Have you ever felt overwhelmed by a big goal or project?
Big goals or projects (personally or professionally) can be energizing and can help make life exciting. However, they can also feel overwhelming, either right away or after you get started. In this article, you will learn a practical way to boost your optimism and confidence and to make progress quickly.
A Quick Story
In 2009, I left a full-time job to launch a career as a keynote speaker and to write a book for students on how to go from college to career. Most people advising students are much older. I believed that students would be able to relate to me more easily, as a young man in my late twenties at that time.
After diving into my venture with passion and purpose, I quickly felt overwhelmed and got off to a rough start. Six months in, I had not even written a single article or shared any of my ideas publicly. All of my effort had been spent brainstorming and completing research. At the time, I told myself this was a necessary step in the writing process. In reality, it was a stall tactic due to a fear of putting myself out there and sharing my ideas publicly. My behavior was also a side effect of pursuing a goal (writing a book for students) that was very exciting to me, yet one that felt “too big.”
Something had to change. I decided to break down my big goal into a small, specific habit: writing (and posting) one 300-500 word article online every day, Monday to Friday. This became my new focus. The ultimate goal of writing a book was moved to the back of my mind.
My early blog posts were fairly pedestrian and not very impressive. Looking back now at the quality of some of those posts makes me cringe. However, they helped me get started. My writing got better over time, and my “small” weekday habit eventually led to a contract with AMACOM (the publishing arm of The American Management Association) for my first book, titled I Got My Dream Job and So Can You.
The Headlights Method
The late Edgar Lawrence “E.L.” Doctorow, one of the most successful American novelists of the twentieth century, once said that “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
This is a great metaphor to keep in mind for any challenge in life. If you ever feel paralyzed by the magnitude of what you are trying to accomplish, tighten your attention. Look only as far as “your headlights.” Break down your big goal into small, bite-sized habits that you can repeat every day (or most days). I refer to this as The Headlights Method.
Ask yourself this question: What habit could I repeat every day (or most days) to move closer to my ultimate goal?
The strategy of breaking down a big goal is a topic that came up during one of my interviews for my second book titled Work Stronger; Habits for More Energy, Less Stress, and Higher Performance at Work. One of my interviewees was Tom Lokar. Tom is a triathlete, and he is the Chief Human Resources Officer at Mitel, a global leader in enterprise business communications.
“People put off change for lots of reasons,” Tom told me. “I think it’s largely because they look too far out and feel overwhelmed. Just get through day one. Don’t look three months out. It is so critical to give yourself a pat on the back for getting through day one. If you can get through the first day, you can get through the next five days, the next ten days, the next thirty days, and so on.”
Summary and Final Thoughts
You can increase your motivation- especially when you are early in your pursuit of a big goal- by focusing on small, daily habits. Don’t try to change everything at once, and don’t worry about how far you have to go. It is better to smart small and build positive momentum than to bite off more than you can chew and feel overwhelmed from the start. Focus on getting some quick wins to boost your optimism and confidence. Look only as far as “your headlights.” You can expand the habit (or add on another new one) later.
How can you tell if a new habit is the right size for you (i.e. if you are looking only as far as “your headlights”)? Ask yourself how confident you are that you could do it every day or every weekday. If you are less than 90% confident, take that as a sign to reduce the size of the habit .
Habits (good or bad) add up very quickly. You can achieve big goals over time by using The Headlights Method and focusing on habits that are simple and that might seem small.
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About the author: Pete Leibman is a consultant, speaker, and author who helps leaders and companies thrive. He is the creator of StrongerHabits.com and he’s the bestselling author of Work Stronger; Habits for More Energy, Less Stress, and Higher Performance at Work. Before writing Work Stronger, Pete worked as an executive recruiter at Heidrick & Struggles, a leadership advisory firm who serves the majority of the Fortune 500. In his free time, he teaches one of the largest group exercise classes in the Washington, D.C. area. He has also competed in the Obstacle Course Racing (OCR) World Championships.
References for this article:
- John Berardi, “The 3 Types of Clients,” Precision Nutrition, accessed on August 23, 2017, http://www.precisionnutrition.com/how-to-coach.