Small Steps: The Surest Way to Success
At the end of the year and the start of a new one, we tend to reflect on accomplishments and think about aspirations. There’s nothing wrong with keeping the status quo if it works for you. Constantly striving for the next big thing is no better than leading a simple, satisfying life. But like all human beings, you probably have a wish or a dream that has yet to come true. A wish or a dream is not a goal until you have a plan of action. And a plan of action is not made until you define the next steps. And the next steps are not done until you actually complete them.
What is your big, worthy goal for the next month, quarter or year?
Do you know what the next step is to reach your goal?
How can you divide it into smaller, doable actions you can take?
This is episode 44. Small Steps: The Surest Way to Success
Hello and welcome to The Incrementalist, a productivity show on making big changes in small steps. My name is Dyan Williams and I’m your productivity coach and host for this show.
At the end of the year and the start of a new one, we tend to reflect on accomplishments and think about aspirations.
What is today like and how do you want tomorrow to be different? What can you do today that will make tomorrow possible?
There’s nothing wrong with keeping the status quo if it works for you. Maybe a little tweak here and there is all you need or all you can handle right now. Constantly striving for the next big thing is no better than leading a simple, satisfying life.
But like all human beings, you probably have a wish or a dream that has yet to come true. A wish or a dream is not a goal until you have a plan of action. And a plan of action is not made until you define the next steps. And the next steps are not done until you actually complete them.
When you have a high, hard goal that you want to reach in the next year, 5 years, or 10 years, lack of motivation is not the biggest issue. Usually, what holds you back is lack of clarity on what you need to do or lack of ability to take the necessary action.
You might not know how to get there. There might be others telling you it won’t work or it’s not for you. Or the process could be more complicated or take more time than you expect.
With the Incrementalist approach, you can achieve big things with little resistance and less friction.
The first principle is to get clear on your priority or priorities. What is most important and urgent, or the most important that is being displaced by the urgent?
The projects that are important but are not urgent often get neglected, but they are the ones that will get you to the next level.
In episode 4 of the Incrementalist, How to Prioritize What Matters, I talk about why you need to do less, but better, to get the optimal results. In episode 33, Make Time Your Ally, I discuss why you cannot manage time and why you need to close off middling priorities.
Discover your own purpose and your reason for being. While you can look to successful people for inspiration, they are not you and you are not them. You will have to carve out and follow your own path to feel truly successful.
Copying what others do or giving in to social pressure or others’ expectations puts you in default mode. To learn more about what it means to have a sense of purpose, listen to episode 29 on Finding Your Ikigai. This is a Japanese word that is spelled i-k-i-g-a-i, not i-c-k-y g-u-y.
If you have a bunch of ideas and insights floating around, do a brain dump. Get all that stuff out of your head and onto paper. This is not the same as your actual to-dos or priorities list. A good idea doesn’t always make a worthwhile project – you can’t do everything at once and you will have to choose the best project to do now.
The second principle is to break down the big goal into actionable, manageable steps. This will clarify what you need to do, when to do it, and how to accomplish it. It will also give you a sense of agency and make it easier to take action.
To grow, develop and transform, you want to move out of your comfort zone. But not too much to the point where you lose confidence, give up and fail. If you stretch too far beyond your current skill set and present mindset, a big goal will feel overwhelming. It’s harder to move through the dips and valleys when you don’t have the ability to move through them or around them.
Big leaps can feel exciting, but they take a lot of effort and concentration. They can trigger fear, anxiety, and stress, which activate the amygdala part of your brain and the fight, flight or freeze response. You procrastinate, overthink and stay stuck in research mode. Or you move too quickly without thinking or reflecting.
Higher stakes require deeper commitment and greater sacrifice. How much are you willing you give up? How much can you afford to lose? Do you really need to make a bet-the-house investment or could you play the long game with smaller, more winnable bets?
Challenges are great, but they have to be within the optimal zone of difficulty. If a project is too easy, you get bored. If it’s too hard, you lose steam and give up. The Goldilocks Rule says we have peak motivation when we tackle tasks that are just right for our current skill set.
Taking the right-sized step means you take the right amount of action without over-activating the stress response. You’re energized and not bored. You’re motivated and not complacent. You’re taking on potential risks and losses from which you can recover.
In episode 26, Get Stressed the Right Way, I explain the right level of stress is 7 out of 10, where you succeed most of the time, but need to pay attention to what you’re doing. You have a moderate amount of adrenaline. You’re not anxious or overstressed but primed to perform at your best.
In episode 5, Finding and Sustaining Flow, I talk about how to achieve a state of flow. The ideal challenge/skills ratio allows you to perform at your peak. Steven Kotler, author of The Art of Impossible, says the sweet spot is where the challenge is 4% greater than your current skill level (not a whole lot, but outside your comfort zone).
The sweet spot is where you find flow. This is the optimal state of consciousness where you feel and perform at your best, says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (MIHI CHEEK_SEN-MEE HI), renowned psychologist. He defines flow as the optimal experience in which you’re so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.
You do need to think about the big picture when you set big goals. And you also want to narrow the framework to ask the right questions for moving forward. Break the challenge down into sub-challenges that slightly exceed your skillset, but are not too far out of reach and not too easy.
You can’t be good at something you’ve never done before. You need to invest the time, effort and energy to reap the benefits. And the best way to do this is by taking incremental, doable steps rather than trying to make quick, giant leaps.
Small steps allow you to stay committed without holding on too tightly. You can redirect your actions and redefine success as you gather information and build experience throughout the process. You can learn from feedback, survey whether the response to your deliverable is a one-off or a trend, and course correct or keep going.
