My inner perfectionist tells me that if I cannot fully commit to doing something, it is not worth doing it at all. If I want to learn French, I need to move to a French-speaking country; or if I want to be a writer, I need to quit my job and write full time. This story is very restrictive and limiting, as there is a low to zero chance that I can be successful. I cannot simply drop everything to focus on my passions without suffering serious consequences. And so…I do nothing. Nothing at all. My interests sit on a shelf for another year, waiting for the time and circumstances to be perfect, and the result is soul destroying.
There are life affirming interests and pursuits that call us from our deepest core. We are called to do them, as they give us joy and meaning. They reflect our unique reason for being here; and if they are not realized, in some form, it is like walking around with a blindfold on. I want to take my blindfold off, so I can fully engage in my life, and live a truly fulfilling existence.
Martha Beck is a best-selling author, life coach, and speaker who specializes in helping individuals and groups achieve greater levels of personal and professional success. She holds three degrees, a BA, MA and PhD from Harvard University. In addition to authoring several books, Beck is a columnist for O, The Oprah Magazine. Although Martha is a very accomplished woman, she has faced a lot of adversity along the way. This includes grappling with serious health issues, raising a child with Down Syndrome, and breaking ties with her Mormon community. In order to continue moving forward, despite facing many obstacles, Martha uses a technique called Turtle Steps.
Turtle Steps are tiny, easy steps that you take towards reaching a goal. To create a Turtle Step, you identify your end goal, break it up into steps, and then cut each step into half. Continue cutting it into half until each step is so easy that you could do it in your sleep. Start with the taking the first easy Turtle Step. Continue onto the next one. And the next. Follow the step immediately with a reward of some kind. If you repeat the same behavior-plus-reward for four consecutive days, the behaviour starts to become a habit, and you will be able to sustain it with very little effort. This will eventually help you to accomplish your vision.
This approach strongly aligns with the work of James Clear and his recent book Atomic Habits. A habit is a behaviour that has been performed enough times to be done without thought; and daily habits are an embodiment of your identify. Every action you take is a vote for the person you want to become. The more votes you cast, the more likely you are to become that person. For example, if you make your bed every day, you are embodying the persona of a tidy person or if you read a page a day, you are embodying the persona of a reader. Once you believe in a certain identify, your daily actions start to naturally align with this belief.
We often overestimate what we can accomplish in a day and underestimate what we can achieve in a lifetime. James encourages you to focus on getting 1% better every day, rather than on making one big change. Habits can easily be overlooked, both good and bad. The difference between studying a language for five minutes a day or not, or choosing to eat a salad instead of a burger, seem like nothing in the moment. It is only when these habits compound over two, five, or ten years that you see the full impact of the 1% choices, for the better or worse. If you can start to internalize this concept, it will help you to see the importance of your daily actions.
The key is to make the change as easy as possible. James outlines this concept through his two minute rule. What can you do to initiate the habit? How do you automate the beginning of the new behaviour? He advises you to take your goal and scale it way down (e.g. if you want to become fit, commit to doing five push ups, every day for thirty days). Think of it as a gateway action or an entrance ramp. He argues that to establish a new habit, you must first master the art of showing up. A habit has to be firmly in place before it can be improved. Until you become the person who shows up every day, there is nothing to optimize. Once you fully believe in the new identity, you can upgrade and improve from there. James also advises never to miss twice. Missing once is a mistake. Missing twice is the start of a new habit; and habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.
Although the skeptic in me finds it difficult to believe that Turtle Steps or the Two Minute Rule are going to get help me achieve my goals, I know for a fact that I am not achieving anything by waiting for the circumstances to be perfect for full throttle engagement. I recently committed to five minutes of French practice every day by using the DuoLingo app on my phone. I have successfully accomplished my goal for the past ten days and it feels great. I have also made the commitment to sit down at my computer every morning for ten minutes and do nothing but write. If I can automate the habit of showing up at my desk, I can then focus on the effortful activity of writing once I am here. Although it is far from my dream of publishing a book, it puts me on the path to realizing that goal; and, more importantly, I am starting to identify myself as a writer. This is nourishing for my soul and worth its weight in gold.