Episode: How to Take Small Steps to Accomplish Big Goals

Michael Hyatt: Hi, I’m Michael Hyatt.

Megan Hyatt Miller: And I’m Megan Hyatt Miller.

Michael: And this is Lead to Win, our weekly podcast to help you win at work and succeed at life. Today we’re going to talk about accomplishing big things, big goals, but in a way you might not have considered or at least may have underutilized. We’re going to talk about the power of incremental change over time or taking little steps that go a long way. So, Megan, welcome. Good to see you.

Megan: Hey, Dad. It’s great to be here. I love this topic because I think it is the antidote to overwhelm and also kind of the answer for our goal-setting skeptics out there who may have tried and failed to accomplish big goals. You know, they tried to go after something big, and they just got derailed along the way. I think this can be a really important missing piece in that conversation, so I’m excited to dig in.

Michael: Well, you’ve probably heard this before. People advocate that if you want to accomplish something really important, you have to take massive action. You have to do something big, dramatic, bold, if you want to achieve dramatic, big, bold things. I think probably there are some times when that is necessary, but I think for most things, that’s actually the wrong approach and, in fact, that’s the approach that leads to overwhelm and leads to procrastination, because you know you can’t gin up that much energy, or whatever it is, or sustain it, so you kind of give up before you start or quit soon after you start. We’re going to talk about a completely different approach today.

Megan: Yeah. Dad, I think a lot of little steps can get you wherever you want to go. This is not like the big sexy idea here, like your Big Hairy Audacious Goal idea. This is sort of like the tortoise and the hare. But I tell you what. People overestimate what they can do in the short term, but they underestimate what they can do in the long term with incremental change.

As it turns out, these incremental improvements day after day after day start to stack up, and you end up with the potential to make pretty dramatic change. You’re just not doing it all at once. Particularly around things like habit goals, the opportunity for sustainable change, for change that really lasts, is so much greater with incremental progress than some massive action all at once.

Michael: Okay. Let’s talk about a few examples so that people understand and this makes it concrete for them. One of the easiest places to understand this is in the realm of finances. Years ago, in the early 90s, I had a fateful meeting with Dave Ramsey who at that time wasn’t famous, but we knew him socially. I had met him a couple of times before.

Gail, unbeknownst to me, set up a meeting with him, a private meeting, a consultation with him, and I didn’t know that’s where we were going until we arrived. She said, “I just need you to get in the car and go with me, and you’ll know where we’re going when we get there.” Well, I was embarrassed. I was mortified, because we were over $40,000 in debt. As you should know about Dave Ramsey, if there’s one thing Dave hates in the world, it’s debt, and particularly credit card debt.

So, here I was with all this credit card debt, absolutely mortified that this had been revealed to him. Well, Dave was incredibly gracious and kind, and Dave explained to us the concept, which at that time hadn’t been codified in any kind of book. It was just a concept he had learned personally. He shared the concept of baby steps, getting out of debt through baby steps.

Now, up until that point, I knew I had a problem with debt. I mean, it was strangling us. Every month we struggled because we had, as Dave often says, month left over at the end of our paycheck. It was a challenge. We tried to attack it through massive action. I thought, “Well, if I could just come up with some side project that would create a windfall, I could pay off this debt, or if I could get some big promotion or change jobs and get a salary increase, then I could deal with this thing.”

Dave’s whole concept was “No. You don’t need to change jobs. You don’t need to do a lot different than what you’re doing, but you do need to take baby steps.” So, the first thing we did was we created an emergency fund so our payoff plan didn’t get derailed by something unexpected. Then we started just paying down the debt. One of the things Dave teaches is that you pay down the smallest debt first, and you do this thing called the debt snowball. Literally, within 12 months, we were completely out of debt.

Megan: That’s amazing. You know what I think is important about that story? Sometimes people think “Either I have to go after big things or I have to kind of resign myself to making small, incremental progress,” but they’re actually related to each other. It’s not an either/or kind of thing. In fact, when you have the discipline to make incremental progress day after day and you just work on consistency, you end up with a dramatic change. I mean, getting out of debt is a big deal, for example.

People see this in their health with their fitness all the time. They see it in their businesses. There are so many places where incremental progress is important and necessary. They end up accomplishing a huge goal, usually many huge goals, over a period of time, but they’re just making that slow, steady progress along the way. It’s easy to discount that on the front end, but it’s not either/or. You can accomplish big things, and you can do it one step at a time.

