Forget Big Goals. Take Baby Steps for Small, Daily Wins.
If you are already starting to get discouraged when it comes to your 2015 goals, I’m here to tell you it’s not too late and you’re not alone.
This is the month of year that I spend a lot of time with my clients reflecting on what really stops people from going after exactly what they want. We look at where they get stuck and the underlying issues why. Over the years I’ve seen that when people get stuck, it is for two primary reasons:
1. They don’t have a simple, actionable system or strategy to use.
2. They’re afraid of putting themselves out there. Why? Fear of failure and fear of criticism.
Both things erode their confidence and hold them back so they get discouraged and quit. It’s pretty common: people not taking the right actions because they couldn’t see where they’re headed.
I’ve heard from a lot of entrepreneurs who set goals involving health, wealth and self-improvement. They’re frustrated. Some have already abandoned them while others are discouraged and on the brink. This is a huge problem because every time we fail, we trust ourselves a little bit less.
Generally we all have a desire for success to not be that hard. Whether it’s success in losing weight, learning a new skill or growing a business, the fundamentals remain the same. There’s a solution, a simple yet powerful way of looking at your growth through a different lens. The one primary motivator that leads us to persevere is baby steps.
That’s right, the answer to how to make your goals work lies in the movie What About Bob, starring Bill Murray as therapy patient Bob Wiley. Bob’s psychiatrist Dr. Marvin treats him for multi-phobic personality disorder by teaching him how to use baby steps, or to set small, reasonable goals for himself one day at a time. The most memorable quote from the movie is “Bob’s a special kind of friend, the kind that drives you crazy!”
Our goals tend to become the “Bobs” in our professional lives. They can drive us crazy and we all need a Dr. Marvin of sorts, because once we literally master the transition from crawling to walking as toddlers I think we tend to forget how to figuratively take baby steps as we grow up. The media and our instant-gratification society tend to sensationalize experts and famous people as overnight successes. In reality these overnight successes are thousands of nights in the making, and they got there by taking countless baby steps.
Sometimes looking at the big picture and all the phases involved can be daunting. Much like the benefits of frequent, consistent exercise have a cumulative effect on us over time, so does celebrating our small successes on a daily basis.
Harvard researcher Teresa Amabile found that the single most powerful workplace motivator was small, daily progress. Her research also uncovered that the most damaging thing to results was experiencing setbacks. If you can facilitate progress you facilitate better results. It’s just like the power of momentum that we see in sports all the time.
You can manufacture your own momentum to score a few daily wins. This is important for you to do because your confidence is either lifted up or dragged down depending on your ability to make progress. When you make progress there is something at work that psychologists refer to as goal gradient. It refers to the fact that the closer we get to something, the harder we are willing to work to achieve it.
If you’ve ever walked your dog around the block and he speeds up as you get closer to home, you’ve seen goal gradient in action. It’s the very reason online games have different levels and rankings built into them.
The key isn’t just progress, its perceived progress. Columbia University’s Ran Kivetz conducted a goal gradient study using coffee-shop rewards cards. As the cards got closer to the buy 10 get one free goal the consumers accelerated their purchasing to reach the goal. The more telling tweak to the study was a second population that received a buy 12 get one free cards. These cards contained two rewards that were already earned. Because it was perceived that they had already made progress towards the goal (even though in reality it was an identical goal) these participants actually filled their cards up faster.
This research confirms my belief that to a large extent we control our own job satisfaction and motivation through incremental visible progress (baby steps) in our goal setting. When we set realistic, attainable goals and create an intentional process to seek and celebrate incremental progress or success, we stand to greatly enhance our own motivation on the job. Progress drives motivation, which in turn drives greater future progress.
This is the reason why you need to ditch your big goals and focus on achieving small daily wins. A “goal” is too abstract and far reaching and as a result it becomes elusive. Take these steps to to reframe and redesign your goals:
1. Narrow down your big 2015 plan to one specific goal.
2. Break that big picture goal down into systematic, manageable baby steps (think daily bite sized pieces).
3. Less is more. When it comes to execution, frequency is king. Do a little a lot instead of a lot a little (small, daily progress trumps one big time block once a week).
4. Document and celebrate your daily success (no matter how small).
5. Direction is more powerful than speed.
6. Focus on progress, not perfection. Be gentle with yourself. Making mistakes is normal (you’re human).
If you’re not designing your employees' jobs (and your own) to include some small daily wins on the scoreboard, you’re hurting your results. Winning is a habit. So is losing. How are you taking baby steps to create momentum and put some small wins on your scoreboard?