Before you upgrade to the next level, you must be willing to keep a beginner’s mind and learn as you go. And as you build expertise, share ideas, form connections, and make an impact, you then have to circle back to the learning phase. You move up to the next level when you don’t yet fully know all the answers, and before conditions change to make what you know irrelevant.
When you focus on the next step, rather than get overwhelmed with the entire journey, you just need to know what you already know. If you make the next step small, it’s harder to fail at it and it’s easier to try something else.
You can experiment and explore. You can find a mentor, coach, colleague or friend who can help you figure out the next thing. You can search for articles, books, videos and courses to learn the skills for the next step. It’s easier to build your experience when you break down the process instead of dwell on the desired outcome, which may or may not come true.
Consistent progress and daily, purposeful action make you thrive. You can dream big and think big. But you don’t delay gratification and postpone success when you celebrate the small wins and build momentum from the progress you make.
With incremental steps, the big goal becomes more achievable as you move forward. Even when the journey is long and the goalpost is far away, you can always take the first step or the next step. You just need to see what’s right in front of you.
The benefits of goal achievement are not just about the results or the outcome. It’s about the confidence you gain, the skills you develop, the insights you acquire and the person you become throughout the process. You start to operate from a higher baseline.
On any given day, just do one to five specific things that will move you toward the goal. The compound effect will turn a massive challenge into something you can accomplish with small, consistent steps.
If you want to write a book, you write a page a day. If you want to read a book a week, you read for 15 to 30 minutes a day. If you’re learning to play a song on the guitar, you go through it note by note, chord by chord. If you want to run a marathon, you first train for shorter races like a 5K.
The 1 Percent Rule says that over time, the rewards in a given field will accrue to the people, teams and organization that maintain a slight edge over the competition. A 1% improvement every day, repeated over time, leads to disproportionate rewards. Check out episode 20 on Consistency and the Compound Effect.
The little things add up and make a big difference. The eminent, Stoic philosopher, Zeno said, "Well-being is realized by small steps, but is truly no small thing."
This is why building good habits is so essential. In his book, Tiny Habits, Professor BJ Fogg says you need to make the new behavior tiny to sustain it over the long run.
The Starter step is one small, first step toward the desired behavior. If you want to train for a marathon, start with laying out your clothes and running shoes so you can’t miss them when you wake up.
Scaling back is to take the behavior you want and shrink it. Tiny habit is a smaller, easier version of the habit you want to create. If you want to become a skilled pianist, you touch the keys every day before you build up an hour of practice per day.
Have a low baseline action that you can take even when your motivation is low. Don’t go more than 2 days without taking a small action to build the habit or sustain the behavior.
James Clear, author of the book, Atomic Habits, says we often want radical transformation, but we fail to acknowledge the value of tiny habits, small improvements, and daily choices. Getting 1% better every day builds up to astronomical results. The aggregation of marginal gains makes a huge difference and has a transformative impact. For more, listen to episode 2 on building good habits.
The third principle is to set a time block to do the important thing. Protecting time for the next step goes beyond making a to-do list. You decide when exactly you will do a task, in what context and under what circumstances, and for how long. This encourages you to take deliberate action and reduces distractions and interruptions. Check out episode 7 to learn how to time block and time box to get the right things done.
Besides planning your week, you also need to keep track of your progress, activities and tasks with the weekly review. Listen to episodes 8 and 9 of The Incrementalist for more on how to plan your ideal week and why weekly planning works.
You list your biggest wins; review the prior week, review your lists and notes; check goals, projects, events, meetings, and deadlines; designate your weekly big 3 things to accomplish; and plan for selfcare and rejuvenation.
Principles 4 and 5 of the Incrementalist approach help you to do uphill work with the least effort and with the best energy.
The fourth principle is to synch with your natural rhythm. Match your energy and focus level with the task at hand. If you’re more vigilant in the mornings, do the heads-down deep work in the am hours. If you’re more relaxed and insightful in the evening, do your creative projects when you’re moving out of the afternoon slump.
The fifth principle is to rest and recharge so you don’t burn out and you keep the fire burning. For ideas on how to get necessary rest and take deliberate breaks, listen to episode 41, Get Bored Now, episode 21, Find and Keep a Hobby You Love, and episode 10, Rest Even When You’re Busy.
Being an incrementalist doesn’t mean you stay away from high, hard goals. Rather, it’s about having the clarity and ability to move forward, even when you haven’t figured out all the steps to reach a worthy goal.
Change and transformation don’t happen overnight. Small, consistent steps help you keep traction and accrue incremental gains that add up over time. You can build the mental bandwidth and emotional muscle to move through discomfort and uncertainty with a lower risk of failure. You can develop discipline, resilience, perseverance and commitment without too much sacrifice.
Small steps make the barriers less daunting and the obstacles more surmountable. Small bets and small risks create more possibilities and more favorable outcomes. When you lower the stakes, it’s easier to accept failure or see missteps as opportunities to learn and move on.
The entire path doesn’t have to be clear. Taking incremental steps allows you to get immediate feedback and immediate results.
Being reactive to circumstances and conditions is not always avoidable. But this is a high-stress, cortisol-dependent way to live by default. If you want to set your own terms and live by design, you just need to take small steps in the right direction. This is the surest way to significant success.
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What is your biggest challenge to making progress toward a big goal? Whether it’s a creative hobby or a work project, you can gain traction with incremental steps. If you need one-on-one coaching or have a productivity question you want me to cover in a future episode, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can also join my e-newsletter list at dyanwilliams.com. As an e-newsletter subscriber, you get a part of my book, The Incrementalist, and the show notes in your inbox. You can buy the whole book at leanpub.com. It’s now on sale for $4.99 up to January 31st. After that, the minimum price will go back to the regular $9.99. Thank you for joining me and tune in again next time on The Incrementalist.
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