How to take small steps for big, inspiring changes
Change is essential to life. We’re always changing. But sometimes we get carried away. We sit down to think about how we want to move forward in life and find ourselves listing twenty areas of life where we can make strides. Pretty soon, we’ve got tens of major goals all calling us at once. And not long after, we get overwhelmed and end up doing none of them.
Not only is it all to easy to burn out before we begin by setting too many goals at once, but all too often we set goals for life as though we are corporate entities rather than human beings. In The Power of Moments Chip and Dan Heath note that even within businesses, goals that are all about figures , like turnover £2 million by 2022, are not motivating. Such goals are amorphous, abstract and contain no meaningful milestones that people can relate to. Despite this, we often adopt these kinds of goals in our personal lives. Goals like: I will lose 30 lbs by the end of the year.
As the Heath brothers say, this is:
… arbitrary , numerical and lacking intermediate milestones.
1. Choose goals that have intrinsic motivation
Not: I will lose 10 lbs in the next six weeks.
But: I will fit back into my black jeans for Kit’s birthday party.
This is something concrete, life-related and something you actually want. It’s so much more likely to be achievable than an amorphous ‘ought’ hanging over you.
2. Break goals down into incremental stages
The Heaths use the analogy of video games. In these, players ‘level up’ so that all through the game their are moments when they ‘win’, even if they never finish the game. The increments are motivating and fun and each one is within sight.
No matter how enormous the quest you are on, it will have ways to break it down into steps that don’t overwhelm you. The Heaths have a range of examples including someone who learns violin by having a quest to play a 30 minute gig in a pub in Ireland. The quest breaks down into stages. At each stage there is a specific piece of music to master, each one a little more difficult than the last.
Earlier this year, I injured a hip. Nothing serious, but painful and it brought a halt to exercise. As it was healing I set a target to get back to doing yoga morning and evening plus stationary cycling at least 3 times each week. There was no possibility of doing it all at once. So I broke the goal into increments:
- Do the gentlest 20 minute yoga routine every morning for at least a week.
- Go for daily walks, adding to the steps each day.
- Add another two yoga sequences, continuing with mornings only.
- Do all but the most demanding yoga routines, staying with mornings.
- Begin regain confidence with the harder balance poses and press-up style poses.
- Add a gentle evening yoga practice.
- Finally add the cycling 3 times a week.
I didn’t put an overall time line next to the increments because I wanted to work at the pace the injury would allow and not make it flare up again.
At the end I bought a new pair of yoga trousers to celebrate. If I’d attempted too much too soon, I would have hurt the hip. I might even have jeopardised being able to travel around Spain last month to research my next novel.
It doesn’t matter how small the steps are as long as their is movement. In fact advocates of kaizen (Japanese for ‘continuous improvement’) will say that the smaller the better. We often have inbuilt resistance to change, but if the steps are tiny we can short circuit that resistance. Kaizen proponents will advise starting with two minutes exercise a day for someone who has always been sedentary. It’s so small it’s hard to fail, but gradually it builds.
3. Mark the milestones
Building on the idea of increments, the Heath brothers write about the example to The Couch to 5K project. This aimed to get sedentary people to run a 5K race. From the beginning there were incentives that motivated those who joined up. Making a public declaration to be in was the first. The increments are small — it’s not until near the end of week 5 that participants move from two 8 minute runs separated by a walk to a 20 minute run.
By breaking down the quest there are moments of pride and achievement along the way and the ultimate aim becomes feasible.
I’m currently working on a big nonfiction project. The aim is to produce a book on writing and the writing life that encompasses not only skills and process, but a nexus of life questions related to writing.
In part, I’m using blogging as an increment along the way. Not every blog I write will be part of the book, but by starting with blogs, I can test ideas and get feedback through the responses of readers.
A big milestone that has already happened was to produce a 9-chapter PDF book to give away to people who follow my personal blog.
It will take at least a year to build up the base material and then there will be a new set of increments to refine the ideas and plan how they fit together. After that I’ll look at writing exercises and writing techniques to add to the book.
A further aspect will be to develop courses to accompany sections of the final book and I’ve already begun writing workshops that I can trial at residential writing courses I’ll teach over the next year.
When I began thinking about the project it seemed too huge and nebulous. I couldn’t initially envisage the structure of the book or how the book and courses would intersect. But many spider diagrams and blogs later, the increments are beginning to build into something I’m confident of and excited by.
When I finish the project I have (now not so secret) plan to invest in a whizzy coffee machine. That big celebration won’t come until the end, but along the way the milestones are highly motivating.
It was great to complete the PDF giveaway book and see it distributed to thousands of people. And I’m looking forward to teaching a key writing workshop from the material I’m developing to a masterclass of writers.
4. Back up the steps of your quest with implementation intentions
Implementation intentions are routines we develop for situations that might otherwise derail us. They are simply ways of thinking ahead — if X, then Y. They set up not only the target, but the how, when and where. And they become automatic so that we’re not constantly depending on gritting our teeth and relying on willpower. As Gollwitzer writes:
… the control over the initiation of the . . . behavior is delegated to the specified situation . . . without requiring a second conscious decision.
Moreover, they are useful in a range of situations from resisting temptation:
- If I crave chocolate, I’ll open a jar of olives.
- If it’s the last day of the month I will do a breast exam.
to knowing what to say when someone makes a sexist/racist … remark and actually saying it in the moment rather than freezing and kicking ourselves for the silence later:
- If I hear X, I’ll respond with Y.
5. Correct small mistakes as they happen
Life constantly gets in the way. The quest might be to develop a morning routine of early waking, journalling and exercise. It’s all going well and then we get a head cold. A couple of days can unravel weeks of habit building. Or we just have one bad day and feel like we’ve lost the thread.
The principle of kaizen not only relies on continual small steps, but also on making corrections as soon as possible. That way, going off course doesn’t build into total disaster. When an airplane is in flight, it is often off course and the pilot makes constant adjustments so that it reaches the correct destination.
We are the same, more so. We’re human and fallible. But it’s easier to lose 5 lbs in weight after a holiday than to let the wieght gain build up over the next holiday and the next until we’re faced with 30lbs to lose.
Change is essential to growth and development, but it doesn’t have to be enormous and overwhelming. A quest in small steps is still a quest and perhaps one with more chance of enjoying the process as well as achieving the goal.
Becoming a Different Story
I’m currently working on a book on writing and the creative life and looking to connect with others, thinking about the power of story. If you’d like my 9-chapter eBook on writing and the writing life sign up to my email list or just feel free to continue the conversation.