A typical freight car attached to a locomotive weighs 130 tons when fully loaded. Such a locomotive may also be pulling well over 100 cars, totaling 13,000 tons of pull weight (not counting the weight of the locomotive itself). Now, moving one ton along the track requires about eight pounds of forward force. That means our locomotive would require 104,000 pounds of force to move our load. Building momentum in this situation feels curiously similar to starting big work projects.
Slack action is the solution to this problem. Slack is the amount of free movement between cars. The slack allows the locomotive to get started by pulling just the front-most car. Then, as more slack is taken up, it picks up the weight of the second car, building momentum one step at a time. The process continues for each car in succession, using a fraction of the energy that would have been required.
Procrastination and an active imagination make almost any project feel like a 104,000 pound weight being dragged behind us. A writer sitting down to begin a novel, for example, might feel immobilized by the inertia to overcome. A critical presentation to new investors may feel too important to know where to start. The trick, if we’re to learn from the Little Engine That Could, is to cut ourselves some slack.
Of course we can’t mobilize against the inertia of a whole project. An entire book or website or art commission is too complex to pretend that we can tackle each aspect from the start. Looking at the task as a whole can leave us paralyzed. We delay starting or prolong planning because we know we don’t have a proverbial hundred thousand pounds of energy to apply.
Instead, we need to move just one piece at a time. Building momentum allows us to pick up the rest. But we have to start by cutting ourselves some slack. We need to give ourselves some breathing room around project components, even more so when cumbersome or complicated. It’s easy to tell ourselves all components are critical, but not every train car can be first.
The next time we find ourselves paralyzed at the start of a project, let’s find that one piece we can move with confidence. We’ll use action to build our motivation and momentum, with intention.