This issue outlines a surefire way to get into action, particularly when you’re stuck, procrastinating, or facing an unpleasant task. We’ll begin with some common problems and end with action-oriented solutions.
- Beth needs to update her resume, but removing the waxy yellow build-up on her kitchen floor seems vastly more appealing.
- Rico has been trying to summon the courage to discuss a raise with his boss, but he keeps putting it off.
- Carolyn wants to clean up her personal files, but re-runs of L.A. Law beckon her to the television.
- Matt can’t get motivated to tackle a big project due in December. It’s a new challenge and promises high visibility, yet he sits at his desk counting paper clips.
Beth, Rico, Carolyn, and Matt are frustrated, and they berate themselves for lack of action. What to do? Read on for the unglamorous, but foolproof, solution.
The Solution—Baby Steps!
Take baby steps. Break a big task into very small pieces of action. This may seem elementary, wimpy, or the easy way out, but note:
- Steps of any size, even small ones are action. Tiny steps are better than no steps.
- Baby steps reduce risks to manageable levels. The consequences of “mistakes” are minimal, livable.
- Accomplishing small steps builds a sense of success. Success builds confidence.
- Action, in whatever form, produces movement and pleasure
- Small steps are safe when you feel uncertain.
Don’t underestimate the impact of baby steps. Thousands of the smallest dabs of paint made Monet paintings famous. Tiger Woods’ record-breaking achievements grew from countless practice strokes. The human genome project is the culmination of hundreds of research protocols. Your favorite piece of music results from individual notes played in combination and succession. In isolation, each dab of paint, practice stroke, research project, or individual musical note is unremarkable. However, these actions, in combination, create powerful results.
The Baby-Step Strategy
When facing a big or unpleasant task, ask yourself the following questions:
- What do I need/want to do?
- What gets in the way (obstacles – mental, physical, etc.)?
- What are tiny pieces of action I could take? Be sure your steps are so small that they’re do-able, even immediately do-able.
- What are the smallest units of work I could do? (For example, look a number up in the phone book)
- What’s the smallest amount of time I could manage easily (“I’ll work on this for three minutes.”)
- How can I garner support, mobilize myself, or make myself accountable to someone else for these very small steps? (For example, make a chart, check off items on a list, make a promise to a friend, link a few steps to an enjoyable activity.)
- Take your baby steps, one at a time.
- Debrief: What worked? What didn’t work? What have I learned? Then celebrate!
The Baby-Step Strategy Applied
Obstacle: Beth is unsure how to handle a gap in her employment history.
Potential baby steps: 1) Find her resume. 2) Read it. 3) Write down all her questions. 4) Think of resources (websites, articles, people) that could help her handle this obstacle. 4) Contact resources. 5) Give herself a deadline for an updated draft. 6) Review and edit the draft.
Obstacle: Rico doesn’t know how to bring the subject up to his boss. He lacks a clear rationale and worries that his boss may say no.
Potential baby steps: 1) List his contributions, how he’s helped his department make or save money.
2) Find comparable salaries inside and outside his company. 3) List two people he could ask for advice. 4) Look for three books or articles about the subject. 5) Make notes and “rehearse” asking to meet.
6) Develop a plan in case his boss says no, e.g., ask what he would need to do to be eligible for a raise.
Carolyn’s Personal Files
Obstacle: Carolyn doesn’t know where to begin cleaning up her files.
Potential baby steps: 1) Scan files to see what’s there—one drawer at a time. 2) List what’s working, what’s not about her system. 3) Find tips from books, websites, or people. 4) Purge outdated, or duplicate contents at the rate of one file a day. 5) Ask friends about systems they use.
Obstacle: Matt has no formal experience leading a team.
Potential baby steps: 1) Identify experienced colleagues he could use for “sounding boards” during the project. 2) List all of the component tasks he can think of. 3) Look up phone numbers and email addresses of others on the team. 4) Gather file folders. 5) List what he doesn’t know how to do. 6) Think of someone who does. 7) Ask the questions that he’s listed. 8) Create a timeline based on this information.
The key to the baby-step strategy is to find the smallest unit of action that you can do effortlessly. Don’t let embarrassment about the size of your steps stop you. Remember, small steps always beat no steps. Your first steps create momentum and confidence. Get moving, however small your steps!
Thanks to the following people for referrals:
Chad Walton, Jane Cocalis, Bethany Sprague, Mary Ann Peters, and Charlie Scarlett.
- Nick Wexberg began his new job as a Personal Trainer at Fitness Together.
- Suzanne Loui has begun her new job as Special Projects Coordinator at Washington University’s International Center for Advanced Renewable Energy and Sustainability.
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