Rather than wasting time and effort on a big long-term goal, start small and focus on your deliberate first steps.
Fate is not on your side.
You look at yourself in the mirror and think, This time I can do it, I can become the person I want to be.
You can pep yourself up all you want. You can keep imagining those long-term goals. But it isn’t going to work.
You never achieve your long-term goals because you keep rushing past the most important part: Taking a deliberate first step.
I’m fortunate to have seen my sons take their first steps.
Every time they would focus really hard and put one foot forward, then the other, and finally fall flat on their diaper-cushioned butts.
Their faces would screw up in frustration, but they’d try again. Always the same process: Small step, small step, fall, get up, small step, small step, fall, get up.
Eventually, they went from sacks of skin and baby fat rolling on the ground to fully-functional mobile human beings. None of which would have been possible without those deliberate first steps.
I share this anecdote because it’s the perfect reminder for us grown-ups that we can’t rush change. Too often we imagine big, long-term goals for ourselves only to skip over the deliberate first steps.
We sign up for a year-long gym membership without first establishing a workout routine.
We empty our fridges and pantries of processed sweets without slowly adapting to a new diet.
We sign up for a budgeting app without first cutting away our frivolous spending habits.
Our lack of patience is costing us our long-term progress. We need to fix that.
Slow down kid
Achieving long-term goals requires one thing: established habitual action.
The reason we fail is that we aren’t patient enough to adjust to our new lifestyle.
What do I mean? Let me explain with a recent example. A year and a half ago I wanted to workout. I was flabby. I didn’t have a lot of muscle tone. And I just wanted to feel healthier.
I dragged my feet for months because I didn’t have the “right” equipment nor did I feel like joining a gym. Then one day it hit me: drop to the floor and do 10 push-ups.
That’s all I did, 10 push-ups. The next day I did 12. The following day I did 15. After a week of doing push-ups I was bored, so I mixed in a bit of yoga training, then I added a couple of small weights.
My workout routine organically grew from 10 push-ups on the floor until what it is today: 6 days a week of lifting, cardio, flexibility, and a weekly game of soccer.
If I bought a bunch of weights 18 months ago and tried working out 6 days a week, I would have failed. Those deliberate first few steps were critical.
The three objectives
I’ve inundated you with anecdotes to prove my point. Let’s get practical.
Whether you want to start up a new writing routine, work out routine, or want to start budgeting, you need to take a deliberate first step. But what exactly does that look like?
Objective 1: Learn to overcome the friction
You’re going to encounter obstacles as you go after your long-term goal. These aren’t going to be huge obstacles like going to the DMV, these are small inconveniences that make what you are trying to achieve a little bit harder.
Let’s say your long term goal is to work out more consistently. You have a few options: join a gym or work out at home.
A gym sounds enticing because they have all the equipment, trainers, and cool treadmills. But how much friction is that drive to the gym going to cause you? How will gathering up all your gym clothes and shoes and water and another change of clothes prevent you from taking those first steps?
Now, working out from home sounds more enticing. There’s less friction between you now and you working out.
During the early stages of your long-term goals pay attention to the friction. Practice overcoming it, or even better, eliminating it.
Objective 2: Work your way into a routine
At first, your new routine will feel awkward and forced. Eventually, it’ll come naturally. To get to this stage you need to give yourself time to find your new routine.
Just like paying attention to the frictions that prevent you from taking small deliberate first steps, pay attention to the routines that make up your day. Which ones conflict with your new set of steps? Which ones can be modified?
If your long-term goal is to write a book, how are you going to integrate a new writing routine into your day? You could perhaps wake up 2 hours earlier each day and devote that time to writing. Your morning and evening routine would have to shift. Maybe 2 hours is a bit ambitious at first, so you start slow by waking up 30 minutes earlier each week for 4 weeks.
Either way, don’t make drastic changes to your daily routine, slowly integrate your new routine into place.
Objective 3: Don’t define a goal or metric
Yes, there’s a bigger picture goal you want to achieve, but don’t focus on that in these early stages.
Don’t define a metric to hit. Simply focus on your actions. “Did I take a small step today?” is the only question you should be asking yourself.
Treat this time as an experiment. Give yourself 30 days to take your deliberate first steps, focusing on the two objectives above and ignoring any measures of progress. Use this time to find out if you enjoy doing your thing for the sake of doing your thing.
Why is this important? Because if your actions become tied to a result you will make different decisions. As my friend Stephen said to me recently:
“What are you motivated to keep learning about? What’s that little challenge that sparks your curiosity to keep doing? That is what will keep a habit going. As opposed to when you go for a goal, you’re going to force it you’re going to be miserable. It’s going to feel like an obligation.”
Don’t focus on a metric. Focus on learning. Focus on adjusting. Focus on taking the deliberate first steps.
Go take your deliberate first step
Here’s the good news: if your deliberate first steps turn out to be a complete waste of time, you can always start over.
This is the intent of your first steps, they shouldn’t be expensive or time-consuming. They are mini-experiments to understand “can I do this thing” and “do I want to do this thing?”
You may very well come to the conclusion that this is the wrong long-term goal for you. And that’s okay, you learned.
Now figure out your next deliberate first step and repeat the same three objectives: overcome the friction, get into a routine, and ignore the metrics.
Aim high, but start low.