The Next Step: How to Take Small Strides Towards Success

New Year resolutions
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How to achieve your goal by identifying the first or next step you need to take

If you want to achieve your goal, what is your next step? When your vision feels overwhelming, what is the one small action that takes you closer to that dream? If you struggle to start towards your objective, what small stride can you take in the right direction? 

When goals feel too big

In the previous section, I mentioned competing in the Dragon’s Back race, and how I broke down the overall race into various goals, tasks and milestones. That played a huge part in my overall success in the event, but there were times when even the next task or milestone felt too big. 

There were moments during the race when I wanted to give up. The fourth day was probably the worst for this. By that stage of the race, I was physically exhausted, having already completed three ultramarathons over three days. My feet were in constant pain due to sores, created by blisters that had rubbed raw. And now I had to complete the longest section of the course, over the dullest, wettest terrain, a place called Elan Valley.

Make the big feel small

With my physical and mental strength at their lowest ebb, the thought of even another few kilometres became overwhelming. My brain was screaming out that it was impossible to go that far, and so I made deals with myself. I broke everything down even further. When it got tough I promised myself that in another five minutes I could have a snack. When it got worse still, I told myself that all I needed to do was jog the next hundred metres, and then I could walk for the hundred metres after that.

I completed the day within the cut-off time and could therefore progress to the final day. That evening, the thought of doing yet another ultramarathon the next day felt impossible. So yet again I made the big, small. I told myself that the only thing I needed to do the next day was to put on my running shoes. That was all.

The next day I did put on my shoes and so I set myself a new step of getting to breakfast, then getting to the start line, and so on until, many hours later I found myself staring at the finish line. It felt surreal to have done something that had felt so distant and difficult for so long. But I had completed it, one step at a time. 

Taking the first step towards your goal 

So, this brings us to the final constituent part of our planning, the ‘step’.  This is the smallest and yet probably the most crucial part.  Defining the first or next step is important because many jobs and goals are never initiated, as it is too daunting to start, or they stall because the next step is not defined.

There is a known psychological hurdle when getting going on any task.  For example, a clean sheet of paper can lead to a mental block.  To overcome this an artist may give a blank canvas a simple wash of colour that will be painted over, or a writer may type a few lines on an empty page that may later be deleted. The first strokes or words don’t matter. What matters is that we switch from deliberation to action. Neuroscientist Professor Ian Robertson explains that this change of mindset improves our focus and confidence, instantly improving our chances of success. 

So, whatever venture we are initiating, we need to make a small step in the right direction to get over the inertia of going from immobile to mobile.

“The Scandinavians have a phrase the “doorstep mile”, meaning that the first mile away from your front door is the hardest of all” – Alastair Humphreys

The Right Question Tool: Put on your shoes and take a STEP 

One useful strategy when starting a project is to break down the first task into an easy step that can be completed in about 30 minutes.  If it can be done in 5 minutes even better!  

If we cannot do it right now, we plan to do that one step at the next opportunity, for example, at the beginning of the next day. Then we ensure to set another step for the following occasion or day.  As things gain momentum you will find it easier to get into the work and complete your tasks. Success in small steps gives us little dopamine rewards in our brains. They also build confidence, as they are little data points that show that we can do it, it can happen. Therefore, the key thing is just getting going.

The metaphor we look to in the Right Questions Framework is footwear. We put on our shoes or boots to get going and take that first step. The word step can help us too, as this becomes an acronym for how we take action, relating it to the Route Card tool covered previously. 

The STEP tool stands for:

  • Start with the overall success or mission statement
  • Target success by identifying the key goals that need to be achieved
  • Evaluate these goals, breaking them into tasks, activities and milestones
  • Plan the next step, making it small enough to be achievable

“When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.” – Confucius

Using the STEP tool: Planning exercise

Now it’s your turn. Think of what you need to do. You might focus on a life goal, but if not then pick something with enough complexity to test the process. For example, that could be planning a holiday or business trip, or purchasing a new phone or computer. But use a real goal that you need to achieve.

First state your mission statement and define what success looks like. Then follow the process, breaking down the overall outcome into key goals. Then evaluate these and pull out the necessary tasks and activities. Finally, identify the first or next step you need to take. These are the ones that need to go in your diary or be done right now.

Congratulations, you are a step closer to achieving your mission! Now complete the first step and follow the process again, always making sure you define the next step and can make progress. 

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