We all have things we want to do.
Sometimes it can be difficult tasks like doing your degree while working full-time or finding a new job. Sometimes it can be simple things like waking up half an hour earlier, going for a run or reading a book you’ve had on your shelf for months.
Now, before reading on, take 10 seconds to think about something you want to do – but so far have put off. Just one thing will do.
Making tasks manageable
OK, so why does starting out towards this goal seem almost impossible? Too often we simply put things off forever, dreading the hard work involved.
We do this even though we all know that, once you start, usually you keep going. Moreover, we know that moving towards a goal causes us to have increased positive emotions. So why do we procrastinate so intensely? We make the first step too hard.
We think of all the work that starting will create. We make the first step feel like a giant leap and so we feel we do not have the momentum to make it, and the task we have in mind suddenly feels like a profoundly difficult problem.
This is what befalls so many new year’s resolutions that we make – whether personal or professional. We want to get fit, or get a new job. But such goals are huge, daunting and too easy to let slide because we don’t know where to start.
One small step
I know this feeling well. For a long time I cowered from the dragons that surrounded my book, studies and goals. They all seemed too large and unconquerable.
But slowly I came to realise what if the dragon was the size of a mosquito, surely I could swat that with one fell swoop?
So how about this, make the first step so insignificantly small that anybody could do it. If reading a book is your goal, set your target at one word a day. Then at least you start
We all know the following mantras: "The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step" or "Slowly, slowly catchy monkey". And the reason we all know them is because, cliched as they are, they contain a fundamental truth.
Slow incremental gains have extreme impacts. That is why compound interest sounds low but over years makes people a lot of money.
Conquering the to-do list
The past year has had possibly the highest richness of meaning for me so far. It has also been one of the years rife with the highest degree of challenges.
There are many countries and cities around the world that are in lockdown right now and it looks like this will not go away in the next month. What is lockdown for a teacher? Well, it is certainly time; a lot of time spent alone.
I was based in Nanjing and found it fairly hard due to my extraverted nature. However, I knew it was an opportunity to work through some of my goals that had been following me around and playing on my mind.
Fast-forward eight months and I have finished my book, started my second, ploughed through my master of education degree (three months to go), found a new job (this involved 75 applications that took two hours each), done a short course on math instruction with Harvard and had two academic publications.
This was all while working full-time and helping to train around 150 teachers to: a) Use the online platform the company I worked for had chosen; and b) Teach successful interactive lessons online.
This may sound a lot of work, and it was. But I am no more hardworking or diligent than anyone else. I simply broke it down into goals that were manageable:
For my books, I write one word a day. For my M.Ed, I simply have to open the university app. For a job application, I just had to find a job that I would want. This was the goal – I, of course, did more than this, but by setting a low-stakes goal, it was far less daunting.
The point is not to make unreasonable tasks for yourself like a tyrant. You need to set yourself manageable, realistic and achievable goals.
What you need to do now
Remember thinking about what you wanted to achieve around 500 words ago? Well, what is the smallest possible first step you can take? Got it? Then just do that. Write that word, do that Google search, open that book…
That is more than enough, there is absolutely no pressure beyond that.
If you keep going, it's OK, if you stop, it's also OK. The point is, you’ve moved forward – and from that mighty oaks can grow.
Gregory Adam is a primary teacher at Nord Anglia Chinese International School in Shanghai. He released his first book last year: Teaching EFL, ESL & EAL. A Practitioner’s Guide