How to Reach Your Goals One Step at a Time
Most of us would like to change for the better. We want to improve different areas of our lives, eradicate bad habits and self-defeating behaviors, become more proficient at a skill or activity, more successful, healthier, happier and more fulfilled. But many people do not even begin to implement these changes because they seem so daunting, even impossible. Our goals seem so distant that we cannot perceive achieving them. After all, how can a person even begin to picture running a marathon when he or she is so out of shape that even walking a mile is difficult?
One of my favorite quotes of all time is by Lao-Tzu who said, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. It is a very powerful and liberating piece of advice that we should all heed if we have a sincere desire to change certain facets of our lives. It teaches us that we can, indeed, achieve our goals if we learn to focus on that first step, followed by each subsequent step. In other words, the goal of running a marathon (26.2 miles) cannot be achieved without first stepping up to the starting line and successfully completing each mile of the journey. It all begins with that initial mile. By breaking down our goals into smaller, more manageable segments, we are able to reach each milestone successfully, and it is the cumulative attainment of these smaller achievements that allows us to cross that finish line.
What many people forget is that all successes are really the cumulative effect of multiple, smaller successes. People who consistently achieve their lofty goals recognize that it is the sum of little things that add up to the eventual result. They focus on the smaller, day-to-day goals because they know that this will help them attain eventual success. Their firm resolve to accomplish their goals is bolstered by the recognition that each small step places them one step closer to the end result, and that provides them with the motivation to do the small things necessary.
“Cumulative effect” is a term used a lot in the medical field. It refers to the condition whereby repeated doses of a medicine produce results that are more effective than the first dose. This also applies to making changes in your life for the better. As you implement small but concrete changes, each subsequent change becomes a little easier and produces a more pronounced result. Just as the first dose of medicine is necessary to recovery, the effort to take the first step is imperative to achieving change in your life.
I would like to share some actual examples of the “small changes” phenomenon with you that are personal to me.
My first time in the gym:
A few years ago, I decided that I wanted to incorporate exercise into my sedentary life. At the time, I was obviously out of shape and had a visible and sizable ‘beer belly’ on my otherwise skinny frame. It had been years since I last did any regular exercise and even climbing up a flight of stairs was an arduous task for me even though I was very active in sports up till the age of 18. I knew that I wanted to be healthier by engaging in regular cardiovascular exercise and lifting weights, so I joined the local gym which was situated about 1 mile from my home.
With gusto and some trepidation, I went to the gym for the first time. The first thing I did was to jump on one of the elliptical machines to warm-up before I began my ‘Arnold Schwarzenegger’ weight routine. However, to my dismay, I could not complete 5 minutes of cardio because I was so out of shape. My breathing became extremely labored, my lungs seemed to be screaming in pain, my legs hurt, and I was perspiring like someone who had just run a marathon. I was both surprised and discouraged by how obviously unfit I was and hopped off the machine in disgust after less than 5 minutes.
At that juncture, I wanted to cancel my gym membership (they offered a trial membership period with promise of a refund if I changed my mind within 7 days) and head home. However, I knew deep inside that if I wanted to accomplish my goal, I needed to be less critical of myself and stick with my plan of working out daily. After all, I did make the effort to join the gym and to exercise, even if it was only for less than 5 minutes. I subsequently proceeded to lift some light weights for a few minutes (it was taxing and nothing like Arnold’s workout!) and left the gym feeling somewhat accomplished that I had done my best for that day. The next day, I was back at the gym and this time managed a full 6 minutes on the very same elliptical machine (progress!), followed by more light weights. I followed this routine daily and I got stronger and more fit, both physically and mentally. Today, many years after that fateful first day in the gym, I am able to exercise vigorously on the elliptical machine (and other types of gym machines) for an hour after lifting weights, and I feel so much stronger and healthier. I have learned that each step of the journey I make, even small ones, help me reach my goal. The trick is to make the effort consistently.
About 6 years ago I became intrigued by meditation and the advantages it brought. I bought and read many books on the subject and decided to incorporate it into my daily life. I started meditating for 6 minutes per day by focusing on my breathing and it was difficult at first. My mind strayed so often that I could not focus my mind on more than 4 breaths without getting distracted. I could not believe how undisciplined and rambunctious my mind was. But I stuck with it and continued to meditate each morning. My mind still got distracted (this is called the monkey mind) often but I slowly but surely brought my attention back to my breathing each time.
Each day that I meditated became easier and my mind was able to stay focused and relaxed for longer periods of time. Like developing any other habit in life, I became better at meditating the more I did it. I noticed myself slowly becoming more mindful and focused on the present moment as a result. I began to become more aware of the way my mind worked and better able to notice the difference between insightful and frivolous thoughts. Happiness and equanimity (calmness, especially in light of a difficult situation) became more accessible and frequent in my life. I am happy that I made the decision to continue meditating daily even though it was challenging at first. I realize that my refusal to give up after those first few days of meditation brought me to this point in my life. Daily meditation sessions of 20-30 minutes now are commonplace in my life and the rewards are so worth the effort. Small steps lead to big changes.
