Do Small Things in a Great Way

“If you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way.” ~Napoleon Hill


I Tweeted this quote to my followers a while back (hat tip to the awesomely named Passive Panda). I shared it in spite of having some mixed feelings about it at first, as my initial reaction upon reading it was: But I am going to do great things! Screw your small things!

My initial reaction, in other words, was to get pissed off and dismiss it, because clearly it didn’t apply to me. I’m gonna to do hella great things, thank you very much — and who are you to say I can’t?!

But after thinking about it for a little while, I realized there was more to this idea than what I was reading as a slight on my abilities. Because really, even if you are planning to do “great things,” you still have plenty of piddly little small things to deal with on a daily basis. Commuting to work. Doing chores. Getting through your day at work.

And how you do those small things makes every bit as much difference in your life as how you do those great big things you’re tackling.

The Importance of the Piddly

The thing about the big things, or at least most big things, is they take some time to accomplish. Starting your own business and quitting your job, changing your diet and getting in shape, paying down debt, writing a novel… These things are done step by step, bit by bit, and although they can be life-changingly awesome, the fact remains they’re all long-term goals.  Huge, wonderful, inspiring goals, yes, but in the meantime, you’ve still got your everyday life to live.

You’ve still got to do the dishes, walk the dog, go grocery shopping. It’s so easy to dismiss these things as frustrating time sucks that need to be gotten through as quickly as possible so you can get on to the more important stuff. But these little things make up your life. These little things are your present. And how you approach them determines how awesome or not-so-awesome your present will be.

No Moment is a Throwaway

I struggle with this whole concept something fierce. In fact, this particular post is a reboot of one I wrote way back in 2011. (Shh, don’t tell!) I decided to freshen it up and republish it because it speaks perfectly to this month’s Quit. Now, just as I did 3 ridiculous years ago, I still struggle with the aftermath of my tendency to fail to recognize the importance of the small things.

Focusing solely on my writing and editing work (the “billable stuff”) and poo-pooing everything else as below my attention results in nothing but piles of dirty dishes and stacks of stuff on our kitchen table, which is supposed to be the spot for stuff I need to remember to do something about but usually winds up being the place for stuff I tried to remind myself of weeks ago and have since forgotten about.

For a consummate neat freak, letting things get to this point is beyond frustrating. I feel irritated, distracted, and ultimately launch into a tirade of cleaning that leaves me exhausted and bitterly resentful. Ironically, it takes me so long to undo the results of my daily neglect, usually in a weekend-long frenzy, that it eats up any time I was going to spend doing the “important” things I had planned.

If I just do the little things each day — mindfully, dutifully, and maybe even with a little bit of cheer if I can muster it — things in the Cordelia house would move along smoothly, and life as a whole would be a lot more enjoyable. My head would be in a better space. That little hum of tension and annoyance behind whatever I’m currently working on would be gone. I’d breathe easier. And, as a result, I’d be able to tackle the big things with greater vim and gusto. (Which is what big things rightfully deserve.)

All that, just by doing a daily pickup and sucking it up when the dish pan is full. The little and the big things go hand in hand. You can’t neglect one without the other being affected by it.


“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” (~John Lennon)

Our lives are shaped by the way we approach the small things.

Whether I approach a grocery run braced to fight my way through crowds or happy to be out and about. (In the early days of launching your own biz, even a Target run on a Saturday counts as out-of-the-house social time.)

Whether I grumble my way through my daily tasks, or realize this thing I’m doing is pretty damn awesome, and me of 3 years ago would be over the moon to have her daily tasks consist of writing and editing in her PJs with puppies at her feet.

Whether I resent and avoid the unavoidable tasks in my life, or try to find ways to make them as fun and meaningful as I can.

Are these little things particularly meaningful in and of themselves? Are they really all that “worthy” of my giving them my best — of my doing them “greatly”? Honestly, they’re probably not. I do have infinitely better things to do with my time than the dishes. But you know who is worthy of me giving everything my A-game? Me.

I deserve to live a life that matters, right now today, even when I’m doing the things that seem mundane and tedious. I deserve to go to sleep each night knowing I’ve kicked some tail in everything I did, whether it was securing a new freelance client or sweeping fur devils from my floors. I not only deserve it; I owe it to myself.

Because a Cordelia is all about living intentionally. Doesn’t matter what it is she’s living at the moment — she takes its name, kicks its tail, and feels more like her Cordelian self because of it. She doesn’t hold back. She doesn’t live stingily.

So, how about you? What “little things” can you bring a some greatness to?

Image: Flickr

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  • I remind myself often that greatness is not a prize at the end of the week, month, year, etc. I can have greatness right now, today, if I choose to be great, and feel great, about whatever is in front of me. This idea pretty much sums up my life philosophy and my life practice, and my motivation behind my blog!

    Reveling in activity and enjoying my progress allows me to feel gratified and joyful every day. This is truly the way I want to live my life.

    Of course I struggle at times, and I can get wrapped up in the pursuit of one goal and not take care of other important life maintenance such as self care. Whenever I get off track I can easily re-set my mindset, my purpose and my attitude.

    Some of my favorite quotes on doing small things in a great way are hanging up in my office:

    “Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.” -Robert Collier

    “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.” -Aristotle

    • The more we get to know each other, the more in common I realize we have!  Our philosophies seem to be very similar.  🙂

      I completely agree that greatness is an approach we bring to whatever lies in front of us.  You’re right in stressing that it’s an attitude more than a result–I think that’s one of the problem with the “big thing” vs. “little thing” philosophy: we get so caught up in striving for big goals that we forget to live joyously and awesomely right here in the present.