An example of this in my own life has been strength training. I feel like for a few episodes now I’ve talked about my fitness journey this year. I have been a pretty consistent walker for a long time, and at various times in my life I’ve done quite a bit of strength training. I enjoy it. I like feeling strong, but I really haven’t done that consistently in the last few years. I had a shoulder surgery and some other things that made that difficult and just kind of lost my vision for it.

So, I decided to start doing it again over the summer and have been working virtually with a trainer who kind of creates a program for me. I don’t work out with her, but she creates this program. When I started, I wasn’t totally out of shape from a cardiovascular standpoint, but I had not trained my muscles in a long time in that way. I started with exercise bands, and by that I mean those tubular bands with little handles on the end. You can get them on Amazon.

Michael: They’re great.

Megan: They’re so great. You can travel with them, not that we’re doing that anymore at this very moment, but they’re an inexpensive way to get started. When I got my little pack of exercise bands, I was using the lightest ones. It was all I could do to do my 10 to 15 reps of whatever I was working on.

Michael: At 10 pounds?

Megan: No, 10 to 15 reps. The weights were probably like 5 pounds, 10 pounds, 15 pounds, 20 pounds, maybe something like that. When I would do these various workouts my trainer had configured in this app she uses, I was on the low end of the lightest versions of those bands. Well, now fast-forward. At the time of this recording it’s mid-November, and not only am I doing the heaviest ones. I had to order some more, so I’m now up to like 40 pounds, or whatever, on a lot of the exercises I’m doing, and I think I’ll end up getting much stronger than that.

But I didn’t do that in one day. I wasn’t like, “Okay. I’m using 5 pounds or 10 pounds,” and then two weeks later I’m doing 40 pounds. No. The progress was so slow I hardly even noticed it when I would go up on a band. I’d be like, “Oh, that feels a little bit easy. I can do probably way more than 15 reps. I need to probably go to the next weight of band.” Little by little, I just worked through each one. I’ve been through about six bands or something at this point, and I’m on to the new set of bands I had to order so I can continue to challenge myself.

I think that’s a great metaphor for what we’re talking about. I mean, I noticeably am stronger at this point. In my day-to-day life, when I’m picking up our toddler daughter Naomi or bringing groceries in or whatever, just ordinary life stuff, I’m like, “Wow. That’s easier than it used to be. That’s awesome.” I have more stamina than I used to. I’m really enjoying it.

As it turns out, this is actually a real concept. In weight training it’s called progressive overload. This is the idea that by increasing the amount you lift every week over time, you can significantly increase your strength. You’re just pushing yourself a little bit…not a ton, but a little bit…day over day, making probably single-digit percentage point progress that ultimately leads to a pretty dramatic transformation.

Michael: I love that idea of progressive overload. In fact, that could be the title of my autobiography.

Megan: That’s funny.

Michael: Well, has there ever been a time, like with strength training, maybe back when you were young and stupid, that you decided to take the massive action approach?

Megan: Yes. In fact, I have probably many stories of that, but when I was 20, I really got all fired up. I was feeling tough, and I was like, “Let’s go. Let’s do this.” So, I hired this trainer who was not much older than I was at that point. Who knows? Maybe I was his first client. I didn’t know how to do the research at that point to find someone who was really equipped and experienced and able to help me. I went in. I was lying on an incline bench that was flat, and I was going to do a chest press.

I’m lying on my back. I’m going to push these weights up as far as my arms could reach straight up in the air. I don’t remember what the weight was, but I lost control of the weight and dislocated my shoulder. I ended up in the ER with this guy I didn’t know. This trainer had to take me. I couldn’t drive because my shoulder was dislocated. Before I know it, I’m sedated. My arm is being put back into place. You can believe that I did not lift any weights for a long time. Ultimately, that injury resulted in the surgery I had a couple of years ago, so it was a pretty big deal.

Michael: Well, this is graphic. I was thinking of a humorous example here, and then I want to tell you a serious one. I know we’re giving you guys a lot of examples, but we want you to understand this concept. It’s so critical. I think it’s easier to illustrate than just walk through the steps. We’ll do some of that in a minute. A good example of this is when you’re young and you’re a teenager and you decide you need a suntan, so you decide, “I’m going to get a suntan, like, today.” For somebody like me, who’s very fair-skinned, and I just decide, “You know, I don’t need any of that sunscreen…”

Megan: “It’ll be fine.”

Michael: “I don’t need any tanning lotion. I’m just going to go out there for…oh, I don’t know…say, four or five hours, and Boom! I’ll have a suntan.” I’ve had some of the worst sunburns in my life, and apparently, I’m a slow learner, because I’ve done that more than once. Of course, now I realize I don’t really tan. I only get red, so I’ve given up on that idea.

