Secret of Adulthood: By Doing a Little Bit Each Day, You Can Get a Lot Accomplished.

Further Secrets of Adulthood:


We tend to over-estimate what we can do in a short time (say, an afternoon), and under-estimate what we can do over a longer time (a month) a little bit at a time. This realization led me to my very helpful resolution to Suffer for fifteen minutes. (I write about it a lot in Happier at Home, chapter on “Time.”)

At the same time, it’s true that some people prefer to do a lot packed into a short time, and others prefer to do less over a longer period. Are you a tortoise or a hare? I asked a friend, “Are you a tortoise or a hare? If a piece of work took 21 hours, would you rather work for 3 hours  a day for 7 days, or 7 hours a day for 3 days?” She said, “I’d rather work for 2 days, for 10.5 hours!” A true hare.

How about you?

  • Roopak desai

    Yes..a step at a time..keep chuggimg!!

  • Sweet Melody

    The most difficult part is to get myself do it~~

  • I can go either way. If I can pour myself into a project heart & soul I will crank through it in no time. But if I have other responsibilities, I’m happy to work on it a little bit every day. I’m good at daily tasks, and I’m also good at discipline to work on something for hours at a time. I feel lucky to be so versatile.

  • Mary

    Definitely a hare!

  • Josephine Howe

    Doing a little each day has been my mantra and it really works. I suggest keeping track of what one does by journaling it otherwise mentally one (at least this one) does not think she has done much. I journal my yarn projects and am amazed now at the end of year at the big list and before thought I hardly did anything. Because I am one of those people that thinks she never does enough on any front, I have made boundaries in retirement. Morning chores and afternoons and evenings free. I can do more, but this boundary making gives me the permission to enjoy my life in retirement.

  • Avis Rose

    I am a true hare. I like to get things done as fast as possible so that I dont have to worry about them later. I normally time myself according to the deadlines.

  • Sera Mattson

    Realistically, what I would do is to choose to work 3 hours a day for 7 days, try to work 3 hours in the first 4 days, realizing that I’m over thinking things and being counterproductive, and then do the actual work in the last 2 days, feeling dissatisfied with the work in the end whether or not it was good work. The dissatisfaction may in fact be partially based on the inability to get it done in the way I had planned in the first place.
    However, it also depends on what other projects I have going on. If I can anticipate having to work on those multiple projects, then I can more accurately dole out the time.
    I’ve been repeating this as my mantra for the last several weeks. I’m not sure I’m getting much done, but I do think I feel a little better about my progress because I can say “at least I got a little bit done.”

  • Kristin

    I am a hare! I want to get it done the fast and be done with it!

  • KatieB

    I am a hare, but wish I was a tortoise.

    I would argue that most people would be tortoises if they hadn’t been trained by their “too much to do and not enough time to do it” lifestyles. Maybe?

  • Amina S.

    I always prefer to cover more in short time- so 10.5 hours in 2 days would be a good example for me as well…but I never deliver before time as that ends up in setting high expectations from my managers 🙂 – I deliver my projects right on time, but finish my work way too early so I get to revise my work and I get to take my time out for the rest of ‘given hours’ – I dedicate that time for my self development, so I read more in that time and go for long walks and spend time with myself. I consider that time well planned and spent and its for ‘me’.

  • Joan Riley

    I am definitely a tortoise, raised by a hare. It was quite liberating to discover that I did not have to do a huge kitchen cleaning project, I could do a little each day, even 15 minutes would make a difference. I like to have a big creative project that I work on each day, mostly making quilts. A few hours a day – last year I finished 16.

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  • I believe I am a hare. I prefer to be completely immersed in a project. The work flows better, I can hang onto my concentration. Spread things out and the total hours probably goes way up. The down side it the amount of procrastination that leads up to the sprint!

    • gretchenrubin

      But maybe you’re not really procrastinating. Maybe you know that you work better in a hare-like condition, so you don’t start at a tortoise time. The question is: do you have enough time to meet a deadline, with work that you’re proud of? If so, then your system works for you.

  • ValleyGirl

    As a working mom who also moonlights as a doctoral candidate I am definitely a tortoise!

  • Randee Bulla

    Until I read your book, I never thought to give myself permission to just work on something for a brief time each day or week, and then do that consistently over the weeks or months until the project was done. For some reason I thought I had to do it all at once, so I’d delay and delay because certain projects seemed just overwhelmingly all consuming. So I’ve been doing this at work and at home, and I’m SO much happier. Best of all, I’m getting so much more done while being a much happier person.

    • gretchenrubin

      So happy to hear that my work proved useful.

      • Randee Bulla

        What’s even better, is that my husband has never been happier. We read your book together and I didn’t think he was going to take any steps suggested. But after deeply and privately thinking about your work, he started talking about it and taking steps to do what really made him happy. As a result, I’ve never seen him more happy, excited, or content. I guess that’s the long way to say I’m very grateful for your work as you have made a profound and lasting impact on our lives and those around us.

        • gretchenrubin

          I’m so HAPPY to hear that.

  • HEHink

    This sounds like a modern take on one of Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard sayings – “Little strokes fell great oaks.” (And I wish I’d read it several years ago when I was trying to explain what that meant to fourth graders!)

