The Importance of Small Steps

Most people have hardly enough time for work and family, let alone self-improvement.

This is where the importance of small steps comes in.

When you break down complex tasks into their components and just invest 10 minutes each day, it still adds up.

Before you know it, you have lost those extra 10 pounds or found your first paying customer.

Learn about the importance of small steps and how to integrate them into your busy life.

The Two Paths to Success

There are two ways to get what you want.

You can either cut out all distractions and focus all your energy on your most important task (aka monk mode).

Or you can introduce small, positive changes on top of your current lifestyle.

Historically, I have leaned toward the first option. It plays to my natural single-mindedness.

However, not everyone is single, childless, and works online. Some people have responsibilities. They can’t just drop everything.

For this group, taking small steps is the solution. They allow you to uphold your current commitments while still making positive changes to your life.

But even if you are the single-minded type, you still need to make use of small steps.

Few people have the discipline to work on their big project 10 hours a day — not right out of the gate.

What you do is that you start with two hours every day. Then you gradually increase the intensity.

So, whichever path you take — if you want to succeed, you must learn how to utilize the power of small steps.

Success is a few simple disciplines, practiced every day; while failure is simply a few errors in judgment, repeated every day.

Jim Rohn

What Does It Mean To Take Small Steps?

When people talk about the importance of small steps, they are really talking about two different things:

  1. Breaking complex tasks down
  2. Limiting a workload

These two can go together, but they don’t have to.

Let’s dissect this.

1. Breaking Complex Tasks Down

Here, you break a large, overwhelming task down into small, manageable subtasks.

Let’s say you want to build a website for your business. That’s a complex task.

To simplify this, you divide the complex task into its components. Then you order these components, so you get a chronological sequence of steps.

The result might look something like this:

  1. Create your brand identity
  2. Create your logo
  3. Create a website style guide
  4. Come up with a sitemap
  5. Take photos
  6. Find a hosting solution
  7. Choose a WordPress theme
  8. Write copy for each page

All of these in turn could be broken down even further. For example, if you are currently at step 5 — taking photos — your next small step might be to get a quote from a local photographer.

That is the magic of going small — the narrower you go, the easier things get. Anyone can do a Google search for “photographer near me” and then send them an email.

2. Limiting the Workload

Here, taking small steps refers to goal adherence.

Let’s say you want to get fit.

Now, most people will join a gym, and, bursting with enthusiasm, they will work out for two hours each day, seven days a week.

But only for about two months. Then they will burn out and quit.

Taking small steps will prevent this.

Instead of committing to an unsustainable gym schedule, you might just take a 10-minute walk around the block every day.

Anybody can do that.

By putting such low requirements in place, you are more likely to stick with them. It provides positive reinforcement — you are doing what you said you would do.

This starts a virtuous circle. One lap around the block turns into two, then into three. Then you add in five push-ups after every lap.

While our wannabe gym rat is back on their couch, you are shedding pounds — slowly, but surely.

Too often, we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action.

James Clear

How To Choose Your Approach

You can mix and match these approaches as you see fit.

Let’s say you want to apply for a new job.

First, you break this goal down into its components, like composing a CV, collecting references, getting professional pictures taken, etc.

That takes care of aspect 1 — dividing a large task into smaller tasks.

Now, since you have a busy life, you decide to only spend 15 minutes per day on applying for new jobs. That’s enough to get you started and see some progress.

This covers aspect 2 — keeping the workload light.

However, some people might choose a different approach. They will break their complex task down into subtasks; but then they will choose a heavy workload, e.g., 3 hours of writing applications per day.

This works best if you are dealing with a contained, one-time project. Here, it can make sense to power through.

But if you are dealing with a long-term project, like writing a novel, it’s better to keep the initial workload low and increase it over time. You want to accustom yourself to the work.

Then there are goals that don’t require any breaking down.

For example, if your goal is to do full side splits, there is not much complexity involved. Just keep the workload light and practice your side splits for 10 minutes every day.

Bottom line — what approach you choose is task-dependent.

The Advantages

Taking small steps comes with a number of benefits.

