During a particularly chaotic season of my life, I fell into some unhealthy habits. I was pregnant with my third child when I had to take on the full weight of providing for our family while my husband was unemployed. Taking care of myself was something I simply didn’t believe I had time for. I stopped working out and ate whatever was convenient, whether it was cold mac n’ cheese leftover from my kids’ lunch or a bowl of cereal quickly eaten before I started in on my busy day.
After things settled down, my husband went back to work, and I readjusted to life as a freelancer and a mom of three, I realized just how much my body had suffered over the last several months. I’d lost strength and had less energy. Having more of both would help me do the things that mattered most in my life.
At first, I tried to make extreme changes. More than once, I committed to a hardcore workout regimen several times a week. I quickly burnt out, discouraged by my crammed schedule or how hard those workouts were on my body. I gave up completely, I told myself my current lifestyle wasn’t going to allow me to fully commit to improving my fitness.
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Somewhere along the way, I realized that mindset was playing a big role in whether or not I succeeded when I set a new goal. It’s tempting for me to jump into all-or-nothing thinking, to believe I needed to do a complete 180 if I wanted to change this part of my my life. Expecting drastic change, however, almost always set me up for failure. I wasn’t approaching my goals realistically, and this led to endless frustration and a whole lot of unmet expectations. It wasn’t until I learned to approach my goals with a model of incremental change that I truly started to experience some progress.
The idea behind incremental change is that you take your big vision and break it down into small steps. For me and my goal of getting stronger and increasing my stamina, this meant I had to start by envisioning where I wanted to be a year from now and then work my way backward. By dividing my big goal to be healthier and stronger at the end of the year into realistic action steps, I eliminated my fear of getting started because I knew I didn’t need to radically change my fitness today, I just needed to take that first step.
I had failed more than once because I dreamed of lifting heavy and running long distances, when what I needed the most was to start by taking a walk around the block. At first, all I did was set a goal to walk for at least 10 minutes every day for a month. It didn’t matter how intense or fast the walk was, if I was hiking at a local nature reserve or just chasing my kids around our neighborhood. Any day I got outside and got moving for 10 minutes counted as a success.
Once my daily walks became a habit, meaning I was doing them without a lot of thought or planning, I knew I was ready to tackle another small change. So, I joined a gym and set a goal that felt realistic — to work out twice a week. All I needed to do to consider my week a success was spend half an hour at the gym, twice a week. A few weeks later, I added on one more day a week.
What I love about using incremental change to conquer big goals is that it’s a perfect for anyone who is prone to get discouraged by their big picture goals. If getting out of debt is your goal, avoid the paralyzing fear of looking at the five figure number that stands between you and financial freedom. Instead, break your end goal into small payments by calculating how much money you need to funnel from each paycheck to your student loan balance or credit card debt to reach your goal. If starting graduate school is your dream, but you can’t seem to take the first steps, break it down even further, and just register for the GRE first or fill out one application a week.
Don’t underestimate the power making small changes has to transform your life. When even the tiniest steps toward success are counted as a reason for celebration, it’s easy to gain confidence and momentum toward your goal and make big changes to your life over the long term. Personally, changing the way I think about progress has been exactly what has made it possible for me to stick with a workout routine consistently. I kept moving forward even if I failed and ultimately became accepting of the fact that I am a person in progress, not on a road to perfection.