Thursday, March 23, 2006

Single Steps

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." – Ancient Chinese Proverb

By 'ancient', we mean 2,500 years ago. Imagine: all that time ago, people were realizing that things great and small all began the same way, with a single step.

Sometimes, I am in awe of my species. Such a simple practicality. The whole journey is daunting, scary, huge, impossible, ludicrous.

But boil it all down and what do you have? A single step, followed by another, and another, and another – relentlessly you draw nearer and nearer to the daunting, scary, huge, impossible, ludicrous goal.

If we look at our grandiose List of Dreams, there's probably some things on there that are "impossible". Ludicrous! Huge! No. Way!

I suspect for every dream we have, we have at least five reasons why it just can't be done. I don't have the time, or the money, or the influence, or the looks, or the talent, or the guts (or lack of gut, which could help on some of my physical goals).

Eldest taught me a valuable lesson on this. When she was a young toddler, she would occasionally flip out at mealtimes. I'd put the food in front of her, and she'd go completely bananas. She'd throw the food, scream, cry, bang her head on the tray and sob hysterically. When I'd take the food away, she'd cry harder and scream, "Eat! Eat!"

But if I put the food back, she'd flip out again. "No! No!" {CRASH! goes the tray on the floor}

I thought at first it was the specific food she was objecting to…but it wasn't. It was the portion size. She just couldn't handle having all that food on her plate. She knew she couldn't eat it all, but lacked the adult understanding that hey – I don't hafta eat it all just 'cause it's there. (Well…sometimes I think we adults still lack that understanding, but that's another rant for another day.) So in spite of being hungry, she'd just flip out and refuse the whole meal.

Once her pediatrician helped me understand her little toddler psyche and I started making sure she never had more than a few bites at a time on her tray, peace was restored to the dinner table. She might actually eat an entire hamburger – one toddler-fist-sized slice at a time.

I don't think things change all that much as we get older. Give us a task that will take only a few hours, or a couple of days, or maybe a few weeks, and we're totally OK with it.

Give us one that will take months or even years, however, and we've got a problem. Toss in having to change our habits or sacrifice a pleasure or two, and we're on the floor screaming and kicking and banging our head on the Pergo. It's too hard, it's too much, I can't do it, I can't handle it, don't do this to me, you're MEAN!!!!

I'm going to guess that achieving our best dreams fall into that latter category – which is why they remain vague dreams rather than becoming our new, improved, lemon-scented reality.

That's where all this list-making and goal-setting and planner-using comes in.

Take your list and give it a good hard looking over. Pick out a few items for now – just those things that you consider to be the Absolute Most Importantest Stuff On There. Of all these things, which few would make the most positive impact on your life?

Now. Don't think of it as a Huge, Impossible, Scary, Large and No Way thing.

What's the first step you need to take toward achieving that thing? Write it down. Lather, rinse, repeat. What you're doing right now is giving yourself manageable tasks. Don't look at the whole mountain and faint! Look at the next step, and only the next step.

Get a piece of paper. This is going to go into your planner, so use appropriate sized sheets. Head the paper with what the goal is. "Get Master's Degree" or "Buy a House" or "Write the Great American Novel" or "What Have You".

Then we get detailed. What's the first step to making this goal a reality for you? Don't think about the whole goal at this point – what's the first thing you need to do to make this dream come true. Write it down. And the next one, and the next one.

No fair using the 'then a miracle happens' step! Be detailed, be specific, be realistic, and give yourself a deadline for each step – because the next thing we're going to do is make sure we put our Dream Acquisition into our daily tasks.

Monthly, I review all my goal sheets. How am I doing? Am I on track? Do I need to revise the task list based on new information? Do I get to check off any tasks? Why not? Pep talk, go me, I rock!

Once a week, usually on Sunday (because it's generally a fairly quiet day), I sit down and go over my specific goal tasks. This is one of the Covey tools I love best: the weekly compass card. First of all, it fits into a plastic pouch that doubles as a placeholder in my binder – sweet. Impatient people adore things like bookmarks. No searching required, just grab and flip.

But more importantly, it helps me focus. The question asked is, "What is the most important thing I can do in this role this week?"

I write the goal name, and I answer the question: what is the one thing I can do this week to move this goal along?

Every morning, the first thing I do…well, first, I make my coffee, because I cannot function without my coffee in the morning. It is a physical impossibility. People have died because I tried to get on with my life without my coffee.

