a secret to getting ahead. Here it is: START

feet walking on railroad tracks, the secret of getting ahead is getting started

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The secret to getting ahead or completing a job, no matter how overwhelming it may seem, is ALWAYS the same.

You must always start something before you can hope to finish it.

Easier said than done?

Yes and no.

If you think you can dive into any big endeavor without a plan and just plow through it, chances are you will find yourself stuck part-way in.

And frustrated.

And even more overwhelmed than you were before you began.

But if you plan your project out, you can take control of the situation. And then you need to start.

Here is the complete quote by Mark Twain:

The secret of getting ahead is getting started.
The secret of getting started is breaking all of your complex, overwhelming tasks into small, manageable tasks, and then starting with the first one.

Mark Twain

The Secret of Getting Started is Gaining Control

In other words, don’t just randomly start on any portion of the task at hand.

You need a plan of action that will guide you.

You need to gain control of the process.

The secret to gaining control over anything that seems overwhelming is to break that task down into small, manageable steps, and then break those down into even smaller steps.

Continue until every activity within the project has been reduced to its simplest, most minute steps. Eventually, you will reach a point where each individual action no longer feels beyond your scope. You will then have control.

Once you have reduced your project to its smallest parts, it’s time to take all of those small actions and assign a logical order to complete each one.

And with that bit of advance planning, you will realize that you have already taken that important first step.

You have gotten started, you are now on your way.

And you know where you need to go next.

blocks building up a project step by step, the secret of getting ahead is getting started

Building Momentum

After you complete the first action, move on to the second, and then the third.

Follow the path that you have laid out for yourself, one small step at a time.

If you reach any kind of roadblock, deal with it right then and there. Work through it, and move on.

It is absolutely key that you don’t step back too soon and look at how far you have to go.

Keep your head down, so to speak, and remember that your only task is your next task.

If you find you need to make adjustments or revise a few things once you are into your project, that’s normal. Just like the steps don’t have to be in perfect order from the beginning, they can be adjusted at any time. Make the necessary changes, and then get back to work, one small step at a time.

Challenge Yourself:
What’s the big project looming over your head? Grab a piece of paper and write it down in a bubble in the middle of the page. From there, start breaking it into smaller chunks, and then break those down further, expanding all around the first bubble. When you have reached a point where you have reduced each task into its smallest steps, create a list in the approximate order you will do each of the steps. Then, start with the first one. Start now.

Getting Started: A Real-Life Example

What does this look like in real life?

Well, let’s say you need to clean out your basement but it’s full of ten years of “I’ll deal with this stuff later”. The accumulation is more than you can deal with. Whoa, put the brakes on that, there is no way you can handle cleaning out the basement.


You need to reframe the process.

Do not look at the basement as a whole. Look only at its parts.

Can you break the work down into smaller segments? Of course you can.

For example:

  • Today I will clean out the laundry area.
  • Tomorrow I will install shelves for storage.
  • Wednesday I will go through all the books and magazines.
  • Thursday is for old sports equipment.
  • Friday for all of the clothes I’ve put in storage boxes and forgotten about.

You have created a task list for each day, with a different focus for each.

Now break these tasks into even smaller tasks.

Plan out the shelves:

  • First I will measure where I want to put shelves.
  • Then I will clear everything out of that area.
  • Next, I will go to The Home Depot and purchase the shelves.
  • After that, I will construct the shelves.
  • Once I set them in place, I will determine how to fill them.

The first step in the plan is small – measuring the space where you would like to add shelves.

Measuring for shelves is such a small task that it doesn’t seem like it will help get the basement cleaned out. But it is the first step in a process that will make a big difference.

Finish that task, and then move on to the next.

Final Thoughts on Getting Started is the Secret to Everything

Mr. Twain said it so well, I wanted to show you that quote one more time:

The secret of getting ahead is getting started.
The secret of getting started is breaking all of your complex, overwhelming tasks into small, manageable tasks, and then starting with the first one.

Mark Twain

Or if you prefer a more humorous delivery:

How do you eat an elephant?

One bite at a time

Read More About Productivity and Confidence:

road with the word "start" painted on it, the secret of getting ahead is to start

12 thoughts on “Why is the First Step Always the Hardest?”

  1. Great tips! I love the idea of breaking the task down into smaller tasks, and I think when we see it as a large project we tend to put it off feeling overwhelmed not willing to put the effort into it at that time, and it stays that way even though in our mind we want to get it done. It can be so hard to get motivated, so thank you for sharing, as we all need a push in the right direction!

  2. Thanks for sharing this article. I had a neat-freak aunt and she always would say to break down any room or area to declutter in quadrants. And once you start you don’t stop until that ‘quadrant’ is completed. Needless to say, her house was tidy 24/7!

    1. Your aunt sounds like my kind of person! While my house isn’t always scrubbed clean, I would say it’s almost always tidy and neat. Thank you for reading!

  3. I like this idea, Lori, thanks for writing and sharing this to us. Your management posts help me get through all these things that need to be done, but sometimes I’m caught up to the big picture ending I am overwhelmed. Nice and informative post! Very helpful.

  4. This is brilliant. I’m a massive advocate of breaking something down into the smallest steps possible and then just getting started. Mostly because I had to learn to do that the hard way. It truly works though. If something seems huge, you’re just not going to do it. Great post!

    1. Thank you, Gina! I admit, I had to learn the hard way as well. Sometimes I still get that “overwhelmed” feeling, and then I stop and remind myself to simplify the steps, and I can handle whatever comes my way. Thank you so much for reading!

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