Another example is writing a book. I’ve written at this point about 12 books, but when I was writing the first one, I remember when I finally got a contract. It was rejected… Like, 29 or 30 publishers said “No,” and then finally somebody said “Yes.” They gave me a contract. I was excited for about maybe 60 seconds, and then I realized, “Holy smoke! Now I have to write this book.” I’d never written a book before. Even turning in essays in college was a challenge.

So, I have to write this book, so I procrastinated, because it seemed like such a massive, massive project. Not having done it before, I was going through all the self-doubt, all that stuff. Long story short, the deadline looms. I’m coming upon the deadline. I know I have to turn this in. I was in the publishing business at this time, so I knew how important it was to meet the deadline, because I wanted a career as a writer, so I didn’t want to develop the reputation out of the gate that I couldn’t deliver on time. Long story short, I finally had to check myself into one of those extended stay hotels.

Megan: I remember this.

Michael: And for two weeks… Thankfully, my wife Gail gave me permission to do this, but I was in an extended stay hotel for two weeks, and it was a frightening, horrible experience. I wrote all day every day for as long as I could. I had to gin up the energy every morning, talk myself into it. I was terrified. I did turn it in on time, but it took me about three books to figure out that’s not the best way to approach a big project like writing a book.

By the time I got to Platform… In fact, I gave up writing after about three books, and then maybe a decade and a half later, I decided to write again, and that’s when I did Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World, which ended up being a New York Times best seller. But I completely wrote that in a different way. I essentially blogged the book, writing 500-word blog posts, collecting them, and organizing them into a book. That was pretty easy, and pretty much thereafter, that’s how I wrote all of the books.

When I did Living Forward, that was a case where I outlined it. That was like step one, which seemed pretty easy, and then I would just write these little blocks of text. I did it over the course of weeks and weeks and weeks, and it wasn’t scary. It wasn’t as difficult. Writing is always difficult, but it wasn’t, certainly, as difficult. It also gave me confidence and that sense of progress. That’s what I think you lose when you attempt the massive action thing. You don’t get the benefit of making incremental progress, so you never get the chance to really boost your confidence so that you finish the project.

Megan: So, I have a question here that I wonder if some of our listeners are thinking as well. We’re like the goal achievement people. We love goal setting. We love goal achievement. We’ve developed a process around that that works. One of the things we talk about in the Best Year Ever framework is to set goals in your discomfort zone, that your goals need to be risky. So, how do we reconcile the need for our goals to be risky with the fact that we’re praising the value of incremental change? How do those things go together?

Michael: Yeah, because if you set a goal in the discomfort zone, that sounds really hard, and depending on how far you’re in the discomfort zone, that can be really hard, but when you’re talking about what we’re talking about today, incremental change over time, that sounds easy. So that’s what you’re asking. Okay. This is really important. You guys, pay attention to what I’m about to say, because this will change everything for you in goal achievement if you get this concept.

Yes. Always, always, always put your goal in the discomfort zone, because that’s going to give you, scientifically speaking, the best chance of achieving the goal. That’s what’s going to ignite your imagination, command your focus, and get you excited about achieving something that’s worth achieving. But the steps, particularly if they’re habit steps, need to be in your comfort zone. They need to be so easy… The bar needs to be so low you can just step over it.

For me, because I’d been blogging for a long period of time before I decided to write this book, I had a lot of facility, a lot of capacity to write, and I thought, “You know, I can write 500 words at a time.” That seemed like a really low bar. If you do that for 100 days, that’s a 50,000-word book. That’s about the length of most business books.

So, all of a sudden, this project that may be in the discomfort zone… I know we have a lot of people who are listening to this who want to write a book. I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about writing it in this way. Maybe even take it down to 250 words a day. That’s a book in less than a year, in 200 days. That’s easy, while the goal remains in your discomfort zone. That’s how you need to approach everything. When I first met with the financial adviser I have today, Keith Knell (Megan, he’s your same financial adviser)…

Megan: Yeah. He’s amazing.

Michael: He challenged me big time about seven years ago to ramp up my savings. He had a big goal for me, bigger than I had for myself, in terms of what he wanted me to save. I kind of gulped at the goal, but he broke it down into something I could do every month. Now, that was also a little bit bigger than I had the stomach for, but here was another thing I did: I put it on automatic pilot, so the money was automatically deducted before it ever got to me. In other words, I split it at the source. Before the distribution, I had it automatically going to a savings and investment account. So, you just have to break it down to where it’s easy but at the same time hold on to that big goal.