When I was younger, I never realized the importance of good nutrition and eating food that was healthy for me. Bacon, fast-food burgers and french fries, and fried foods were a consistent part of my diet. As I grew older and more interested in healthy nutrition, I knew that I wanted to change my diet for the better. My goal was to consume more brown rice and other unprocessed carbohydrates, lean protein, vegetables and more raw foods. But it all seemed so daunting because it meant that I had to overcome my love for unctuous and processed food. I had to learn to substitute healthier foods for unhealthy ones, and the options were endless.
I began by learning to cook brown rice, whole wheat pasta and vegetables in a way that appealed to my palate. Healthier proteins like chicken breast, fish and tofu made more of an appearance on my daily menu, but I still often craved a cheeseburger and pizza. But I incorporated small changes into my diet and gradually weaned myself off junk food. I researched healthy recipes and ordered healthier dishes in a restaurant, even though I still sometimes indulged in barbequed ribs and greasy chinese food. I began to notice how my body felt and responded to each food choice I made and it became evident that eating healthier foods provided me with more energy, a clearer mind and it also lowered by body fat. My taste buds slowly changed and the brown rice and other healthy foods became more appealing to me over time. I joined an organic farm cooperative and started buying organic kale from my local grocery store. Juicing fresh fruits and vegetables in the morning became a mainstay, as well as steaming and baking foods instead of frying. Once in awhile, I will still treat myself to a cheeseburger or salami, but they are not a mainstay of my diet. I made these nutritional changes gradually, not overnight. If I can do it, I know you can, too.
A few years ago, I read an interesting article on the benefits of gratitude and the act of being grateful on a daily basis. Better sleep, increased happiness, improved relationships, and greater psychological well-being were some of the proven advantages of being more grateful. I knew I wanted to experience all those benefits so I decided to incorporate more mindful gratitude into my daily life. One of the ways of doing this as suggested in the article I read is to list 5 things or events in your day that you are grateful for. I decided to try to practice this every night in bed just before I fell asleep. Of course, the more frequently you engage in such a practice, the more effective it becomes. Writing your gratitude list daily in a gratitude journal is another great method.
At first it was challenging. My mind was so used to focusing on the negative aspects and annoyances of my day rather than the positive ones. There were many nights when I forgot to be grateful as planned. But I persisted and soon I was practicing gratitude quite consistently. Every night before I went to bed, I would close my eyes and be thankful for the wonderful food I ate that day, the kindness and support displayed by my family, the beautiful weather, my loving pet cat (his name is Milkshake), the good friends in my life, etc. It became easier as I learned to change my focus to the positive things in my life. The habit started to become more ingrained into my daily routine and I now rarely miss a night being thankful for the different blessings afforded me during my day.
My friend, Danny:
Danny is a good friend of mine whom I have known for years. He has experienced quite a bit of hardship in his life, especially during his pre-teen and teen years. Danny also is officially classified as a dwarf. He currently is in his 30’s and stands 4ft 8in tall. A couple of years ago, Danny was overweight and wanted to change his life. I was asked to be his gym buddy and I gladly accepted his offer. When he first started working out with me, he was unfit and could only lift a fraction of the weight I was lifting. He also was not able to engage in more than a few minutes of cardiovascular exercise (he reminded me of myself when I first started exercising). Danny also had the added hurdle of being too short to use some of the exercise machines which were built for people of average stature. Even today, Danny cannot properly use the spinning bicycles in the gym because he is too short.
In spite of his uphill climb, Danny persisted and we worked out together regularly. He became stronger and more fit each day while providing me with valued companionship and support during our workouts. He showed up every day and never gave excuses. Equally significant, he became an inspiration to me and many others. He has lost 30 pounds and his old jeans no longer fit. Both he and I still joke about the time when I asked him to do a set of dips with me and he told me he was not able to without even trying. Today, Danny attaches dumbbells to his body while doing dips because his own body weight became too easy. He currently leg-presses over a thousand pounds (yes, thousand!), is a strong and healthy man and an inspiration to so many. He has even changed his diet. This is because he made a commitment to make small changes and to not give up.
I cannot reiterate enough that you can make big changes in your life if you focus on the small steps. Too many people try to make changes and expect immediate results. Life does not work that way. If you brush your teeth often, you will have healthy gums and teeth in the future. You cannot brush your teeth extra hard one day after neglecting them and hope for immediate results. It is the cumulative effective of diligent brushing that does the trick.
So what positive small changes are you going to make today? Make the commitment and big changes will be headed your way!