“Whoever wants to reach a distant goal must take small steps.” —Saul Bellow, Pulitzer Prize-winning Author
In reality, the smaller the step, the bigger the chance of success. How is that possible?
If you try to get yourself to do something really tough or time-consuming, what are the chances it will actually get done?
The truth is, if it’s not life or death, you’ll most likely never get to it. It will always get pushed aside for something smaller or an emergency that pops up. There’s always tomorrow.
But what if you give yourself a small step to accomplish today—a tiny task, a 1-minute goal, or even a single breath? Could you get yourself to do just that one little thing?
The answer is yes. If you can do it right now, instantly, and with minimal effort, then it will get done. It will be one step in the right direction, and that can change everything.
What’s Big About Small Steps?
A small step is what the Japanese call “Kaizen”(改善). This is the Sino-Japanese word for “improvement”. It means “taking small steps.”
The Kaizen process was developed after WWII by American management theorists to help rebuild Japanese factories. They used the Kaizen approach to rebuild their economy and grow companies like Toyota and Honda from humble competitors into global automotive giants.
Kaizen: Small Continuous Improvement
The Psychology Behind Why Small Steps Work
When we create and start with small steps—whether it’s focusing on a specific goal, increasing our performance in our jobs, or improving the quality of our relationships—it gives us less friction to get the job done.
This is super important for the brain because, in this way, we bypass the fear center where the amygdala exists. The amygdala is our fight, flight, or freeze center. When we become overwhelmed, stressed out, or distracted, the amygdala becomes activated and stops us in our tracks from taking action towards what we want.
Do you ever feel like something is holding you back from moving towards your goals? That’s the amygdala being activated.
When we have a new goal, we want to green-light the brain to go for it without hesitation. We want our brain to think and start small and operate from a principle of small steps so the fear center never gets activated and then, we can take immediate action.
Weight loss is a perfect example of why starting with small steps works so much better than taking big steps immediately.
Imagine a man who wants to lose 100 pounds. When he looks at the challenge in his mind’s eye, he sees the big goal, “I’ve got to lose 100 pounds,” and he’s paralyzed. It’s too big for his mind to imagine without extreme difficulty. The amygdala fires up, fear takes over, and he freezes. To his mind, it feels like he’s trying to lose all 100 pounds at once.
If we first asked this same person to stand up and walk to the front door and back, he could do that. Ask him to imagine how he would feel 10 pounds lighter for 30 seconds. He can do that because his fear center doesn’t shut him down. He’s not being asked to do anything that his mind doesn’t think he can accomplish now.
The next day, we start by asking him to walk down to his car and back, then to the mailbox a hundred yards from his car, then to the store a quarter-mile away. The momentum builds each day and before you know it, he’s walking a few miles per day.
The key here is that each step seems reasonable and completely doable at the moment and so, the brain gives it a green light. Before you know it—and with minimal resistance from the mind—he could be walking seven miles a day and the 100 extra pounds are gone.
I’ve seen clients lose much more than 100 pounds with nothing more than the idea of small steps. It’s all about creating new habits by starting with small steps and building momentum from each simple step.
One Percent Better
A great way to think about small steps is the “1% Better Principle.” Focus each day on just getting 1% better or 1% closer to your goal.
Here are some things that you can do:
- Go one extra minute on the treadmill.
- Do one extra pushup.
- Walk up the stairs instead of taking the elevator.
- Make that one extra sales call.
- Ask one extra question at work.
- Do one extra email.
- Write one extra sentence.
- Meditate an extra 30 seconds.
“The key to success is to be present by focusing more on the process and less on the goal.” —Steven Griffith
3 Keys to Starting Small for Big Results
Now that you know the benefits of starting small and how it can help you achieve success, here are 3 key things to get you started.
1. Create Micro-Steps
Get “micro” by breaking down your goal into the smallest possible steps. Not just small steps—micro-steps. To break your steps into the smallest units possible, try to make each step an action you can perform with minimal effort and resistance right now. This will allow the momentum to start moving you towards your goal immediately.
You will know that it’s “micro” when you can say to yourself, “I can do way more than that” or “That’s way too easy.” The easier the better for the first steps. In fact, making the goal extremely easy may even invite your mind to want to do more.
Once you’ve established momentum with micro-steps and add it to your schedule before or after an already established habit, you will have a much great chance of success.
For example, while your daily coffee is brewing in the morning, take 30 seconds to perform your goal activity, like meditating, writing, pushups, etc. When starting any new goal, the real task is to create momentum.
When I educate my clients on the power of meditation, I often suggest they start with only a minute a day. They look at me like I’m crazy. They say, “Only a minute? That’s too easy, I can do more than that!”
This bypasses their fear center and gets them on to the task at hand. It also makes them feel like they are ready for more. They actually want to meditate longer. Now, their brain is telling them to do more of the activity, instead of being afraid of it.
As in the previous weight-loss example, if you have 100lbs to lose, don’t think about the 100 pounds. Think about the first steps. Start with 5 minutes on the treadmill or a 5-minute walk. Then, add 1 minute each day. Have one extra glass of water that day. Drink half of a soda instead of the whole thing.
Take baby steps and start small. Make each day an easy victory, and you’ll reward yourself emotionally. It’s a combination of doing something positive and doing less of something negative for your goal.