Megan: That’s awesome. Before we move on, I think we should probably give Keith’s information, because people are going to be wondering who he is and how they can get in touch with him. He works primarily with high-net-worth individuals, and his company is called One Trusted Advisor. That’s the website too,

I love this topic, because I feel like this is where people really get stuck on goal setting. They tend to go with one side or the other. They either set these huge goals, and then they sort of don’t know what to do next except continue to take huge steps, which doesn’t usually last very long, or they set goals that are in their comfort zone because they understand that incremental progress is how you get anywhere that’s sustainable.

They get half of it right, but I think the power comes when you put these two things together. You set goals that are really in your discomfort zone, something you don’t know how to accomplish yet, and the pathway to get there that you ultimately discover is just little steps by little steps. You never freak yourself out along the way. It’s one email or it’s two miles or it’s a few hundred dollars a month or whatever. It’s so powerful when you put those two things together.

Michael: Well, I think we should be clear about the language. If we make the distinction I’m about to make about the language of it, we can go forward with clarity. We want to set a goal that’s three months to three years into the future. So, we have quarterly goals, we have annual goals, and we have more long-term goals. Those need to fit that SMARTER framework we talk about in Your Best Year Ever.

So, the SMARTER framework… That’s an acronym if you’ve never been through the course before. It stands for specific, measurable, actionable, risky, time-keyed (in other words, there needs to be a date associated with it), it needs to be exciting, and it needs to also be relevant to this season in life, to all of your other goals, and all of the things we talk about. So that’s a goal. But to achieve a goal, you need to do one of two things.

You need to identify the next steps. For a one-and-done goal, which we call an achievement goal, that’s usually a series of steps, and then you check it off, but you can also employ a habit step. In other words, a habit, like writing 500 words a day or 250 words a day, can be a habit you develop that moves you incrementally toward the fulfillment of that goal. So, again, goals, steps, and habits, and steps and habits are just two different strategies for achieving those big goals.

Megan: I have a feeling that people are wondering, “How do you get started in pursuing incremental change?” This idea that small hinges swing big doors. We don’t have to do a lot. We just have to do it consistently over time and it adds up to something big. But how do we get started?

Michael: Well, the first thing I would suggest is to get crystal clear on the goal, the big goal, maybe even the scary goal you want to achieve, and write it in the SMARTER format. So, that’s the first thing. Is it to write a book? Is it to become stronger, and maybe you can measure that in a certain way? It doesn’t actually matter. It can be an aspiration for what we’re talking about here. When it comes to goal setting, that’s different. Maybe it’s to save a certain amount of money. Maybe it’s to completely restore a relationship that’s broken. Whatever it is, whether it’s an aspiration or a goal, get clarity about what it is you’re trying to achieve.

Megan: Once you have your goal clear, I think the next step is to break things down into small steps. This is really easy if it’s something you’re going to use a habit as a strategy for. If you have a goal to write a book, you just need to figure out how many words per day or per week you need to write, so that’s pretty easy. It could also be, though, if you have an achievement goal and you need to basically think of your next actions… These are things like send an email, make a phone call, write a title page, draft a proposal.

These are small steps that are not overwhelming. The test for you, if they’re small enough, is “Do I feel overwhelmed or not? Does this feel doable?” If you were to put this on your Big 3 for the day, one of your three tasks that you’re committed to accomplishing today, would you feel overwhelmed or would you kind of say to yourself, “Yeah, it’s totally doable”? Because that’s what you want to think. You want to think, “This is doable.” If you think that, then you’ve appropriately broken down these big goals into little pieces.

Also, another thing we should say… If you’re new to goal setting or maybe you feel like you haven’t been that successful in the past, you don’t have to figure out all of the steps to accomplishing a goal at the beginning. You just need to remember this principle of chunking things down into totally doable, non-overwhelming steps to get you all the way there. If you can figure out the next few, then once you’ve gotten those done, you’ll figure out the next few after that, and so on and so forth.

Michael: I’m almost hearing somebody say, “Yeah, but what if even the small steps feel too hard?” This happened to me recently. As you know, I’m trying to recover from these neck problems, so I’ve gotten involved with this methodology of alignment called Egoscue. The therapist who’s working with me gave me about a 30-minute routine.

As it turned out, I was procrastinating and not doing that because it was taking too much time, because by the time I’m doing cardio and strength training… You know, I’m not a full-time fitness person, so this has to fit into the rest of my life. So, even that small step… Because at the time I said “Yes” to him, I said, “Okay. Well, 30 minutes. I mean, how hard could that be?” Well, as it turns out, that’s pretty hard to do every day.

