Resolutions Workshop 2009: One Step at a Time

Lofty goals all begin with a single step. Here’s how to plan — and sustain — the small changes that matter.

woman smiling on desert road

For many of us, the start of a new year is more than just the flip of a calendar page — it’s a blank slate. It’s a time to reimagine who we can be. We give ourselves big, galvanizing goals and set out in earnest to achieve them.

Too often, though, we lose momentum even before we’ve begun — because we don’t establish benchmarks for charting our progress, and we don’t break our big goals down into small steps that represent meaningful, but doable, progress.

The result? When a few days or weeks go by and we haven’t yet wiped out all our debt or lost all the weight we hoped to shed, we get disappointed. We feel disempowered. And then we give up.

That’s why one of the secrets to achieving our goals is to dream big while planning small. Successfully accomplishing well-defined, incremental goals (as opposed to wrangling large, unwieldy projects that never get off the ground) not only nets us some tangible results, it also builds feelings of competence and confidence, and helps us establish traction for big(ger) changes down the road.

Step-by-step changes, by definition, create opportunities for daily focus — and daily action. Together, those components create a reliable context for change.

“It’s like a magnifying glass. The more focused your energy, the more firepower you have,” says Gregg Levoy, author of Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life (Random House, 1997). You can direct that power at individual changes or at a series of small changes that will combine to help you break out of a long-standing rut.

Want to make 2009 your year of small steps and big successes? To help you get started, we’ve gathered expert advice on the most effective ways to start building meaningful momentum, now.

Clarify Your Vision

Most of us have at least a few big dreams. Maybe it’s running a marathon, getting that high credit-card balance to zero or writing the great American novel. But our dreams of going from zero (can’t jog around the block) to 100 (finishing an Ironman) overnight can seem so overwhelming that we get paralyzed and do nothing at all.

“There is something to be said for having visions, but the real power in these things is the tiny goals — the kind that you can get on tomorrow’s to-do list,” says Levoy. “You can’t become a novelist overnight, but you can write two pages a day. And the cumulative effect of, say, a year’s worth of two pages a day is a book-length manuscript.”

Translating general goals into specific actions is essential, says M. J. Ryan, author of This Year I Will . . . How to Finally Change a Habit, Keep a Resolution, or Make a Dream Come True (Broadway, 2006). But going from general to specific also requires a shifting of mental gears.

“Our aspirations, longings and desires are generally right-brain thinking,” she explains. “Determining how to make those things reality and taking the steps to understand and measure [our progress] is something that happens in the left brain. We need to apply the analytical thinking of our left brain to achieve our right-brain desires, but most of us haven’t been taught to do that.”

Here are some helpful tips for putting your right-brain dreams into left-brain language:

Pick your goals. Home in on one (or at most two) areas of your life in which you’d most like to create positive change. It can help to first take stock of how ready you are to make change (“still thinking about it” vs. “really ready to take action”), and then pick a goal that’s geared toward moving you incrementally forward (see the behavior change model summarized in “Profiles of Fitness Transformations”). You might also identify one desire or area of imbalance and then consider what related shifts in your daily routine would make the biggest difference.

Visualize change. What would your daily life look like if you were making small, specific changes in the service of your larger goal? What concrete actions could be incorporated into each day to bring you closer to your goal? For example, if your dream is to one day compete in a triathlon, but you haven’t been making fitness a priority, think about small shifts you could take right now — walking the stairs at every opportunity or signing up for a weekly fitness class — that will get you a bit closer to your goal. If you can’t realistically imagine yourself making the change you have in mind, visualize some change that you do believe you can do.

Define your action steps. Now that you’ve brainstormed some actionable ideas, make them measurable and time-specific. Define when and where you will do these things, and how many times in a day, week or month. Think in terms of tasks that another person could confirm or deny (yes, she did eat fresh fruit each day this week). Give these commitments space in your calendar and cross them off as you go. By giving yourself exact, visible targets you can measure — and celebrate — you’ll build confidence and momentum.

Check in. As you start incorporating small changes into your daily routine, set aside a regular, recurring time to take stock. If the changes you’ve outlined aren’t happening, look at what’s getting in the way. Is it a time and energy problem? If so, how can you free up these resources? Are you lacking a skill or support? If so, how can you go about acquiring the help you need? Have you simply set a goal that’s too ambitious? Redefine it in terms of daily momentum-building actions that feel doable to you now. Remember, scaling back your plans needn’t be a declaration of failure. Instead, see it as an act of integrity: You’re aligning your energy and intention toward creating real-life success.