If your goal is to learn to meditate, try the 30-second micro-step method:
- Day 1: Meditate for 30 seconds
- Day 2: Meditate for 1 minute
- Day 3: Meditate for 1:30
- Day 4: Meditate for 2 minutes
While reading this example you may be thinking, “this is way too easy!” That’s exactly what you should be thinking.
Remember, this is your minimum commitment. You can do this easily, so if your brain says, “I want to do more!” then let it do more. That’s positive momentum!
That’s the key—just a little bit every day.
2. Set Daily Intentions Using Timefulness
What we know about setting intentions is that they work. NYU researchers Peter Gollwitzer and Brandstatter found that people who set intentions, even when vague, can increase their success rate by 20 percent.((Prospective Psychology: Implementation Intentions)) And when intentions are set with specific details, those success rates can double or even triple! That is a powerful reason to set intentions each day.
Goals and Intentions: How They Work Together
A goal is your desired outcome that is future-oriented. Goals set the mark to know exactly where you want to be later. For many people, goals on their own can feel distant and even unreachable at any given moment. Just thinking about a distant goal can kick the fear center of your brain into gear.
Intention, on the other hand, is a present-oriented mindset. Intentions allow you to focus your time on how you want to be at this moment. You can only ever move toward your goal in the present moment.
Setting intentions for the day raises your positive emotional and physical energy, allowing you to accomplish more. Intentions bring you fully into the moment each day, which I described in my book The Time Cleanse—being present, aware, and intentional with your time. Intentions are the present key to achieving your distant goals.
I once had a client that wanted to more than triple his sales in the upcoming quarter because he was really behind for the year. He was totally stressed out because his mind was full of fear and stress trying to figure out how to force all those sales to happen.
I coached him on how to break down the goal into the smallest steps possible and start small. He ended up doing a full year’s worth of sales in that single quarter by compressing the sales cycle into the micro-steps and accomplishing each one.
Here’s an example:
- Goal: I will increase my sales by 100 percent this quarter.
- Daily intention: In each of my 4 meetings today, I will be present at the moment and be responsive, handling objections with patience and moving the sales process forward.
Setting specific intentions is a powerful way of directing your conscious energy, attention, and time toward your future goals with minimal resistance. The more specific you can be with your daily intentions—and more focused on getting 1% better—the more progress you will see.
When you wake up tomorrow morning, set an intention of how you are going to be 1% better.
3. Self-Compassion: How to Be Kind to Yourself in the Process
Self-compassion means being there for yourself in the face of failure, adversity, and challenges.
Many high performing athletes, business people, salespeople, and even artists are tough on themselves, especially in the face of failure. They push themselves to higher and higher levels of achievement, often using negative self-talk, beating themselves up, being overly judgmental, and believing that this is the only way to get ahead, stay competitive, and be successful. It’s not.
Self-compassion increases your grit, the ability to recover from a setback or an upset faster, our willingness to take positive risks, and overall well-being. One of the biggest additional benefits of self-compassion is that you also gain more compassion for others, which leads to increased connection and growth in all of your most important relationships.
First of all, self-compassion is exactly like being compassionate with another person. In fact, the best way to know if you’re being harsh with yourself or if you’re showing yourself compassion is to compare the words and phrases you are saying to yourself to the words you would say to a friend who hit hard times.
Imagine for a moment that your friend has a problem or intense situation that they are dealing with. Then, ask these questions to yourself:
- How would you be there for them?
- What are you saying to them?
- What’s your tone, body language, and disposition towards them in the face of adversity and challenges?
Here’s an example I use with clients when they get stuck, go off course from their goals, or start to beat themselves up emotionally: If you’re not being compassionate to yourself, try the steps below to get yourself started.
When I find myself struggling in my day or at work, I simply do the following:
- Take a deep breath and become aware of any negative feelings or thoughts I am having.
- Acknowledge that it’s not just me. “I am not alone. Many others are going through this same experience now.”
- Repeat kind words to myself, such as “may I be supported,” “may I be loved,” “may I be protected,” and “may I be at ease and productive.”
Continue the process with patience until your mind stops flooding you with negativity towards the situation. You might even be able to start feeling good about it.
A Note About Self-Compassion
Self-compassion is not “giving yourself a trophy for coming in the last place.” It’s about being there for yourself as a good friend or coach would be there in the face of challenges.
Self-compassion taking care of yourself mentally and emotionally when the chips are down. It’s bringing your best self forward when you need it most, so you can get back in the game as soon as possible and onto the next small step towards your goal.
Once we have brought compassion to ourselves and tended to our mental and emotional needs, we can then be in a positive and receptive space to reengage and learn from the adversity, integrate new lessons, adjust our strategies and tactics, and get back out there and compete with an even higher level of confidence, resilience, power, and tools to succeed.
The key here is the “and.” This is what being a high performer is all about—being compassionate and getting back out there to kick some butt like the badass person that you are.
Let’s face it—failure is part of being a high performer. It means you’re pushing the boundaries of the status quo, taking risks, and doing things that others are too scared of or don’t have the skills to do. Starting with small steps will help you get to your goal with as little fear and as little failure as possible and help you get back up when failure happens.
Try these tips for accomplishing your goals. Create your micro-steps, set your intentions for the day, and give yourself plenty of self-compassion so you can get up and do it again tomorrow until what you want is yours.