Well. Not physically (yet) (reminder: past performance is no guarantee of future returns). Only in my mind, because I was pissy enough to wish them dead when they annoyed me pre-coffee. People who are perky at me before I have had my coffee die a thousand horrible deaths in my mind.

It is not a pretty thing.

So first, I make coffee. Tea will do in a pinch. But some form of hot caffeine must happen first.

THEN, I sit down with my planner and block out my day. I write my meetings and other 'non-negotiable' time commitments in first. Then, I pencil in my tasks, right into the calendar side of the equation. "Write stored procedure X" might go in from 6:30 to 7:30. "Answer this email question" from 7:30 to 8:30. Got a meeting from 8:30 to 10:00 (ugh).

Every single day when I start the process, this weekly compass card is right there in front of me – of course it is, it's my bookmark! "Hey!" it says. "Remember this? Don't forget about this – these are your Big Deals! You don't want to let all the sock-folding prevent you from getting these things!!"

So as I'm blocking out my time, I glance over that weekly 'big deals' list and today, I put in "Go to bank, close old checking account" from 10:00 to 11:00. That's part of Goal #2: Financial Independence / Retire Early (or FIRE).

That mountain is particularly daunting. When you think of it as a single thing, "Save $1.5M in twenty-five years", it's totally Impossible! Might as well just give up right now, save time, avoid the rush.

But breaking it down into individual steps…first, focus on putting together a good budget, free up some of our income by eliminating poor spending choices. Then, we're going to pay off this highest-interest debt. Then, this one. Then, this other one. Then we're going to develop our savings. We're going to bump up our 401k contributions, work toward earning Best Possible incomes, keep the momentum going – one small task at a time.

The journey may be over a million bucks high and two decades long and be Impossible!, but each individual step is…just a step. A simple little step, one after another.

We can so totally have, do and be the things we want.



Very Herodotus said...

I wish I had kept my Trapper Keeper from middle school. Then, maybe, I could organize my life a little better!!

I just don't know that I could organize my day by task. I get so many work emails throughout the day, most of which have an attachment that has to be reviewed ASAP. The best laid plans just fall apart in this kind of environment. They're pushing us to work more hours to get the project back on track. My boss even told me that the reason he got all the developers laptops was so we could work at home on the weekends. With all the meetings, slide productions, and document reviews, there is little time to actually write code, and the schedule will not slip.
Sorry to be so long-winded. I guess my point is this: I am really listening to what you are saying with regards to organization, and I;m trying to implement something (anything!) to get me where I need to be. So thanks again for posting your system in such detail. It really does help!


wrnglrjan said...

Me too, Trudy.

I absolutely adore the idea of the Stephen Covey stuff. I could sooo get behind having It All In The Calendar. But wow, it never works that way for me.

First of all, "write procedure X" will take ten minutes if I get it right the first time and could be what I'm working on for the next ten days if it turns out that in failing six times in a row to get it working right I discover some subtle problem with the design of the whole project that needs to be addressed before procedure X can be successful.

I've been (every so slightly) more successful with David Allen's Getting Things Done. He does the "next step" thing, too, without all the detailed daily planning.

Tama, I'm enjoying reading your process! Please keep it up.

(Oh, and someday I'll update my own blog. Er, when I don't have so many meetings going on.)

Mother of Chaos said...

Ack!! I know exactly how that goes, with the "URGENT" emails throughout the day. It feels just exactly like a swarm of gnats, doesn't it?

I have a solution to that, which I am already applying to my new job (I already get somewhere to the order of thirty !URGENT! emails per day, and I've only been here what, two months?) with good effect. But it requires...a's the word?

Oh yes.


But, it's a good intractability. And honestly – they will thank you for it in the end. I'll write it up this weekend. I've got time this weekend, glory be!

BTW, you, long-winded? Ha! I'm the official long-winded one around these parts, lady-ma'am!!!

21st Century Mom said...

My problem is that I get exhausted just reading about taking those steps and then I do .... nothing.

Maybe I just need to start by meditating on the phrase 'baby steps, baby steps, baby steps'. I think that might help. That and laying off the internet ineteraction game.

Stephanie said...

I'm still stuck on the "what are my goals" step. I am great at doing what I am *supposed* to do. I am extra bad at knowing what I *want* to do or to be. If time/money were no object I would... I don't know. No clue.

Anonymous said...

This was really extraordinary - or perhaps just what I needed to hear this morning. Thanks

**feeding off other ideas since 1902