So I’m meeting with him today, and one of the things I’m going to say to him is “We’ve got to chunk this down to no more than 20 minutes.” Consistency is your friend, and the biggest challenge with a habit is to be consistent. It’s not scary all by itself, but to do it day after day… So, if you’re stumbling over getting it done and it still feels too big, then make it smaller, because, again, you want to have the bar so low you can step over it.

Megan: I think that is such wisdom. This has been a huge key to my success. I just keep lowering the bar in certain areas, which is pretty counterintuitive. For example, in my morning ritual, that was something that, for a long time, I felt was elusive, that I needed to have as much time as you had, for example, to be able to successfully do that. There was no way I could do that with my kids. I constantly got interrupted or somehow or another it got thwarted. What I realized was I needed to take that bar so low that no matter what happened in my life every morning, I could make it happen.

There was a time when I was doing five minutes. That’s it. Five minutes. That was the only little part of my day I would carve out for that. Once I got successful at that… The great thing about doing this, by the way, is you develop confidence. Once I had confidence and momentum, I started to add a little bit more to it. I still keep it very realistic. It’s not five minutes anymore, but I started at five minutes, and that gave me enough consistency that I could build on it.

Michael: Love that. If I think back over the course of my life, if I could have learned this lesson out of the gate… If I’d been taught this in college, for example, I think of the difference it could have made. Financially is the first thing that comes to mind. You know the power of compound interest. I understood it mathematically in the abstract, but if somebody had said to me, “If you can just start saving $100 or a few hundred dollars a month and make the sacrifice now…”

By the way, this is also Dave Ramsey 101. If I could do that, over time that would have been a fortune, but I got started saving way late in life, way later than I should have. I think we could apply this to physical issues. I’ve had a couple of health crises in my life that could have been entirely avoided if I had applied what we’re talking about today to my life. It works in relationships. It works in big projects. It works in business. It works in everything.

Megan: What I thought when I was younger was… Like, habits were important. I got the value of making incremental progress or of doing things consistently. I got that. You know, the idea of discipline, the idea of habits…all that. It’s just I always made it too hard. I would do really well for a few weeks or maybe a couple of months, and then I would fall off because something would happen, and it would not be in small enough increments that I could maintain it over time.

That’s one of the things I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older. Make it easier. Keep making it easier until you really can do it consistently, and you’re still going to get an incredible benefit at the end of that. In fact, much greater than you would if you had raised the bar too high earlier on.

Michael: Totally. As I’m thinking about this, I was just thinking about, “Why don’t we approach it this way?” I think one of the cultural things that works against us is our focus on instant gratification. “I want to write a book, but I want it now.” Or “I want to be strong, and I want to be strong now or, at the very latest, next week.” Or if I want a suntan, I’ve got to have it today.

The problem is when we take on goals like that that are too big, then we end up procrastinating, and it actually takes longer than it would have if we had employed this slower way of incremental progress over time. I mean, it’s not like we just came up with this idea. This is in all of the ancient stories, like the Tortoise and the Hare. That’s all this is: the Tortoise and the Hare. Take the tortoise way. Be like the tortoise.

Megan: Well, I hope this has been a really empowering episode to you guys. For me, this is encouraging. This is empowering. It gets me excited again about trying to do big things and even hard things, because I know it’s not going to necessarily be hard in the moment day to day. I can make it really doable, really easy.

If you’ve been somebody who has been reluctant to set goals or maybe you’ve tried and failed and you’re thinking, “What would be the difference-maker this time?” this is one of the strategies that can really make a difference for you. If you want to go deeper in the conversation about goal setting, if you want to really set yourself up for an amazing 2021… Believe it or not, 2021 can be amazing, even if 2020 has been really tough for you, like it has for most of us. There’s so much potential in 2021. In fact, we think a lot about this idea of taking the future back. That’s what we want for you in 2021.

We have a brand-new course on goal setting and goal achievement called Your Best Year Ever. Over 50,000 people have been through this over the last several years. We keep making it better. This year it’s a brand-new version, the best we’ve ever done, in fact, and we would love for you to join us on that journey of goal achievement. You can find out more about it at Dad, do you have any final thoughts today?

Michael: Yeah. I talk about this a lot, but the alternative to setting goals for this next year is to just kind of drift into this next year and hope it’s better than last year. As somebody has said, hope is not a strategy. You need a process, and we provide that process in Your Best Year Ever. We’ve talked about just one aspect of it in this episode today, but there are a ton of insights and strategies like that that’ll help you create the life of your dreams. I don’t use that lightly. To create a better life, your best year ever… All that’s possible, and all you need is a process, and that’s what the course offers.

Megan: All right. Well, thank you, guys, for joining us today. It has been our pleasure to talk to you about this topic. Until next week, lead to win.