Do the next smallest thing

Longtime readers know that I am transfixed by the subject of urban planning: the field dedicated to the development and design of our cities and towns. I have a full bookshelf devoted to the subject, even a few textbooks about things like parking and zoning. I’ll admit, I find sidewalk design inherently fascinating, but it’s not just about the sidewalks: the way I see it, urban planning is ultimately how the spaces and structures surrounding us shape our lives, whether we’re aware of it or not.

For Christmas, Will gave me a new book for this shelf, one intended for a general audience. It’s called Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity, and I read it in two days over winter break.

The author, a Minnesotan who’s been an urban planner for several decades, argues that our cities are on the verge of a long, slow decline, and that any solution needs to begin with a bottom-up approach. Marohn pushes for change beginning at the most local, sometimes even individual, level—not by implementing billion-dollar regional plans, but instead carrying out whatever the “next smallest thing” is that can improve our community.

The next smallest thing. I’ve been meaning to tell you about this ever since I read the book, nearly three months ago. And now, returning to this book, and this chapter, in the wake of a global pandemic, I have to admit: the words strike me differently. Marohn argues the majority of our cities are trapped in a vicious cycle of financial shortfalls, left vulnerable to collapse should even the slightest downturn occur.

Whelp. Here we are.

Marohn writes that when a local government identifies a significant problem, they often seek a comprehensive solution, one that devotes large sums of money to fixing it, once and for all. But that’s not the best way forward, and here’s why: that money is often not available, which means nothing can be done right now. And grand solutions may solve one aspect of the problem, only to reveal—or even create—other problems. “That’s the way complex human habitat operates,” he says.

So what are we to do instead? The next smallest thing to solve the problems confronting us. “There are a lot of improvements that can be made with paint, straw bales, and a shovel. Working at this scale—using a hacker mind-set—allows quick action. There is no need for years of study or deliberation…. We can try things and see what happens.”

These “little bets” aren’t intended to solve the problem; they’re intended to make things a little better. Not only do these small actions create real financial value out of very little investment, but they also change the relationship between citizens and their communities. When people and organizations are empowered to make these “little bets,” they’re no longer people who pay taxes in order to passively receive a service; instead, they become active collaborators in their communities.

(Yes, this is eerily similar to Chapter 2 of Don’t Overthink It.)

Friends, the next smallest thing isn’t just for coronavirus, or for sidewalk design. I would bet everyone of us could point to a problem in our lives before all this began. We are small, the world is large. It seems larger every day, actually. We’re just one person, so what on earth can we do to make things a little better?

The next smallest thing.

Everyone’s lives, and roles, look a little different. I’m just spitballing here, this is not a comprehensive list, but maybe you could do something small to make things better, for yourself or others: Drink a big glass of water. Take a walk. Or go for a run. Tell your local representative they’re doing a good job. (I hope, for all our sakes, they are.) Put the food pantry on your calendar (and read up on social distancing, whether you’re serving or shopping). Check in on your elderly neighbor. Or your friend who lives alone. Tell those in the medical professions you’re grateful for them. Place an online order from a local business. Check in on the people who run and work in these businesses. Plan your week’s meals based on what’s in your pantry. Step away from the computer. Call your mom.

Figuring out how you can help is a project. So is figuring out how to get the help you need. Don’t let that big project overwhelm you. Do the next smallest thing.

Friends, I’ve been thinking of you all, these past few weeks. May you be safe, healthy, and peaceful—if not now, then soon.

Please tell us your next smallest thing in comments. And then, when you push away from the computer or put down your device, would you go do that thing?

P.S. 6 fascinating books about an unlikely favorite subject (urban planning, of course).

P.P.S. My friend Emily Freeman wrote a lovely book called The Next Right Thing, about finding and doing the next right thing in love for your personal and spiritual life.

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  1. Janice Cunning says:

    Anne I also love learning about how urban design impacts our lives. Your post reminds me of the show The Life Sized City which aired on TV in Canada and is more broadly available now in different formats. My city of Toronto was featured in season one.

  2. Sarah K says:

    I work in urban planning! It’s a fun topic to nerd out about. Strong Towns as a great email newsletter that you would like enjoy as well. My city is still having most of us report to work so my next smallest thing is helping my employees work remotely as much as possible and try to stay calm as I figure out how my husband and I are going to homeschool our kids while both still working full time.

