6 reasons why small steps are the best way to tackle big goals

Got big goals? Don't underestimate the power of small steps to help you reach them

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a vision of being a prolific author. There was the history book I wanted to write in university (even though I was a science major). There was the baby reference book I wanted to write on my first maternity leave. And there are countless books I plan to write in conjunction with my company’s training programs. But you may not have heard of these books. After all, they aren’t published yet.

My approach to writing used to entail waiting for big chunks of time to magically appear so I could churn through these projects. But this time rarely came available. Weeks would go by between writing sessions, which seriously hindered my momentum. I also squandered far too much effort asking myself, now, where did I leave off?

Several years ago, I started working with a writing coach, Daphne Gray-Grant, who drastically changed how I tackle projects. Gray-Grant required me to commit to daily writing goals. Initially, I vehemently resisted this. After all, I believed I needed to commit to a minimum of one hour per day to make any worthwhile progress – and this wasn’t always possible. Gray-Grant negotiated me down to 10 minutes a day. I agreed to commit to these short writing bursts but deep down I never believed these tight time-frames would amount to much.

One year later, I published my first book.

I’m now convinced of how small steps lead to a tremendous ripple effect. But why exactly does this occur? Shouldn’t big steps make a big impact? While this statement is certainly true, we don’t always need to rely on big steps.

Surprisingly, small steps can have a big effect. Here’s how:

1 – Small steps get us started

A focus on small steps helps us get started. After all, they don’t feel overwhelming. Then, inertia takes over and once we’re in motion, it’s easier to continue.

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started.” Mark Twain

For years, I thought about starting a meditation ritual, but couldn’t fathom investing one hour or more the way Gandhi reportedly did. (Gandhi once said, “I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one.”)

Thankfully, I eventually learned a mere 5-10 minutes of daily meditation has a positive effect. With this small commitment, I was able to establish this restorative habit. I simply turn on my Headspace app and clear my mind.

A common approach is seen among athletes facing gruelling early-morning workouts. They focus on their immediate next step, such as putting on their running shoes and then getting in their car. Eventually, they get to their tough workout but they don’t allow themselves a chance to opt out beforehand.

2 – Small steps add up to big results

Whether you are preparing for a big presentation, renovating your kitchen or building your physical endurance, small, consistent steps add up. Take fitness, for example. One study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found the group who exercised for 13 minutes per session, three times a week for two months showed similar strength improvements as those who exercised for 70 minutes per session. The only catch was each session was done at maximum effort. In other words, their muscles were exhausted at the end of the set.

A similar study from McMaster University found participants who cycled for 10 minutes, three times a week had similar gains as others who cycled for 50 minutes, three times a week. Impressive. It appears the popular “I don’t have time to exercise” excuse isn’t legitimate when you consider you can fit in a quality workout even if you only have 10 minutes to commit

3 – Success breeds success

Success breeds success. Just like compound interest, small steps add up to impressive gains.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Chinese Proverb

Once we start and realize some early success, it’s easier to continue. These small steps help to minimize your risk (while simultaneously increasing your odds of success) according to Leonard A. Schlesinger, author of Just Start. Each step provides an opportunity to learn and adjust, while feeling assured that no one step is going to bankrupt you or destroy the goodwill you’ve built.

4 – Consistency makes work easier

Small steps help us create valuable habits, which help us achieve big goals. As Olin Miller wisely said, “If you want to make an easy job seem mighty hard, just keep putting off doing it.”

Small steps help us avoid decision fatigue, which diminishes our impact. Small steps also allow us to better manage our cognitive load, meaning we have more headspace to deal with all our other thoughts and plans. And finally, small steps help us to better manage distraction. The less we have to resist the destructive habit of multi-tasking, the more success we’ll have with each small step.

5 – Progress = Momentum

Small steps create critical early momentum. And this momentum is crucial if you want your team to thrive. One of the most prevalent features of high-performance teams is the ability to make meaningful progress on important goals.

Teresa Amabile, author of The Progress Principle, found progress creates the best work experience. In other words, forward momentum in meaningful work creates the best inner work life. And this translates into higher creativity and productivity.

Stanford research supports this at the individual level. As Professor Szu-chi Huang says, “When you are just starting a pursuit, feeling reassured that it’s actually doable is important, and achieving a sub-goal increases that sense of attainability.” Note, this same research shows shifting one’s focus to the final outcome benefits you as you approach completion of your goal.

6 – Small steps aren’t overwhelming, so they are more likely to stick

Small steps are attainable and are specifically designed to not feel overwhelming. They are also easier to fit into hectic, over-scheduled days, which most people face on a regular basis.

This is why project management is grounded in breaking big tasks down into small, attainable steps. And focusing on small steps is a great way to ACT on procrastination. In other words, make tasks Attainable (with small steps), boost your Confidence and agree upon a Timeline.

As an added bonus, small, incremental changes are the kind of changes that actually stick. Sudden radical transformations don’t have nearly the same staying power. This is why the Kaizen approach is so popular and effective

There you have it. Six compelling reasons why small steps are so powerful. If you’ve read this far, you can give yourself a pat on the back for investing only a few short minutes to learn about this powerful approach.

Now I turn it over to you. What are your big goals? And what small steps can you take today to get you closer to meeting your big goals tomorrow?

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