      Love the quotes–They are being added to my collection!

  • Life is in the details, baby.  😉  

    For me, today I plan to bring a hint of joy and greatness to prepping the house for winter and figuring out what sort of alcoholic cupcakes I’m bringing with me to this weekend’s plans.

    • Amen!  I tried to bring that same attitude to my cleaning overhaul this weekend, and I’m trying to approach every daily “little thing” with the same purpose.

      p.s.  Where can I find your recipe for alcoholic cupcakes, and what time do you want me to show up for whatever event they are being served at?  😉

      • If you wish, I am more than happy to email you the recipe for my Amarula cupcakes.   (The rest of them are going to be on a mountain in NH for the weekend.  😉 )

        • Cordelia’s Mom

          Cordelia – I’m thinking Mother-Daughter trip to NH?  I love mountains (and cupcakes) (and alcohol).
          Sorry, Melissa, simply couldn’t resist butting in!

          • Oh, I’ve got the recipe now.  Party at my house!

          • I sent her the recipe for the absinthe sugar cookies, as well.  😉  (I love baking and alcohol, and somewhere along the line started combining them into one activity.)  Enjoy!

  • Have you got a hidden camera here? Where is it? I need to cover it up to hide the mess! But seriously, thank you for encouraging me to get these little things done in such a way that I’m not feeling frazzled and grouchy the whole day. I have a long list of tasks I’d like to accomplish today, and the writing and content creation tasks appeal to me much more than washing, drying, folding tasks do. Some day I’ll be able to work from the home and have time to balance it all out, but for now I’ve got to balance it around working outside the home. My days off can be enjoyable, or I can be a grouch about the housework that fills my time off. It’s up to me.

    • Please, no need to hide anything from me–my own surroundings ricochet frequently between manically spotless and total disorder.  One of the results of my attempts to come to terms with the big vs. small importance.  🙂

      I feel precisely the same way you do about my own list of chores and tasks.  I’m in the same boat of trying to bring my own creative projects into the world while also balancing a full-time job and managing a household, and it can be absolutely exhausting.  All I can do is try to keep each day a good balance between the necessary things and the things I feel are “important,” and not to overvalue or undervalue either category.

      It totally IS up to us.  Each day (each minute, really) is a choice for happiness.

  • Jen

    I completely agree. I too struggle with this. I feel like I need to appreciate every little moment and make the most of them. But, scrubbing the toilets and cleaning the litter box isn’t my idea of fun or great. We do need to get the little things done so we can appreciate spending time on the bigger things. I start to get too stressed out when my house is dirty and the laundry not done. It’s all part of the same package.

    • Precisely!  I feel the same way–hating the minutia and the chores but knowing they’re all part and parcel of the big picture.  I get horribly distracted and anxious when my surroundings are messy, so I just tell myself that the little things are necessary for the sake of my own peace and tranquility.  If I can keep the little things running smoothly on a daily basis, I’ll have more time (and emotional space!) to really concentrate on the big things.

  • I love the sentiment in this post, it is so true that you cannot ignore the small things. If I ignore the house work, or even go to bed with a messy room, I cannot sleep properly!! It is kind of tragic!

    🙂 Hazel

    • I’m the exact same way!  I’m like The Princess and The Pea when it comes to keeping my house clean–if I can sense there are dirty dishes in the sink or the bathroom isn’t clean, it completely distracts me from doing anything else.

  • Laura

    What a great post!  Thank you for your inspiring insights.

    • You’re very welcome!  🙂

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  • Rob F.

    Thanks for pointing o this post on Twitter! Funnily enough, I’m finding myself focusing on the small things at the moment. I’m toying with the idea of blogging about those small things, whether it’s the daily chores or the steps to the Big Thing, and just being present in all of them.

    • Love the Zen mindfulness behind that goal, Rob. It’s something I’m still working on, and so worth it. Why can’t every moment of our day get our awesomest self, even if the activity we’re doing at moment isn’t particular “awesome” inherently? It becomes awesome by how we approach it.

  • SR

    I really like this post Cordelia. It is so easy to forget this!

    • It really is — as my 3-years-later revisit proves!

      • I had a feeling I’d seen this before 😉
        ~ thanks for bumping it back “to the top”!

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  • Penguin For Sale

    Awesome article! And totally right! Thanks!

    • You’re welcome. Now, how may I acquire a penguin? 😛

      • Penguin For Sale

        You gotta go through thousands of tests first to show you are worthy of a penguin’s love xD

  • Love-Love-Love this, Cordelia!
    Truly worthy of “print it out and post it!!!”

    Also, I’m sharing it with my ADD-ish group – now, before I go to work!

    Have a great weekend, including the piddly stuff (big hugs) ~

    • Woot!

    • Rob F.

      I keep hearing this as a Missy Elliott lyric: “Put my thing down, print it out and post – it…” 😀

  • And since you mention Does running to Target count as social time or time suck?” ~
    I would propose that “seeing it” (and saying it) as social time, even at the same speed, is ALSO much better for YOU. Smiles are always healthier than grumbles, yaknow? 😉

    • Excellent point, grasshopper! 🙂