AnxietyDealing with overwhelmLife goals

How to harness the enormous power of the baby step

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A few years ago I received a gift from my PhD supervisor . . .

A pair of two miniature Dutch clogs.

It was a gentle reminder that I needed to take baby steps to finish my PhD.

At the time, I was touched by the gift (the clogs looked so sweet). But I also remember feeling kind of frustrated. I found myself thinking, “Ugh. Baby steps!”

I hated the idea of baby steps.

“Baby steps are for babies!”, I thought.

But I was wrong.

Baby steps are for everyone (not just babies).

The baby step is your secret psychological weapon for getting stuff done.

Once you master the art of the baby step, life becomes a lot less stressful. Feelings of overwhelm disappear. But I have to admit, it took me a few years to realise the power of the baby step.

Why did I feel such strong resistance to the idea of taking baby steps?

Two reasons . . .
Reason #1: Baby steps are a painful reminder that we’re not where we want to be in life

In his brilliant book How we change (and ten reasons why we don’t) Dr Ross Ellenhorn states:

“. . . small steps remind us of the distance to our goals and the disparity between what we want to be and what we currently are.”

Those little Dutch clogs were a painful reminder of how far I still had to go to complete my doctorate. Naturally, this brought up some feelings of discomfort, frustration and disappointment. I found myself thinking:

“I’ve been doing this for 5 years and I’m still not there yet! It’s taking forever! What’s wrong with me?”

Reason #2: Baby steps don’t deliver instant results

We live in a world of instant gratification. There’s this cultural belief that everything should be fun, fast and easy.

When progress towards our goals doesn’t happen quickly, we can feel frustrated and demoralised.

But we need to remember, worthy endeavours take time and effort. If you want to achieve something meaningful and worthwhile in life, you’ll need to embrace baby steps.

In his book Tiny Habits Professor BJ Fogg provides some great advice on the importance of baby steps. He says:

“It’s time for someone to say it: you’ve got to lower your expectations. When I say this, people sometimes gasp. Or they smirk. Or they think I’m joking. But I’m serious.

Yes, in our hyperachieving, go-getter world, I’m telling you to lower the bar. Not because I don’t want you to achieve great things, but because I know you need to start small in order to achieve them. But you can’t succeed with starting small if you’re looking down your nose at it. Why do we clap for a baby when she is taking her first step? Not because she is doing it perfectly or because she “earned it” or because she did it bigger and better than the baby next door. We clap because we know it is the first small step that she is taking toward a lifetime of walking and running – and that is hugely important.”

Lower your expectations

If your baby step feels too hard to take, here’s a clue: it’s not a baby step.

You need to seriously lower the bar (and your expectations).

As writer and comedian Catherine Deveny says, “Plan to do less and you will do more”.

I recently realised my baby steps were way too big. They weren’t baby steps at all! They were more like giant leaps. No wonder I was having trouble getting started.

So I had to scale them right back.

The key to mastering the practice of baby steps is to make them really easy to do. Each step has to be so small and so easy that you can’t fail.

For example, instead of telling myself “Cook one pot burrito dish for dinner”, I now say “Place pot on stove” or “Turn on stove”.

These steps are less scary for my brain, so I’m more likely to get started.

Getting started: the antidote to overwhelm

I have a tendency to focus on everything I need to do all at once. I look at a project and it feels like this ugly mess . . .

Beast of Overwhelm

I call this creature the Beast of Overwhelm. It feels like a big fat tangled mess of ideas. When this jumbled beast strikes, my mind screams “I don’t wanna!” and “It feels too hard!”. I want to run and hide. In those moments, the baby step is no where to be seen.

But the baby step is how you conquer this creature. The baby step is the only way to show this beast who is in charge. The baby step says, “Hey! Back off! Because I’m the one in control here!”.

Once you get clear on the little strand you’re going to untangle (i.e. the baby step) and you’re in action, that beast loses its power. The anxiety and overwhelm subside pretty quickly.

Untangle the beast
It helps to write down your baby step. I use post-it notes.

As Jen Sincero (author of You are a badass) explains:

“Overwhelm cannot touch you when you’re all wrapped up in the here and now. Overwhelm is a mindset. It’s the choice to focus on everything all at once and stress yourself out. Instead, choose to take your life moment by moment and savour it, like pulling bon-bons [chocolates] out of heart-shaped box and popping them into your mouth, one by one.”

To sum up

If you’ve been feeling overwhelmed by a project, don’t despair. You just have to show the Beast of Overwhelm who’s the boss.

Ask yourself, “What’s my next baby step?” Make it so easy and small you can’t fail. Write it down and go do it. Don’t delay. Start untangling the beast today. You’ll feel better if you do.

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