Cultivate Clues

Environment drives behavior. Since old habits die hard, and because new habits can take a few weeks to form, it’s important to get your environment working in your favor. If you’ve been doing things one way for years, notes Ryan, “you need support to remind yourself to make the change.” You may also need visual cues to trigger new perspectives.

Here are two key questions to help you cultivate a resolution-friendly environment:

How can I structure my physical environment to trigger desired behaviors and attitudes?
Oftentimes we get stuck with bad habits because they’re easy. A simple change in our surroundings may be all the catalyst we need to make a real and lasting small change.

If you’re trying to watch less TV but have a set in the bedroom, move it to the basement and stock your bedroom with beautiful candles and books instead. If you’re determined to eat a better breakfast, prep your edibles in easy-access containers, assemble any key cooking gear, and clear clutter from the areas where you prepare and eat your food.

If you’re planning a new workout routine, leave your running shoes, gym bag, weights, yoga mat and fitness journal right where you can see them, and load your MP3 player with great tunes. Need a reminder to floss each night? Leave the container on your vanity in plain sight, not tucked in a drawer. And if you’re trying to kick the soda habit, by all means, purge your pantry of 12-packs and pull your water pitcher out of hiding.

“Get yourself out of harm’s way,” suggests life coach J. Lynn Cutts, PhD, CPCC, author of Change One Habit, Change Your Life (BookSurge, 2006). “Change your environment and don’t go to places where you might be tempted.”

Jot down three environmental adjustments you can make to support desired behaviors and attitudes essential to your goal.

How can I connect an old habit to a new change?
A daily reminder can be a powerful tool to help you move forward toward your goals, and you can use long-established habits to give you that prompt. “You’ll remember [your new goals] better if they’re attached to an action you’re already doing,” says Ryan.

This strategy, known as linking, makes it easier to take on a new habit, because you aren’t starting from scratch. It may be as simple as placing reminder notes to yourself in places you automatically see or touch each day (your fridge, your bathroom mirror, your garage door, your dashboard). Or it might involve placing a triggering tool or object in the vicinity of a deeply ingrained action.

For example, if you want to start taking a multivitamin and you routinely eat cereal for breakfast or use a sweetener in your morning joe, put your vitamin bottle next to either item to remind you to take one each day. Or if you want to squeeze in five minutes of morning yoga, start doing it while brewing your tea or coffee.

List three existing routines you have and three new desired habits or actions you can link to them.

Track Your Progress, Reap Rewards

Meeting a small goal each day can have a real impact over time — and it’s important to find a way to acknowledge the steps you’ve taken. Charting your progress gives you tangible evidence of your ongoing transformation — and that energizes you to keep going.

When Levoy decided he wanted to quit his job to become a freelance writer, he took three to six small steps each day toward his goal, from sending emails, to brainstorming story ideas. “I kept a progress log of the campaign: a ring binder filled up with daily to-do lists, dreams, drawings, and journal entries, as well as notes from my informational interviews with freelancers,” he says. “After one year of three to six little reachable goals [each day], you’re talking about thousands of individual steps.”

When Ryan set a goal for herself to take a multivitamin each day, she kept a pad on her refrigerator where she could note each time she remembered to take it. It was no more difficult than crossing out an item on her to-do list, but the satisfaction of seeing that daily success motivated her to continue.

This is the beauty of the can-do confidence psychologists call self-efficacy: It’s something each of us can build simply by coaxing ourselves through a series of small successes, one step at a time.

It’s worth noting in advance that any goal worth achieving is bound to present some challenging moments. So if you miss a workout or bail on a commitment, don’t give in to the temptation to pronounce yourself a failure. Instead, look at even your setbacks as sources of useful information: What were the circumstances that preceded the slip-up, and what can you learn from them?

Once you’ve gathered the insight (“stress makes me eat; watching TV makes me lethargic; not getting enough sleep makes me dread my workout”), write it down in your journal or resolutions notebook — and then make some notes of what you might do differently next time. Then go back to focusing on the vision and core motivations that got you excited to take on this goal in the first place. Take inventory of all the little things you’ve done to demonstrate your intention.

“When you’re convinced you’re not making any progress, when you’re overcome with the voices of doubt (yours and others’), you can look at that accumulation of individual steps and insights and remember that, in fact, you’re making tremendous progress,” Levoy says.

January is a time for fresh starts, and this year the fresh start can be thinking small. So commit to a modest-but-meaningful change, practice it consistently, and soon you’ll begin reaping the rewards — the kind that bring your bigger goals within surprisingly easy reach.

is a freelance writer in Minneapolis.

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