Small Steps Feel Manageable

Thinking to yourself, “I must lose 30 pounds,” feels paralyzing. Thinking to yourself, “I will eat a serving of vegetables with each meal,” feels easy.

Small Steps Get You Going

Since we dread big efforts, we tend to put them off. For example, nobody enjoys decluttering the garage all weekend.

But throwing away one item per day? That’s a low hurdle to jump. You are more likely to take action.

The secret of getting ahead is getting started.

Mark Twain

Small Steps Meet You Where You Are

We all start from different places in life. Somebody who is 150 pounds overweight will have a harder time changing their eating habits than somebody who is only 15 pounds overweight.

By starting small, you can account for these differences. You can get someone to comply who might consider themselves a lost cause.

Small Steps Increase Adherence

If your minimum requirement is to meditate for 2 minutes each day, you will likely make it happen. 20 minutes? Less likely.

By lowering the bar, you increase your chances of sticking with the new behavior.

Small Steps Provide Quick Wins

Big, complex goals come with delayed gratification.

For example, if your goal is to build an app, it might take you several months before you finish and get a sense of accomplishment.

But if your next small goal is to write 10 lines of code, you can accomplish this in the next 30 minutes. That’s an instant win.

Small Steps Create Momentum

Small steps start a virtuous circle. You learn to enjoy constantly making progress. In turn, you look forward to doing the work.

Small Steps Are Easy To Fit In

If you work full-time, have a spouse, and have kids, your time is limited. Are you really going to read a new book every week, as per your New Year’s resolution? Probably not.

But reading half a page a day? Easy. You can fit that into even the most hectic of days.

Small Steps Reduce Cognitive Load

Always having a big, complex project on your mind takes up a lot of mental bandwidth.

Compare this to breaking your big goal down into a sequence of small steps.

Here, you only have to shoulder the cognitive load once; after that, your mental resources go to actually being productive.

How To Harness the Power of Small Steps

Here is how you can utilize small steps in your life.

1. Build It Up

A common problem with small steps is overload.

People will not just take on one small habit, but twenty at the same time.

This completely defeats the purpose.

The idea with small steps is to keep the workload manageable. By committing to twenty things at once, however small, you have negated that effect.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.

Richard Feynman

Pick one new habit. Keep at it for a long time (the 21/90 rule provides a good framework). Once it has become automated, you can add a new habit. But only then.

2. Write It Down

Writing down your goals helps with adherence, as studies like this one have shown.

So, when you break down a big task into small tasks, note down the exact sequence of the steps, estimated time per step, required resources, etc.

Likewise, if you introduce a low-workload habit, define what that looks like in writing, e.g., “Every time I go to the bathroom, I will do 3 full-range pull-ups afterward.”

3. Go Even Smaller

Realize that people have a tendency to show off, especially online.

For example, someone will post on Reddit, “I write only 500 words a day.” Or, “I only work out 30 minutes a day.”

This is supposed to make you think, “Jesus, this person is hard-working, even when they are taking it easy.” It’s a form of false modesty.

Also, many people will plainly lie about their workload, trying to look cool.

Thus, ignore whatever numbers you read online. Go as low as you need to go. The only criterion is you.

If that means your daily minimum effort is “I will do one push-up” or “I will write one sentence for my novel,” so be it. Anything to get the ball rolling.

4. Just Touch On It

There are two types of habits — quota habits and “Just touch on it” habits.

An example of a quota habit would be, “I will practice my pentatonic scales on the guitar for 5 minutes per day.” Here, the quota is 5 minutes.

A “Just touch on it” habit only requires you to pick up the guitar and play at least one note — done.

I always recommend to start with the latter approach.

This way, you create the lowest possible barrier to entry. It is so ridiculously low that you virtually can’t fail.

Yet, on many days, you will end up playing more than one note, since you are already sitting there, guitar in hand. You will end up practicing for 5, 10, or 15 minutes.

5. Be Patient

We are reluctant to take small steps. It feels like we are slowing ourselves down.

But in reality, taking small steps is the shortcut.

