zen habits : breathe

The Small-Scale Approach to Achieving Great Things

“It is better to take many small steps in the right direction than to make a great leap forward only to stumble backward.” - Old Chinese proverb

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Scott McIntyre of Vivid Ways.

Think big. Live to the max. Change the world.

All worthwhile aims, I’m sure you’ll agree. These high-flying statements are meant to encourage us to achieve great things with our lives. But, rather than being an inspiration, do such huge goals just leave you feeling overwhelmed instead?

Sadly, many of us never begin developing new habits because we think a positive outcome will take too much effort. Or else, after we do start to improve our lifestyle, we give up far too soon because we don’t get what we want fast enough. It’s easy to be daunted by the size of the challenge ahead.

I know what it’s like. For 15 long years, I tried again and again to lose weight and get fit. Eventually, I managed to shift nearly 100 pounds – and revamp other aspects of my life – once I realized the most effective way to tackle change is to view it with a small-scale perspective.

Perhaps you’re struggling right now because you’ve set yourself targets that are difficult to reach, however hard you work. Maybe you’re focusing on the distant end result and are about to quit at any moment.

If so, you could benefit from thinking small to help you transform your life. I’d like to share my experiences in the hope that you will do exactly that.

Taking On Too Much

“Think big!” may be the war cry of trail-blazing entrepreneurs but, surprisingly, it could be a limiting attitude for you to adopt straightaway.

On countless occasions, I was full of hope that I’d finally be able to establish a brand new healthy way of living. I planned to deal with a wide range of habits all at the same time: low fat eating; better food preparation; more exercise, and so on. Inevitably, after a few days or weeks (sometimes just hours), I’d ditch the changes and return to my old unhealthy behaviors,

Later on, I realized the problem was that I was taking on more than was feasible and expecting quick success. Overloading yourself with a variety of objectives is a surefire recipe for failure. I discovered that the best solution is to focus on only one habit at a time and to follow it slowly.

Break Down the Big Stuff

For me, the stumbling blocks to success were that I allowed myself to be overcome by the size of the task and how long it would take to get there. What really helped was to break down the overall journey into smaller steps and to stop looking as far into the future.

Before you can achieve something in life, you need to decide precisely what it is you want. It could be you intend to stop smoking; improve your fitness; give up gambling; get a new job, or whatever.

Once you have a clearly defined idea of the what, why and how long of your end result, you can break down the entire process. Here are a few tips to do this:

1. Pinpoint the steps involved. Let’s say, for example, that your end result is to get a job as a teacher in 5 years time. Ask yourself what individual steps are needed to get there. Are specific qualifications and experience required? How can you gain these skills? What can you do to study or re-train? Come up with all the steps you can think of. The purpose of this exercise is to flesh out what is still a large aim into smaller, detailed steps. Each one represents a stepping stone towards achieving your end result.

2. Create a pint-sized action plan. Think of the steps as actions. Once you understand what actions are needed to achieve your end result, you can pull these together into a plan. In my case, the end result was “to lose 100 pounds in 18 months”. In order to accomplish this, I had to be a lot more precise about the actions to take. These included cutting down on junk food, eating more fruit and veg, and preparing healthier meals.

3. Set mini targets and daily/ weekly tasks. When you create your action plan, work out a series of targets you believe it’s possible to reach on the way to your end result. For example, a healthy weight loss of between 1 and 2 pounds per week is advised. Although the big target was 100 pounds, I was much more able to comprehend the mini weekly target of one and a half pounds. Decide what you need to have done in six, three and one months’ time to achieve your end result. Then break it down into monthly and weekly chunks, and from here you can set yourself simple daily and weekly tasks that are easily reached.

4. Keep on track. If the mini target for a given week isn’t achieved, don’t despair. The small-scale approach is so flexible that it allows you to make instant changes. On a weekly basis, ask yourself what happened and whether you could do anything differently? Carry over the shortfall to the following week and tweak your daily and weekly tasks accordingly. Keep on completing these small-scale tasks and meeting the mini targets, and the end result will be well within your grasp.

5. Forget the long-term. Get into the habit of ignoring the end date, and try to stop dwelling on what’s to come in the future. Don’t worry – you already considered the overall task and how long it would take when you set the mini targets and the daily/ weekly tasks. Now you can put the long-term view to one side, and really pay attention to achieving these smaller, shorter-term targets and tasks.

6. Adjust your steps. Along the way, you might find that what you’re trying isn’t as effective as you hoped. Or, other factors – such as job and family commitments – could affect your focus. Be ready to tweak your targets and tasks, when necessary. It’s perfectly ok to revisit and revise them to ease the load. Better to pace yourself than be stressed out.

7. Celebrate the little wins. One success leads to another, so use all your wins to spur you on. As each milestone is passed triumphantly, it’ll boost your motivation and you’ll gain a renewed confidence in your abilities. Reward yourself with something which makes you feel amazing – a new pair of jeans, a trip to the park with your kids, a relaxing homemade spa day. Treat yourself to anything which reinforces your resolve to reach the end. It needn’t cost a penny.

8. Resist the urge to supersize. It’s human nature to want results fast. At times, you might be tempted to rush at things and bite off more than you can chew, ending up back at square one. If you’re tempted to give up, refer to your ‘motivation bank’ of reasons why you want the end result. Be determined and concentrate on only the current stage of your journey, and not on what’s next. Reflect on how far you’ve come and what a waste it would be to throw in the towel.

Balancing Grand Ambitions with Manageability

Some folk will tell you that it shows a lack of ambition to go for lifestyle change on a smaller scale. They prefer to adopt an all-or-nothing mindset, believing it’s a sign of weakness to be slow and steady in your approach. That’s fine … let them take on the whole world, while you manage your habits on your own terms.

True, in order for us to grow, we’ve got to be prepared to stretch ourselves. But, there’s a fine balance to be struck between reachable and impossible goals, as they apply to you alone. Not everyone wants (or is able) to cope with overly ambitious goals, so don’t feel under pressure due to anyone else’s expectations.

There’s no escaping the fact that long-lasting lifestyle change requires an investment of your time and effort, as well as a pinch of patience. You can, however, make the road to achieving great things less intimidating when you break down the end result into many smaller steps.

You’ll feel fantastic when you finally complete the journey.

Read more articles from Scott McIntyre on colorful living – and how ordinary people can do great things – by subscribing to the Vivid Ways feed. You can also add color to your life by signing up for the free Vivid Ways newsletter.



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