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Achieving goals one small step at a time

Succeeding with seemingly insurmountable tasks is all about breaking them down into small steps, explains Cath Vincent.

Have you ever made a ‘to do’ list and written on it all the things that you’ve already done just to have the satisfaction of ticking them off the list? Of course you have!
Seems pretty pointless, right?

Well, yes and no.

Without really realising it, what you’re trying to do is create a sense of completion and satisfaction in the hope that feeling that way will encourage you to continue taking action – so you can keep enjoying that feeling of success. This is an entirely valid way of getting yourself into action. (An even better way is to do something that you haven’t already completed, but that’s where we encounter resistance!)

If you are resisting any task – any task at all – the way to get into action is break that task down into smaller pieces that you’re willing to do. It may be very daunting to go for a 30-minute run, but you could at least take a three-minute jog around the block in your new running shoes. You might resist writing that report, but you may be willing to spend ten minutes gathering some research.

And since “things in motion stay in motion” (thank you Isaac Newton for your First Law of Motion), taking even the smallest action starts the ball rolling.

When I’m coaching people, I often help them break down a big task into smaller ones until they find the point where their resistance lessens.

I was working with a woman recently who identified that if only she could go to bed at a ‘reasonable time’ (11pm) instead of ‘late’ (midnight), she would wake up refreshed and much better able to tackle her day. Even though she knew that this was the right thing to do, she kept resisting it.

She set a worthy goal for herself that she would go to bed at 11pm every night. But when we spoke again two weeks later, out of 14 nights of opportunity, she had not managed to achieve it one single time.

Imagine the effect on her self-esteem of failing night after night after night. This was actually adding to her burden rather than getting her closer to those happy productive days she longed for. I challenged her on her strategy, suggesting that instead she should find a very, very small improvement rather than such a big one.

“If 12 midnight is your worst case scenario, do you think it would be possible to improve on that by a minimum of just one minute each night?”

“You mean to go to bed at 11:59pm?” she asked puzzled.

“Or earlier if you like, but definitely no later than 11.59pm. And then 11:58pm the next night, 11:57pm the night after, and so on.”

“Well, I could…” she said slowly, her body language showing that such a small measure seemed hardly worth making. “That would be easy,” she said with a shrug.
“Well, if it’s an improvement, and it’s easy, isn’t that what you want?” I told her.

“Well yes, but it will take ages to get to my goal.”

“Ah, and how much progress did you make in the last fortnight?”

She smiled when she realised that setting a goal that was too big simply guaranteed failure, whereas committing to a goal that was small guaranteed at least some success.
Within three days she reported that not only had she easily stuck to this simple goal, she felt less under pressure so had found herself willing to go to bed much earlier.


The lesson here is: when tackling something you resist, at least give yourself the chance to succeed. 

Publishing Information
Magazine Issue: NZBusiness November 2015 Page Number: 48