5 Keys to Creating a System and Harnessing the Power of Small Steps

How I lost over 70 pounds without crazy dieting or killing myself in the gym.

I don’t know about you, but one day I saw a picture of myself and said “holy crap! Is that me?!? When did I get fat?” It was Christmas 2010 and my daughter was 2 weeks old. Looking at the picture now you’d think I was the one who’d been pregnant a couple of weeks previous.

I had known for a while that I wanted to get back in shape and lose weight but never could stick to it. I’d work out a couple of times or start eating healthier, then quickly go back to sitting on the couch or drinking beer and eating french fries. I realized then that I needed to create a system and slowly build the habits over time or I would never be successful.

That’s also when I learned the concept of starting small and going after small wins. Small wins add up to big wins over time. There is plenty of information out there on the science of building and sustaining habits, so I won’t go too deep into that. Instead, I’ll just show you exactly what worked for me when I lost over 70 pounds in the years after my daughter was born.

But know this, it’s not about wanting it more, it’s not about being strong/smart/talented enough to do it. It’s about setting yourself up for success and not failure. It’s about making it so easy to get started it will be really hard to make excuses to not go through with it, and leveraging that simplicity to build habits you can stick to.

Don’t worry, pretty much everybody has been where we’ve been at one time or another, whether it’s trying to lose weight, be better at talking to people, waking up earlier, whatever. I’ll show you how I was able to start small and build a system to be successful. Keep in mind, this framework will probably work with just about anything you want to accomplish. I’m using my weight loss journey as an example because I think it’s relatable, and it is what cemented these concepts for me.

Key #1: Find ONE small win and start there

There is a reason this is the first key: it is critically important. Don’t try to do everything at once. How many times have we made a bunch of New Year’s resolutions at the beginning of January and then tried to accomplish them all at once? I’ve done that more times than I’d like to admit.

Focus on the easiest win first, and then build (one by one) from there. When I was starting out, I realized that I already cooked dinner at home most nights, so why not make a little extra so I could bring my lunch to work the next day? That way I wouldn’t be tempted to go get fast food or takeout from somewhere near the office (side bonus, this saved me a TON of money in the subsequent months). This was incredibly easy to implement. It takes zero extra decision making skills to just grab a couple of containers in the morning before work, and took maybe two extra minutes to package up the leftovers after dinner.

Key #2: Make the barrier to entry really low

This builds on key #1, but each time you start out or go after a new goal, make the barrier to entry extremely low. This applies even after you’ve been at this for a while. If you’ve been at this for a month or two, I still don’t think it’s a good idea to throw everything out and make a giant leap to your next goal. Each time you add something new, remember to make it an incremental step and make it easy to get started.

This is something I’m constantly saying to my project teams when we’re implementing something new. If you give people an excuse to not do it, they won’t. Make sure the barrier to entry is low enough that they go through with it.

Now, let’s not take this the wrong way, I’m saying the barrier to entry, not the work itself. A workout that is super easy isn’t going to have much benefit. But having my workout bag ready to go in the morning (hell, just sleep in your workout clothes), or having gym equipment at home that I really like and have to walk by on my way to the kitchen? That makes it super easy for me to get a good workout in and eliminates a lot of excuses for not working out. One thing that really helped me is I bought a backpack that has a compartments for both my workout clothes/shoes and computer/work stuff so I always have it with me. No more “oh man, I forgot my workout gear today, I guess I can’t workout.”

Key #3: Incrementally add to this and create a system that works for you

Now this is where the magic happens (no, not like MTV Cribs you weirdo). The trick is to set a combination of weekly/monthly/quarterly/yearly goals that build upon each other. Just as knowing your purpose helps you prioritize what you’re doing, having goals structured like this helps you keep track of where you’re going.

I know this sounds like something you’ve heard before, and maybe you’re saying “Yeah, yeah, making a couple of small changes won’t add up to much.” That’s why we set up our goals and then turn them into a system.

It might go something like this:

Weekly: I’m going to walk through the doors of the gym three times this week. If I don’t work out, that’s fine, but I’m at least going to show up. Next week, I’ll at least do 5–10 mins on the treadmill or whatever.

Monthly: Now that I’m in the habit of going to the gym, I’m going to commit to doing at least 15 mins of something each time I’m there no matter what.

Quarterly: Now that I’m comfortable working out, I’m going to join that new class they’re offering, find a couple of workouts online that look interesting, etc.

Yearly: Now that this is truly a routine, I’ll get a trainer three days per week.

Now, I just made this up, but you see where we’re going with this. Start slowly and continue to build on it.

Key #4: Measure your progress and hold yourself accountable

Key quote here is: “That which gets measured, gets improved” (it’s genius, and I’d like to credit someone for it, but can’t find who said it originally).

Two things worked for me: keeping a workout journal, and a food log. It doesn’t matter if it’s an app or a paper notebook, but keeping track of what you do at the gym and/or what you eat is incredibly powerful, especially when starting out.

When I was starting my weight loss journey, I tracked everything in myfitnesspal, even the terrible things I ate (my wife ran an Outback Steakhouse at the time and seeing how many calories are in the half plate of cheese fries I crushed is kinda depressing). This isn’t meant to guilt you into eating better or working out more, it’s to track progress over time. It’s pretty cool to look at your workout journal after six months and seeing the progress you’ve made toward your goals and to see what worked and what didn’t. Or if you hit a plateau, you can look at your logs and see what trends stick out, both positive and negative.

For the accountability part, that’s entirely up to you. Everybody responds differently. Maybe positive motivation works for you and you get yourself a sweet new gadget if you hit a certain goal. Or maybe negative motivation works for you and you agree to do something terrible if you don’t hit your goals. This one isn’t my cup of tea, but to each their own. The point is, accountability is a key piece of the system. It’s really easy to skip a workout or ten (or eat an entire plate of cheese fries) if there aren’t any consequences.

Key #5: Figure out where you want to start, and START NOW

Me with my daughter 3 years later

Don’t wait to get started. In my experience, waiting turns into pretty much forever. What has been the barrier for you getting started? Think about that and start there. Pack your workout back tonight so it’s ready to go tomorrow. Cook extra dinner tonight so you have a healthy lunch tomorrow. Figure out your “next action” and do that. That’s all you need to get started.

You’ll soon find that this is just how you operate and you don’t even think about it anymore. Once anything becomes part of your routine, that’s when you’re truly set up to crush it.

Have you come up with a system in your life? What is a small win that worked for you? Email me and let me know, and go here to join the quest for Personal Awesomeness.

Originally published at crushingtheoffice.net on March 3, 2017.

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