My grandfather first introduced me to the concept of dharma on his front porch in New Delhi. I was only seven years old, so the wisdom he was trying to impart—that you don’t find happiness by escaping work; you find it through your work—flew over my head at the time. But it came back to me decades later, at a time in my life when I was not finding any joy in my job.
So, I decided to make big changes to uncover, pursue, and live my Dharma. When I finally got there, I discovered that, if anything, my grandfather had undersold dharma’s practical powers. I felt a significant boost in confidence and creativity and carried a sense of purpose and joy that shined through my life and work.
None of that would have happened for me if not for a tool I now call “tiny contracts.” These are binding agreements you make with yourself to go all in on a course of action for a fixed period of time. Until this agreement expires, your focus and heart remain committed to the decision. You are fully immersed in the action.
Not long ago, I heard a conversation between Steve Martin and New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik on ReThinking with Adam Grant. Martin and Gopnik were circling around what it means to be both successful and happy. That’s when Gopnik said: “Happiness…is absorption, in something outside of yourself.”
Steve Martin quickly agreed. “That is success: to be absorbed. And it doesn’t mean financial success or notoriety, but I know people who are so happy because they are absorbed in what they’re doing.”
The conversation stuck with me for reasons beyond its dharmic connection. Today, it seems that most of us are feeling the opposite of total absorption. A whopping 96% of us are actively looking for our next thing. And even when we’re showing up to our current job, less than 25% of us are actually engaged with what we do each day.
We are definitively not absorbed. And far from living our dharma.
I know what this feels like. I spent the first fifteen years of my career hopping from speechwriting to consulting to big tech to startups to running for public office. Within months of making a jump, I would inevitably second guess whether I had made the right choice. My emotional bandwidth was constantly split between a decision I had made and questioning whether it was the right one in the first place.
I was always one foot in, one foot out—jumping around from role to role but not really absorbing myself in any one of them. As a result, I was neither happy nor successful.
Eventually, I hit a breaking point. I was desperate to immerse myself in something I loved—which for me was writing. So, each morning, before heading off to my full-time job, I wrote. These morning sessions started as journal entries, grew into blog posts, and eventually published articles.
I was hooked. I realized that my dharma was to tell stories, and I wanted to go deeper. I wanted to fulfill a long-time dream of writing a book. So I pulled together a proposal and, after more than a handful of rejections, managed to sell it to a publisher and even receive a financial advance. It felt like everything was coming together.
But I didn’t really appreciate the level of commitment it took to write a book until I sat down and stared at the blank screen before me. I soon felt completely overwhelmed—and paralyzed—by the enormity of the task ahead. Sitting at my desk each morning, half of my attention was on the book, and the other half was contemplating whether I had any business trying to be an author.
After six months of this, with very little material to show my editor, I called it quits. That night at dinner, I told my wife I was abandoning the project and sending my publisher back the advance money.
That’s when Leena encouraged me to practice what I had been preaching and set up a “tiny contract” for my book.
The term “tiny contracts” came to me after a conversation with a long-time automotive executive. John had climbed his way up from an entry-level role to become CFO of a major manufacturer in Detroit. He was now in his late fifties but had the bright eyes, sharp wit, and curiosity of someone in their late twenties.
I asked John how much longer he planned to stay with his company. His answer was one year. I assumed that meant he was planning to retire in a year, but as it turns out, he was planning to stay in the workforce for at least another five.
John explained that he renews his personal commitment to stay in one-year increments. Each summer, he and his wife take a personal retreat to their favorite spot on a small, secluded lake in Wisconsin. During the day, he’ll sit out by the water and allow nature to bring him a sense of peace. When he finally finds a place of stillness, he asks himself: What do I love? And am I doing that?
If John still feels like he is living his dharma, finding happiness through his work, he’ll commit to another year-long tiny contract.
At first, I saw John’s approach as a way to avoid commitment. After all, doesn’t dedicating yourself to something mean sticking to it for the long term? But John helped me see that commitment is less about the number of years you devote—and more about the full-heartedness you bring each year.
After my conversation with John, I went home and broke the concept of a tiny contract into three steps:
- Step one: establish a timeframe. This is the length of time you are fully committing to a course of action. The length of time is completely up to you. Each of John’s tiny contracts lasted one year, but yours can range from a few months to a few years. Choose a length of time that you can stay focused on the opportunity in front of you.
- Step two: be fully absorbed. To go all out, you have to be all in. Through a tiny contract, you commit yourself fully by freeing yourself from the insecurity of a bad decision. Because even if you made the wrong choice, you can course-correct when the contract is up.
- Step three: check in with yourself. When a contract ends, take real time to decide whether you’d like to renew. This is when you reflect on the milestone you just completed and, maybe like John, ask yourself, “Am I doing what I love?” Do you feel as absorbed today as you did when you began your contract? If the answer is yes, then consider re-upping for another term.
Tiny contracts tend to fly in the face of most employer-employee relationships. Organizations largely haven’t swallowed the red pill of truth that people aren’t sticking around as they used to. The median tenure for people between the ages of 25-34 is between two and three years and shrinking. While some leaders like LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman have proposed that companies evolve to meet this new normal, most are still stuck in a mismatch between employee retention and employee intention.
But tiny contracts aren’t just for your benefit—they can help your organization, too. After deciding to recommit for one more year, John returns with a vigor that reminds him of how he felt when he first joined the company over thirty years ago. Things feel fresh again. He brings a rejuvenated spirit to each day, each meeting, and each project. And at a time when the vast majority of people feel burnt out, his attitude is like a healing balm and a boost of energy for their own work.
That night at dinner, when I was about to quit writing my book, Leena made me see how a tiny contract was a tailor-made solution for my troubles.
“What if you tune out the doubt and every other distraction and fully commit to this for one year?” she asked. “If it doesn’t come together by the end of the contract, then you can move on. But if you don’t go all in, you’ll never know whether this decision was right for you.”
So that’s what I did. I set a twelve-month timeframe and fully absorbed myself in writing each and every morning for the next year. With a finite and focused commitment, I became less worried about all the work ahead and more absorbed in the writing I needed to do that day. My doubt dissipated, as did my fear of missing out on other opportunities.
I’m not saying writing a book became easy, but each time doubt raised its head and questioned my decision to write a book, I was comforted by the 12-month checkpoint. I could look my fear in the eyes and say, “Not now. I’ve scheduled time for us later.”
That tiny contract freed me emotionally and paved the path to my first book, Backable. A few months after it was finished, I began working on my next one, Everyday Dharma—a project that I was immediately absorbed in and brought me even greater levels of joy. In this new book, I reveal dozens of tools—like tiny contracts—that help us turn our dreams into action.
With whatever decision you face, remember this: doubt doesn’t have to be the enemy of dedication. You can lack certainty and still commit yourself fully. And when that happens, you’ll feel what my ancestors meant by dharma—and what Steve Martin and Adam Gopnik mean when they say that absorption is at the intersection of happiness and success.
Suneel Gupta is the author of Everyday Dharma, a guide for living your purpose in an overwhelmed life. He is the founding CEO of RISE and co-founder of the Gross National Happiness Center in the United States. As an author, a visiting scholar at Harvard Medical School, and host of a hit documentary series, Suneel studies the most extraordinary people on the planet to discover and share simple, actionable habits to lift our performance and deepen our daily sense of purpose.