By breaking complex tasks down and reducing the workload, you make the desired, new behavior more sustainable.

This means when most people run out of initial enthusiasm, you will keep going. You will reach the finish line when they won’t.

Therefore, be patient.

6. Improve Your Pain Threshold

Know your pain threshold. Then gradually increase it.

For example, when I started this blog, my pain tolerance for producing content was extremely low. All I could manage was a “Just touch on it” approach. Often, I would just write one sentence per day.

But gradually, over time, my pain tolerance grew.

At some point, I was able to switch over to a quota approach — 300 words per day.

300 words became 400 words, then 500 words.

Now, every day, I work at least for 4 hours on blog-related tasks. That’s a massive improvement from the one sentence I would have managed back in the day.

But I only got to this point because I took small steps in the beginning and slowly increased my pain threshold. If I had gone to 4 hours per day straight away, I would have failed.

We need to chew what we bit before we bite off more.

Joe Abercrombie

7. Adapt as You Go

When you are facing a complex task, you are supposed to break it down into its components. Then you should order these steps so that they build on each other.

That’s the theory.

But in reality, the order of these small steps will constantly change. Maybe you overlooked something. Maybe something unforeseen happened.

So, your carefully laid-out sequence will have to be rearranged.

Many people will take this as an excuse to not line up their dominoes in the first place. “Why bother when plans constantly change?”

Understand — nobody gets the process right the first time. Or the second or the third time.

But we still need a game plan, however faulty it might be. It helps us to get started and reduces cognitive load.

Iron out the flaws as you go.

8. Utilize Small Breaks

A great advantage of small steps is that you can fit them into small, unforeseen breaks throughout your day.

For example, while waiting for your dentist to see you, you could read five pages.

However, you need to prepare for these small breaks.

That might mean packing your e-book reader any time you leave the house, no matter if you are going to use it or not.

Or it might mean carrying your noise-canceling headphones with you at all times, so you can meditate in a noisy environment like the subway.

9. Monitor Yourself

Monitor your progress using Google Sheets.

For example, if you have committed to a daily walking habit, note down how long you walked or, using a step counter, how many steps you took.

When there are no easily quantifiable metrics, simply note down what you did that day. For example, if you are working on a new website for your business, note down how you wrote half a paragraph for the new sales page.

Once a week, look at your spreadsheet and ask yourself if you are making progress. If that’s the case, continue. If not, revisit your process.

10. Plan for Setbacks

Think about how a baby learns to walk. They take one step, then fall down. Then they take another step. Then they fall down again.

Setbacks are part of the process. Instead of getting discouraged by them, frame them as a sign of progress. Setbacks mean you are on the path.

Failure is not the opposite of success; it’s part of success.

Arianna Huffington

It’s a bit of a paradox. You want to avoid breaking the chain at all costs. Yet, when it happens, don’t beat yourself up about it. Like a baby, get up and take the next step.

11. Don’t Fall for Shiny Objects

When your routine starts to get boring, it’s easy to get distracted by shiny objects.

You try fad diets. You start looking into crypto. You buy that course from that dubious self-help guru.

This is self-defeating behavior.

The key to small steps is that you keep doing them, day in and day out. Compound interest is what we are after. If you keep switching back and forth between options, you will never reach critical mass anywhere.

Stay the course.

12. Get an Accountability Partner

To increase your goal adherence, you should find an accountability partner.

Studies have shown again and again that conferring with somebody about your progress massively increases your chances for success.

My personal experience confirms that. Whenever I accomplished something meaningful in my life, I had someone in my corner.

When I had to get knee surgery, I was close to giving up Brazilian jiu-jitsu. It was my long-time training partner who kept pushing me towards my black belt.

When I was struggling with the traditional relationship paradigm, it was my ex-girlfriend who encouraged me to explore ethical non-monogamy.

When I started to question the 9-to-5 lifestyle, it was a mentor who showed me that you can make decent money online.

Even for this blog, I utilize accountability. Every day, I let my accountability coach know what I worked on. It’s the sole reason why I have been able to keep up my weekly publishing frequency. Accountability really works.

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