I was finishing my workout when my trainer asked me how much I was running lately. For a split second I contemplated lying, but then sheepishly admitted…running has fallen off my radar…I keep meaning to, but I’ve got a million reasons that get in the way. I’ve known Cody long enough to know that he does not care about my excuses. Think ex-marine, and you’ll get the idea. He looked at me and said here’s your goal: Twenty minutes twice a week. Ten minutes out and ten minutes back. Done.
When he said that, a light bulb went off. Right! Of course I know this. This is what I tell my clients regularly. If you want to make a change, it has to be: Small, Specific and Manageable.
Take New Year’s Resolutions for example. January 1, we all resolve to be better versions of our selves. We will join (or start going to ) a gym! We will become healthier! Take care of our selves! Eat more vegetables! Do more in each day! And get more sleep! Right? Right? Then why do our best intentions fail so often? What makes change so hard to implement? Basically, because we have to learn how to be successful at making change.
If you set a lofty goal like: I’m going to get healthier. It’s too big. It’s too vague. What does healthier even mean in this context? How do you do that? Maybe you start by giving a go at changing one behavior one day and then try another the next. Perhaps by the fifth day you forget which action you were supposed to do that day and when you slip up, you are critical of yourself and simply scrap the whole plan or think: I’ll start again tomorrow.
This pattern can impact any project such as finding a job, or writing a paper. If you think I’ll spend my whole day working on my project and then you don’t, you feel like you’ve failed. Often the natural response is I’ll do twice as much tomorrow. But tomorrow comes and twice as long feels more overwhelming…and then after three days of that you just want to give up. Instead, if you are looking for a new job, to write your dissertation, build a home yoga or meditation practice, or even to eat healthier, it’s all the same idea. Set goals that are Small, Specific and Manageable.
When I’m talking to clients I suggest: try to do one task for ten minutes each day. You can always find ten minutes right? (If you answered no, then start with 5 minutes). Once you’ve done that you can go on to whatever other stuff is calling to you. Maybe you’ll just do the 5 minutes, maybe you’ll do some more. Either way, you’ve done something towards your goal, which makes you feel good about yourself and here's the catch, more likely to succeed the next day.
Another example: Instead of I’m going to work out more, try I’m going to go to the gym twice a week for 20 minutes. Then once that feels like it’s a comfortable routine you can think about upping it. Again, keep the increments small...and by small I mean smaller than whatever it was that you thought to do. If you want to incorporate a home yoga or meditation practice, give yourself the goal of doing 1 sun salutation a day for a week or sitting meditation for 3 minutes a day. Or if your goal is to eat more healthfully add a specific goal rather than denying yourself. I’m going to sit for five breaths before I start eating. OR I’m going to add one new vegetable this week. OR I’m going to put my fork down between bites.
We are all constantly evaluating what we do and how we measured up. We are conditioned to think that bigger is better, but every journey starts with one step. When it comes to accomplishing goals, small steps have powerful long term impact. The trick is, set yourself up for success so that you continue on that road. If you have a success, no matter how small, you are more likely to continue on that path.
The first few days of Kindergarten my son came home excited and happy. After a few weeks that started to change. About a month in my normally exuberant kid said, “I hate school! I don't want to go back!” My initial instinct was to respond, “But you have to go!” Instead I somehow managed to stifle that urge and instead asked him why he was feeling so unhappy. After some tears and some hugs he said, “ There are so many things to learn, so many things to remember. I feel so little and I hate making mistakes.”
I was struck in that moment by an onslaught of fears, feelings, worries, and a totally inappropriate urge to laugh. I thought silently; Oh God! You are going to make so many mistakes! Lighten up! Thankfully I managed not to say that and to keep a straight face. Instead I said to him, something along the lines of “Yeah. I get that. But we all make mistakes, that’s part of learning.”
He thought about that for a moment and responded, “But you guys never make mistakes.I wish I was a grown up. Then I would never make a mistake.” I did laugh at that one. “Uh. Yeah. I could see how you might think that, but I make mistakes everyday, and I’ve made mistakes everyday of my life. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s part of life.” His red eyes seemed doubtful, but his mind was on something else already and the conversation changed. Phew! I thought. Crisis averted.
Until a few days later. He came home from school crumpled and dejected. Again he said he hated school, learning was too hard, he made too many mistakes and he didn't want to go back. Suddenly, this was now a thing. An event to be dealt with. My mind started reeling. What happened? How did this happen? Did I do this to him? Is this because he’s the oldest? Is this because we are too hard on him? Do I push him too hard? Is this my fault? Did I do something wrong???
That’s when it hit me. I was doing the same thing. I was falling into the same trap as my son. The trap of thinking that I have control over anything. The trap of thinking I could be a perfect mother. The trap of believing that I can keep my children safe from pain. Oops! Crud! How many times do I have to learn this lesson?
Apparently I am going to have to learn this one again and again. So I did what has worked in the past. I tried to slow down and pay attention to my self. I realized how afraid I am of making mistakes. I recognized the familiar voice telling me: I might look stupid. I might look silly. I might look incompetent. People might not like me. Darn. Right back here again.
I decided to face my fear and make a list of my daily mistakes to bring to his attention. Every time I messed up, I told him. We’d talk about it and routinely, he forgave me much faster that I ever forgave myself. I realized how much more likely I was to voice the faults I found, than talk about what was right in the world. Together we changed our goodbyes. Instead of saying “Have a Good Day!” we said, “Try your best and make lots of mistakes!” Finally, one morning we decided to look up “famous mistakes.” What we found was awesome. We found out that the slinky…was a mistake. Post-it Notes…mistake. Silly Putty….mistake. But the best, happiest mistake of all….Chocolate Chip Cookies!
Now, upon further research I’m not sure if the Toll House story is true or not. But it was true for him. This story helped him to hold in his mind that he can make mistakes and that maybe even something brilliant and yummy will come out of it. We’ve continued to work on this. Him in his way, and me in mine. I try to remind myself that there is no such thing as perfection, that life is good, right here, just as we are, and that by sharing our successes as well as our failures, we can help each other grow.