Small Steps, Huge Gains

A key to successfully reaching goals, especially great-big, worthwhile goals, is to break them down into bite-sized chunks.
In: Column, Goals

December 28, 2010

As the ball descends in Times Square, it is natural for our spirits to lift—the beginning of a new year presents the illusion of a clean slate, a fresh start. So we pass personal resolutions that usually get vetoed by our actions (or inaction) before they get signed into law. I am all about shooting for the stars, but I wonder if we might be more successful if we set our sights more realistically.

Americans love the big finish, the walk-off home run, and the winning score as time expires. So do I. I like to swing for the fence. But I was reminded of a sure principle while redoing our bedroom. After scraping off the popcorn ceiling texture that Elvis made popular at Graceland, I discovered its purpose: to hide the sloppiest tape-and-bed work since the invention of sheetrock. I’m not complaining. I would have done the same thing—why strain on something no reasonable person will ever discover? They didn’t count on Mary.

As I was standing on a stepladder and sanding at one corner of the room, my eye took in the vast expanse stretched out before me like the rugged underside of a giant iceberg. I motivated myself by thinking: “If I can just do this same back-and-forth motion with my arm 10,000 times, I’ll be finished. Then I can reward myself by going directly into the E.R. and having back surgery—more morphine, please!”

The principle: Many small steps in the right direction will add up to huge gains if we don’t give up.

A key to successfully reaching goals, especially great-big, worthwhile goals, is to break them down into bite-sized chunks. Take a seemingly insurmountable task and divide it into reachable milestones; recognize and celebrate each victory along the way. I proved this while working on my master’s degree with a full-time job and three kids at home. In the beginning, the 12-class lesson plan was daunting. But I checked off a class or two a semester and, after four-and-a-half years, managed to graduate (despite my reoccurring dream that, on stage at Commencement, the Dean informed me I forgot to take Freshman history.)

Here are some suggestions to give you an idea.

  • Don’t say you’re going to read 20 books in 2011; say you are going to average a chapter a day—you’ll read a lot of books.
  • Don’t say you’re going to lose 20 pounds in 2011; say you are going to lose a pound every three weeks or so—you’ll lose a lot of weight and keep it off. (As I get older, I embrace the push-a-way diet—smaller portions. Sometimes after playing basketball in Tyler, I will order a Jr. Hamburger instead of The Colossus. I celebrate my self-discipline with a large chocolate malt. If I persevere a few more months on this diet, I will qualify for lap-band surgery.)
  • Don’t say you will swing some big deal in 2011 and make a windfall; spend a little less each week, save a little more each month, and in a year, you’ll be ahead financially of where you are now.

The secrets to accomplishing great things are simple but hard to do: Set a goal. Devise a workable plan with measurable, intermediate steps. Work the plan. Celebrate small victories. Don’t ever quit!

Just as I eventually finished the ceiling (it really wasn’t that bad), I promise you will make huge gains with many small steps. I hope 2011 is a better year for all of us!

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