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How Baby Steps Can Keep You on Track This Year

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Joshua Rainey Photography/Shutterstock.com

Have you found yourself already Googling the topic, "Why do New Year’s resolutions fail?” On what is, for many of us, the first full workday of 2015, I’m reminded that this is where the rubber meets the road in terms of all the intentions and resolutions that were made over the holidays.

There’s a lot of research and opinions out there about why resolutions fail. In this post, I want to focus on one big idea about how to make them successful. It’s baby steps. Take them. Love them. Celebrate them. Revel in them.

Baby steps, when focused on a goal and consistently taken, lead to big results. They enable you to make progress by solving for 2 percent or 5 percent instead of 100 percent. Here are a few stories -- one about the Beatles, one about yoga and one about business -- that illustrate what I mean by that. The stories are followed by five principles for applying baby steps that have worked for me and my clients. Please read on and share your thoughts and questions in the comments.

One of my own intentions this year is to take advantage of technology to learn new things. Listening to podcasts is an easy way to do that. Over the weekend, I was listening to an interview with Sir Paul McCartney that Chris Hardwick did for his Nerdist podcast.

Hardwick asked Sir Paul what it was like to play the The Ed Sullivan Show on the Beatles breakthrough visit to the United States. McCartney answered that they were ready for it. While he didn’t use the term “baby steps,” that’s what the Beatles essentially did in the years leading up to Sullivan. They started out playing tiny clubs and beer halls in Germany. The goal was to get people in the door and keep them there. The manager in one club used to wave a sign at the band in German that said, “Make show.” So they learned how to be showmen there. Then it was on to bigger clubs in Germany and back to England to play bigger venues. They started getting slightly famous and then got on British radio. They learned what it was like to be famous. Then they did a few British television shows and became slightly more famous. When they got to the The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, they were ready. All of those baby steps, those little single digit percent improvements consistently applied got them there. The Beatles didn’t start out on The Ed Sullivan Show. That would have required them to solve for 100 percent right from the start and would have been a recipe for failure.

A much more limited, much less prominent example of how baby steps lead to bigger results is my own experience with yoga. As I described here last year, I started yoga a little over four years ago to help me manage the effects of a chronic illness. In my first classes, I could barely hold down dog (which a lot of teachers would say is a resting pose) for a few breaths before my upper arms and shoulders would feel like they were on fire. That got better after a couple of weeks of practice. Then I started working on a pose called upward facing bow which is basically an upside down push-up. It took three months of working on that before I could get my shoulders off the floor. From there it was on to a basic headstand called tripod (your two hands and the top of your head form a tripod on the floor). I practiced that against the wall for several months and would regularly fall out of it. That eventually quit happening (most of the time) so I decided to start practicing it in the middle of the room but only if I could get a spot on the front row. I didn’t want to land on anyone else if I toppled over which happened all the time. Eventually, I developed the balance and overall body strength to go up in tripod and hold it pretty much whenever I wanted. From there it was on to a classical headstand. That took about a year and a half for me to consistently do.

My current project is learning how to do handstands in the middle of the room. I started on that a year and a half ago in teacher training when I could only get up into a very quick and shaky handstand against the wall on maybe two out of every five attempts. After almost daily practice for the last year, I can get up into handstand against the wall and hold it very consistently. About half the time, I’m going up into handstand and holding it without my feet hitting the wall at all. Now the next step is to develop a level of confidence that will allow me to do that in the middle of the room. I plan to go to a workshop next month that’s focused on handstands so I can go deep on that.

All of that is likely way more detail on my yoga practice than you really wanted. My point in sharing it is not to impress you with the party tricks I’ve learned how to do. It’s just a personal illustration of how baby steps consistently applied lead to pretty big changes. I see the same exact phenomenon in our business, the Eblin Group. When Diane and I started it back in 2000, we literally didn’t know what we didn’t know. I wanted to coach executives and was very fortunate to have some great early opportunities to do that. Then I wanted to write a book but had no idea how to do that. I started talking with people who knew more about that process than me and asked them for advice. Over the course of two years, all of that led to my first book, The Next Level. Then we spent a lot of time and baby steps learning how to share a book with the people who can benefit from it. (Because if you write a book and don’t learn how to share it with others it’s kind of like that question about a tree falling in the forest. If no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?) The Next Level book led to opportunities to go out and speak about it. Learning how to be a good speaker has been a series of baby steps over the past eight years. All of that led to my latest book, Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative. That project came together much more quickly than the first book did but it was only because of all the baby steps I had taken in the years before.

So, that’s enough of Story Time With Uncle Scott. Let me attempt to leave you with something useful by sharing five principles for making baby steps work for you this year:

Less is more -- You can only take so many baby steps at once. Pick one or two things that matter most and be really intentional about applying your baby steps to them.

Break it down -- Don’t try to solve for the next 100 steps. Solve for the next two or three. There’s too many unknown variables to solve for steps 98, 99 and 100 anyway. The answers will be apparent when you get there. Start with what’s in front of you.

Focus on what’s going right -- Don’t freak out when you’re not perfect or things don’t go perfectly. Ask yourself, “What’s going right?” There’s almost always something that’s going right. If nothing else, one thing that’s going right is you have an opportunity to learn from what went wrong.

One data point does not a trend make -- And speaking of things that go wrong, remember that one or two data points don’t make a trend. If the baby steps aren’t working today, maybe it’s just not your day. Try again tomorrow or later in the day.

Keep taking steps -- One thing I’ve become convinced of in the past four or five years is that progress comes incrementally and then suddenly. All of those baby steps can lead you to your version of The Ed Sullivan Show. Most everyone will assume you were an overnight success but you’ll know it was the baby steps that got you there.

Have a great 2015! What are your intentions for the year and what strategies do you have for following through on them?

(Image via Joshua Rainey Photography/Shutterstock.com)

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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