    For me, the trick to achieving tortoise behavior is perspective. It’s learning to see those “great oaks” as manageable chunks that may be handled one at a time in the shorter amounts of time that are available on a daily basis. If I only see the project as a whole, I believe I need a huge amount of uninterrupted time to deal with it. Since that kind of time never happens for me, I never get started. But if I see a smaller project-related task that I can do in 20-30 min., I’m more likely to do it.

  • CES

    This is exactly the post I needed to see today. I am a true hare, though I’d never thought of it in those terms before. I have been unsuccessfully trying for years to get myself into a balanced routine, but I always fail, largely because I take on projects that are too big, underestimate how long they will take, and burn myself out quickly. I also refuse to stop what I am doing and move on to something equally important, like going to the gym or making dinner, until I’ve completed my self-assigned task. Thus my life is a constant series of uphill battles followed by recovery that ends in getting less accomplished than I probably could at a slower, more thought-out pace. I think it stems from a (childish) desire for instant gratification. I want to finish my task now and see the results asap, not work steadily towards multiple accomplishments.

    • gretchenrubin

      One big challenge is how to work on a big, pressing project but also make time for little, constant tasks. A friend is struggling with this right now: she’s writing a book, has a deadline looming, yet wants to go to the gym regularly. It’s so tempting to think, “I need to work,” but over time, she knows she’d feel better if she managed to go to the gym too.

  • This is so true.
    Someone once told me a great quote recently, which is very similar and has since radically changed my life.

    “Ordinary things done consistently produce extraordinary results”

  • Julia

    I’ve now realized I’m the hare but would prefer to be the tortoise. As a mother of two I’m forced into this role and in that sense it’s no bad thing. I’ve just done a course on creative daily practise which has also helped me realize that I can achieve a lot by doing a little each day.

  • Susanne

    A reformed Hare, now a happy — and MUCH more productive — Tortoise. While I still immerse myself deeply in my True Passion (writing), for almost everything else I’ve discovered I get 100 times more done, and done better, by being a Tortoise, breaking big tasks into a multitude of small, single-action tasks, writing them down so I can see a coherent and workable work-flow, then knocking these small tasks off one at a time. Since starting this, I’ve gotten more done in the past year than in the past five! And I’m less stressed.

    It was a difficult shift to make, but I realized somewhere along the line that I didn’t do a lot of what I wanted to do because I’d be waiting for the “right amount of free time”. Well, that never happened. So while I was “waiting” to have the time to do these things, they kept piling up and I was always stressed and frustrated because I never seemed to get anything “big” accomplished. Now I do 4 or 5 mini-tasks a day, each of them part of a larger task, and then the day comes when the “big” task is all done and that’s me, doing the Happy Dance.

  • Andriane Gray

    I usually like to finish a task as quickly as possible.

  • Alisha

    this is so damm true 🙂 thankyou for sharing

  • Chris

    I know this from the bottom of my heart. I wrote and finished my thesis only because I practiced this principle every day.

    Anyhow it is so easy to slip back to old habits.

  • peninith1

    This is my whole ‘method’ in getting stuff done. I keep myself active and interested by doing a lot of different things. Maybe as I near the completion of a quilt or some other project, I may ‘crash’ on it and work hard all day to get it done, but mostly I prefer to work an hour or less on a project for many days, and work on several different things during the day, seeing gradual progress.

    Also I am a devotee of the timer method. I set my timer for a half hour or an hour, and work on something ‘fun’ . . . then the next half hour I work on something ‘have-to-do’ like housework or the checkbook . . . then it’s back to ‘fun.’ You would not BELIEVE how fast the drudgery goes when the lure of fun things to do is 30 minute or less away.

  • Jeannie

    Albert Einstein may not have actually said that compound interest was the most powerful force in the universe, but I agree with the saying in principle: save a little each day for a very long time and you will do well financially. A desire for immediate gratification often derails people from taking incremental steps toward any goal, whether it’s saving money, losing weight or completing a task. Yet it really is the little daily steps toward a goal that help us to reach it — and maybe learn something along the way.

    • Alissa Ripley

      My best friend and I were just discussing this today! I completely agree with you Jeannie, we both considered that we had a lot on our ‘back burners’, but we really do things at a good pace and methodically. We’re just always our own harshest critic!


  • I always advise my decluttering clients to take on LESS than they think they can get done in the time available. If they finish early, they can always do some more. If they don’t get everything done, it’s discouraging – which is the last thing someone feeling overwhelmed by a task want.

    Me, I’m a bit of both. Sometimes I start a big task with a little and often approach and then, after a few sessions, I get fired up and do it all in one go.

  • Minivanmama

    I am definitely a hare, but one of my sons (age 11) is a tortoise in every sense of the word. I had never thought of it this way, but now I realize this may be part of the reason we tend to clash at times!

  • So true! I’m trying to learn to make a daily task list on a post it note, with large writing, rather than kidding myself I can get through my A4 8pt list 🙂 At the same time, sewing for 15 minutes a day produces wonders. Oh and of course makes you much happier.

  • Agim Zeka

    ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,Greetings for you Lazy,,,

  • ErinSF

    You gave me a gold star by reminding me of this! Thank you. Also, I’m so, so happy to see that you’re writing out your secrets in your own hand. That makes it so personal and intimate…as though you’re leaving me a little note on my desk. Thank you.

  • Thanks for this reminder, Gretchen!

    We recently wrote a post called “A Little Bit Every Day” on the TuneCity blog and referenced your article.

    Having a long-term mindset can help us get over the hurdle of a daunting task. When broken down in to smaller pieces, it is always more manageable.