  3. Molly says:

    What a fabulous post, Anne!
    As an Enneagram 6, I have spent the better part of the past week inside my head imagining and planning for “worst-case-scenarios” What makes it more difficult, however, is that each day my imagined worst-cases are exceeded.
    For years I’ve wanted to start a yoga practice. I know it is necessary self-care for sixes to get out of our heads and into our bodies for a brief time each day. This will be my next smallest thing going forward.
    Blessings from Kansas…

  4. I love this! Thank you for sharing with us. Right now, my next small thing is taking things just one day at a time. The big picture tends to overwhelm me, and yesterday I had to get out to shop for groceries, so while I was in the car and driving (I love bluetooth!), I called my elderly Dad and stepmom and then I called my Mom. I just wanted to check and make sure they’re all holding up, and I had to ask if they were okay, food wise. I called my mom-in-love, as well, and caught up with her for close to an hour, and checked on them subtly as well. I’ve been talking to my best friend a lot, and I’ve been part of some very encouraging texting threads. As much as this time gives me a little bit of anxiety when I sense all the panic, I also sort of love this time. I feel like I’ve gone back to the basics of life. Faith, family, food, and (over the phone) fellowship. It’s actually pretty refreshing.

    God bless you and yours.

    • Kam says:

      I love your post, Jennifer!
      We are so far from the basics, but sometimes it takes something that rocks our world to make us realize that life isn’t about the pursuit of houses and land and stocks and bonds but it’s an investment in the lives of those we love and even people we don’t know (or love – lol!) because we are to do what is right. Our children and our families are watching us and how we respond during these tough times.

  5. Amy Laforte says:

    I love this! I often get overwhelmed by the big picture and accomplish nothing as a result. Great reminder to just do the next thing and that those little things do in fact help and add up.

  6. Kristin says:

    Anne, your posts have been such a highlight in this crazy time. My heart sighs great relief when I see a new one amongst the “stores closing” and “coronavirus” update emails. As a wife, daughter, mom and Children’s Ministry Director I find I am working so hard to help those around me maintain a sense of normal. Thank you for being my sense of normal.

  7. Susan says:

    I needed this today! I’m working to transition to online teaching and it’s so overwhelming. However, I can do the next smallest thing to make progress. Thanks for sharing.

    • Meredith says:

      Same here, Susan! I have no idea how this will work out, it I can decide what the next smallest thing is!
      Great post, Anne, and I loved Don’t Overthink It!

  8. Mary says:

    I’m participating in an online read-along of George Eliot’s “Middlemarch.” I had read it for a college lit class years ago, and the message of its last lines has stuck with me ever since: “for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” I think she’s saying that those next smallest things go a long way to improving the lives of others. Those unhistoric acts add up to promote social change. Be well, stay healthy, and do the next smallest thing for the growing good of the world.

  9. Katie T. says:

    I love this. At my previous state job, there was a deaf employee. When she missed a fire drill because she didn’t hear the alarm and nobody thought to grab her, there were all sorts of meetings about what kind of fancy (expensive) new equipment or electronic emergency alert systems they needed to install to fix the problem. Being the government, there was of course much bureaucracy and self-righteousness involved.

    Instead, she put a mirror on her desk. The alarm on the ceiling outside her office also had a flashing light. Genius.

    • Eileen says:

      I am a professor of an interpreter preparation program, so I appreciate this example. I once went into a building during a bomb threat to find my deaf colleague. It still took a long time to install the emergency system, which are in themselves quite simple! I also just wrote a letter to our governor, please add captions so my deaf friends have access!

      • Andrea Methvin says:

        My next smallest thing is walking my dogs an extra time each day. They like it, it’s good for them and for me, and I’ve now got the time! Fresh air and nature help to ease anxiety. Chatting with friends and family, and of course reading! My friend and I also decided to do a puzzle swap…small things add up and can help us all relax a bit.

  10. Cecilia says:

    There is a person in my neighborhood who has a vegetable garden in their front yard. It is great to walk by and see the vines and vegetables growing. Then at times they will write on the sidewalk help yourself to tomatoes or zucchini or squash, whatever they have extra of. I love those people because I am not a gardening sort of person, but I love fresh vegetables. So I guess I would encourage sharing our bounties, however that might translate. I will knit hats to donate because I can knit. Maybe even writing on the sidewalk in chalk “It will be okay!” sometimes we all need to hear that.

  11. Lisa Z says:

    This is a great way to name the things we can do–the next small thing. For myself, I’m taking a tip from a YouTuber (Diane in Denmark) who said she goes for a daily run by setting a 7 minute timer and running one way for that time, then back home again–to get about a 15 minute run in. My acupuncturist advised me to work my lungs more by running (among other things), and I feel like 15 minutes is small enough to accomplish.

