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Small Steps to Big Achievements

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 Gemma Holmes

Winter 2016

Small Steps to Big Achievements


Taking a new approach to resolutions

There’s nothing wrong with having New Year’s resolutions. Many of us see the 1st of January as a chance to wipe the slate clean and reinvent ourselves as the person we want to be. The trouble is, reinvention takes longer than 12 chimes of a clock and big change can be scary.

Our unconscious serves to protect us and it believes it is doing a good job. It, therefore, pushes back on the suggestion that doing things another way is a good idea. For this reason, with the best intentions, our unconscious can keep us doing habits that stop us from achieving what we want in life. It thinks it is less risky to continue doing what we are doing now and being in a relatively ok state than making a big change with unknown outcomes.

But knowing that this inner resistance comes from a place of protection means we can thank our unconscious for the care, but make strides towards our goals anyway. The thing is, the bigger the goal, the harder it can be to battle against the resistance and the more likely you will pin all your hopes for a fulfilled life on achieving that thing.

As a Cognitive Hypnotherapist and Coach, I’m passionate about helping you to break down your goals into a process that means you can achieve something every day; smaller steps that are less scary to tackle and provide more immediate gratification. This way, you are feeding the purpose of your goal on a regular basis, not just waiting for that moment when it can be ticked off the list. Take weight loss, for example. Behind the desire to lose weight there is almost always a bigger purpose, such as being healthier to enable a longer life or being able to feel more energised, so opportunities can be seized. Knowing the purpose behind your goal enables you to serve that purpose every day, with small steps, rather than being dissatisfied until that size 12 dress or medium sized shirt fits.

So, this year, rather than having that one grand New Year’s resolution that you are, frankly, unlikely to stick to beyond January, might I suggest you try the approach of marginal gains. 

What do I mean by marginal gains?

Marginal gains as a concept is all about small incremental improvements adding up to significant progress when combined. It’s probably most well-known for the difference it had when implemented by Sir Dave Brailsford as performance director of British Cycling. He became curious about all the things that could bring 1% improvement to his team. As a result, he made the bikes more aerodynamic, painted team trucks white so dust was more easily spotted to avoid hindering maintenance, the team used antibacterial gel to help keep them healthy and he improved the comfort of their truck so they could gain better rest.

None of these would have been viewed as a huge threat on the team’s potential success, so would have been overlooked by most as not worth the effort. But seeing small weaknesses as opportunities for growth meant the cumulative gain from each improvement was vast.

A wealth of Olympic gold medals and Tour de France successes later and the proof is in the proverbial pudding.

How can you use it?

Translated to everyday life, this theory is all about improving different areas of your life by just 1% so that the combined impact is an all-round boost in your wellbeing, success or happiness. It’s about breaking down big goals into smaller component parts and what better time to start applying this to your own life than the New Year!

For this to work, you need to be open to questioning your mindset and setting a commitment to continuous improvement. It’s about seeing weaknesses as opportunities and having a bias towards taking action. As I said, big goals can be hugely daunting and risk us not feeling good enough until we have achieved them. The beauty of marginal gains is the ability to make progress towards your goal each and every day.

Think of what you want to achieve next year. I urge you to then think about the purpose behind that goal; why you want it and what you will believe about yourself when you achieve it that you don’t fully believe now. Then, just as Sir Dave Brailsford did, do an analysis of all the things that might be contributing to you not having achieved it to date.

These weaknesses or barriers are now opportunities, a chance to make small changes that combined will make a huge difference. Make a list of 1% changes you can make to each of these areas, and then (the important bit) make them happen.

Creating new habits

As Aristotle put it: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit”. If we can get into the habit of making small changes each day that serve our purpose, rather than going all or nothing towards a grand achievement, we are far more likely to get where we want to and be more fulfilled in the process.

Many coaches encourage their clients to develop slight edge habits. The Slight Edge is a book written by Jeff Olson that encourages us to “make the daily choices that will lead you to the success you desire”.

To help you create a positive habit that nudges you towards the life you want, you can set yourself micro-goals that you need to commit to carrying out on a regular basis. Because habits are an unconscious process, we can be doing things each day that negatively impact what we really want without even realising. By consciously interrupting these negative habits with new positive ones, we can gradually change what we think and do unconsciously in the future. 

How it worked in action

At the start of this year, I started coaching a client who wanted to launch their own business on top of full-time work. They were excited about their plans, but it seemed incredibly scary and their unconscious was saying “woooooooah, easy tiger, you have a stable full-time job, what are you doing? Far safer to stay in coasting mode than to risk this unknown world”. Having discussed where this fear comes from, my client chose to thank and ignore his unconscious and venture forwards anyway.

We looked at all the potential weaknesses in his plan and identified all the areas for 1% improvement such as: eating better so he had more energy to run his business in the evening; creating a more comfortable office environment, so working late would be more pleasant; getting better IT equipment so work was more efficient and so on. All these things were relatively small to adjust, but cumulatively they gave him more energy, more time and more enjoyment in what he was doing.

We then looked at the habits that were holding him back. He wasn’t a morning person, but knew if he was to leave work on time to see clients in the evening he had to get in earlier, so his alarm moved by 30 minutes and he trained himself to stop hitting snooze. He ensured he made it to the gym three times a week to keep fit and get a needed adrenaline hit.

He did one thing each day towards his business, such as improving website SEO, posting on his social media pages and contacting local organisations with shared values. These new habits built momentum overtime and the more he achieved the more he was driven to do more towards his goal. I remember him telling me it was like doing a dot-to-dot. He had a sense of the big picture but just focused each day on getting to the next dot. Just this month, he told me he was fully booked for the first time. It’s amazing what small adjustments and new habits can achieve over time.