    As my “next small thing” for others, I am calling people way more than usual (introvert!) to check in on them–parents, friends, my daughter, etc. And I’m writing little notes to my nieces, grandma, and others to hopefully lift them up with some snail mail. It’s small, but it feels really good to do.

  12. Meg says:

    This is great. I’m so impressed with the way my children’s teachers have adapted and set up video lessons (not just for math, reading, etc but also for music and Spanish and art) and discussion boards for them. Yesterday I reached out to thank one set of them and got the nicest note back about how they were so happy to hear from parents. So my next smallest thing is to write more thank you emails to teachers today for rolling with this and making sure my kids are continuing to learn through this crazy time. Love this community!

  13. I love this. I’ve been trying to think of ways to support various small businesses in the community that are struggling. In addition to restaurants, I’m looking forward to ordering some craft kits from a small local store that offers in-store classes and supplies. They’ve quickly created them for pickup or delivery and I know my kids will love them. If this payout from the government comes that’s been discussed, I’m planning to spend all of it at various small businesses. I hope others who can swing it will do the same.

  14. Mona Parish says:

    My next small thing is to weed and clean out all of the beds around our house. And to check FB only once at the end of the day. Concrete steps.

    • Cheryl says:

      Great ideas! I’ve been checking FB only in the evenings now for awhile, and really enjoy it more that way. I need to weed my beds around the house also!

  15. Nancy says:

    Oh did I need to hear this today! Thank you for planting this phrase in my head: “the next smallest thing”. It’s been a comfort as a wake up and try to figure out what to do next with college kids moving back home, telecommuting, helping my youngest kids figure out online school, and so on. I took a deep breath and said “okay, the next smallest thing I can do today is move the printer from my daughter’s room to another space so she can feel more privacy.” Then, I’ll go from there. Thinking about those who need extra comfort through these unprecedented times! ♥️

  16. Kathy b says:

    We are hunkered down, but helping our friend who is running for alderwoman. She’s a great person. we’ll be doing a mailing put together alone in our home for her today.

  17. Sarah says:

    Three small things I have incorporated into my pandemic life. Before sleep I do a bedtime brain dump, getting all the frustrations and adjustments of the day out to see on the screen I am able to let go of things and also see the things I fussed about in a better perspective. Building a playlist of songs/hymns that calm my soul in moments of struggle as I am unable to be with and see my loved ones. Started with “Be Still My Soul”. I have set up a family text messaging group, asking each member to post a picture daily to share with each other, which includes my healthy 101 y/o mother who is “locked in” to an assisted living facility.

  18. Candy Richardson says:

    My son and daughter-n-law bought a rehabbed house in Batesville neighborhood of Indianapolis. It is great to see with the added encouragement of HGTBV Good Bones the vitalization of the area. You’re spot on with the one small step. Clean the curbs and sidewalks, planting a few flowers. Working as a neighborhood group to speak to the Council on the area needs. Giving a neighbor a hand.

    On another thought: our church is live streaming Morning prayer. My first time and was surprised to see so many engaged and the welcoming chat before and after.

  19. Kitty Balay says:

    I’m grateful that this time affords you more time for writing and that we get to benefit from it. Thank you!

  20. Maria Ontiveros says:

    We told our house cleaners not to come, but we are paying them anyway. They’ve been cleaning our home for 15 years and want to help them stay in business. My daughter has a dog walking business and had to close because we are sheltering in place. She offered credit or refunds and NONE of her clients so far have asked for a refund! It’s a huge help

  21. Maria Ontiveros says:

    One more thing – I FaceTime people instead of calling these days in order to get a more intimate connection

  22. Alison says:

    I may take this time to check off my reread category for the 2020 Reading Challenge. I’m choosing James Herriot’s “All Creatures Great and Small.” Such a comfort read for me at any time!

  23. Sara Breeggemann says:

    I’m going to need to check out this book! I am taking everything one hour at a time. I am not good at working from home, so this is helping structure my time.
    And it’s finally nice enough here in NC to open the windows for fresh air. I’m loving listening to birds chirping & windchimes in the breeze as I’m working.

  24. Helen says:

    My planned community has folks putting an item in their window each week ie. shamrocks bunny’s for kids to find on walks with parents. We will keep this up through the quarantine

  25. Susan says:

    The small things I have been doing since we are all stuck working at home is try to keep the kitchen relatively tidy (3 kids aged 15-20 plus 2 adults here) since it is getting an extra big workout now and also making my bed daily as the chair in my bedroom is where I’m spending most of my work day. Others in my family are in the office, dining room or their own bedroom. Those have been good, and my next small thing is to try to clear out some of the other visual clutter to make our spaces feel better. Put the laundry away, get that donations box into a closet if I can’t drop off the items, etc.

  26. Julie says:

    I *just* organized a blood drive in my neighborhood. I’ve been watching the news wondering what I could do. So yesterday I reached out to a blood bus. Turns out they have an opening for next weekend. Then I emailed our HOA to see if we could use the clubhouse. (The blood bus requires an on site bathroom, nothing more). Then about 30 min ago I wrote a Facebook post to our neighborhood. We will fill the bus!! ( All while maintaining social distancing recommendations of 10 or less people!)
    Everything has come together with minimal effort on my part. I am so giddy! I can’t believe I did that!!

  27. Kathryn S says:

    Great Post and thank you! I also love The Next Right Thing (can’t initialize) by Emily P Freeman. I often ask myself that question for me, but I have never thought about the next smallest thing I can do for a problem/task/issue.
    And now, I also want to check out some urban planning books…just want I needed, another interest 😊.
    P.S. I am so sorry I am missed you at The Blue Willow book shop in Houston, it could not be helped!

  28. Sue b says:

    I’m going to call the elderly lady across the street and another friend who lives alone. We’ve been on Facebook but haven’t actually talked.

  29. Inspired by Hermione says:

    It’s a close friend’s birthday today, and my “next smallest thing” was to go to the local doughnut shop and get him doughnuts for tonight, and invite him over after dinner tonight. He was planning to spend it with his partner, but can’t get to her (and she can’t get to him…she lives in Europe) so even though I’m self-quarantining, I’m having him come over tonight to try to make what is a tough day for him just a little better. With hand washing and lots of distance!

    My neighbors are being just amazing- even though I don’t know them very well, multiple neighbors have checked in and my next-door neighbor picked up a few things at the store today. I have a hard time asking for help, but I need it now and I’m grateful I haven’t had to try to find that assistance myself and people have offered instead.

    • Mary says:

      Please don’t do this. It’s not responsible when people everywhere are practicing social distancing. You should not be creating situations for physical contact with someone who is not part of your household.

  30. Kat says:

    Thank you for this very timely post. I still have to go to work (emergency services) but thought I could accomplish a lot on my days off since I can’t go out. But the list I made was too overwhelming. I’m going to re-write it now breaking things down into bite sized chunks and just commit to doing the next smallest thing at least once a day. And thank you for your posts in general – I look forward to reading them. You have a gift for finding an upside to things, or finding a way to the upside and it’s much appreciated.

    • Amy says:

      Kay, I did the exact same thing and ended up with an overwhelming list. I’ve been choosing only 3 things to do every day: one work-related, one home-related, and one goal-related. So far it’s worked pretty well! I can always do more if I want to, but it’s lovely to not feel like I HAVE to do a whole bunch of things!

  31. Amy says:

    I have been thinking about this very thing while trying to cope with my anxiety while at home! I think my next smallest thing is to tidy my desk in my living room, since I’m spending a LOT of time there these days. The visual clutter is stressful; if I can at least clear the top of the desk, it will help a lot!

  32. I am sharing author and publisher’s websites and blogs which are highlighting read alouds, activities and resources for students learning at home. Many authors encourage readers to join their newsletters or social media outlets to learn about reading and writing. ReadBrightly, sponsored by Putnam appeals to all aged, and Kate Messner has a great site for sharing authors.

  33. Victoria says:

    You might be interested in reading about Port Sunlight, Bourneville, Hampstead Garden Suburb and Welwyn Garden City. All towns designed to be health giving and communities.
    I washed the outside of most of my downstairs windows. Couple of weeks ago I researched and bought special leather cleaner and conditioner for a chair I’ve been neglecting, so we moved the chair onto dust sheets and I’ve so far done the cleaner. Conditioning later. And hopefully the chair will look and feel a lot better!

  34. Lynne Laslie says:

    First time reader (courtesy of Jennifer L. Scott), and I love your “from the bottom up” view on where we live. As a resident of a small, working class neighborhood, I often wonder what happened to “pride of place”. While we all keep our lawns mowed, there doesn’t seem to be much interest in our presenting our neighborhood as “a lovely place to live and visit”. I think I’ve discovered my next project! Thank you and I look forward to your future blogs!

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