Everyday, and multiple times per day, people ask the essential question of: ‘How do I get here from there?’ And they proceed to berate themselves for ‘not having done anything,’’ which is rarely true. That is, they ignore the smaller steps they’ve taken because they believe those are useless in comparison to meeting the real goal; nothing else matters. And, not coincidentally, the achievement should be perfect. 

Most of us learn that hitting the target is the only significant criterion of accomplishment and thus anything short of that is inconsequential. It’s a pretty reductionistic way of perceiving human endeavor!

I learned early in training to ‘meet’ clients where they are; not where we or they or anyone else believe they should be. Wanting to attain a particular outcome is fine, but unless I help people break these outcomes down into various progressive gains or sub-goals, I won’t be giving them the tools they need to actually move forward.

The most expeditious path toward this is the practice of successive approximation; that is, small but cumulative strides toward where you want to be (see post “HOW TO CHANGE ANYTHING: Successive Approximation and Altering Narratives)

So, today, make any one of these tiny efforts and watch yourself do another additive piece each day, half day, or every one, two or three days (and so on) thereafter. Essential to this is that each new step must be eminently doable – meaning that you’re functionally guaranteeing success.

A few examples

(To offer examples, each of the following present only an abbreviated view of what sequentially happens in this process:

If you’re becoming ‘disgusted’ with yourself because you’re not exercising (a harsh self-estimate to be sure – and worthy of another blog post), STOP making ‘big plans’ as to what you’re going to set out to do (workout an hour everyday, guilt your old running partner to do it with you decide you won’t go out with friends on weekends if you haven’t done a full 5 days of exercise in between, and so on). Reperceive the process and instead decide on a small step that can turn into additional small steps each day,


  • Walk up and down one flight of stairs (or only 6 stairs if that’s what feels doable)
  • If you feel like you’re not even close to being able to go to the gym, walk or run: come home from work (or from your remote work station) and put on your sneakers. Keep them on for a while and take them off. Perhaps tomorrow you’ll put them on and walk to the mailbox and back. The next day you may walk around the block, and so on until you’re engaging in exercise that feels both manageable and satisfying.

Think again in a way that guarantees ‘success’, and work on how you’ll define that.

If you can’t yet call that friend with whom you’d had a fallout last year

For now, jot down one or two things you’d want to tell her when you do call – and reflect on how you’d like to present these. Don’t start imagining all the ways she’ll react that will make you furious. Each day, imagine a new, non-inciting, non-defensive way of bringing these things up so that she can take down her guard and relax into a conversation as well. When you do plan to talk, possibly suggest a few conversations over time so that, by accretion, you come to listen to each other rather than react.

If you can’t seem to sit down to write your paper, a legal brief, an application, your first book – make a short list of one small piece of the work you’ll do today and tomorrow, e.g., in the morning, simply list some events or characters, and then consider one small increment you’ll do that afternoon or the next day (perhaps describing one of the characters) and so on. Then, on a third day, you may decide which characters will be interacting with each other, and that itself can take different sessions on different days to accomplish.

Someone I know well who just finished his book had planned to start with one ‘sit’ per day; the ‘sits’ started at about 20 minutes each (followed by a brief distraction or soothing activity) in which he’d write about a particular subject – the characters, the timeline, the things learned by the players, etc. During those sits, all forms of distraction, social media, etc. would have been silenced. As he honed his practice over time, he was doing up to 5 sits per day of 2 hours each – and finally handed in the finished book to the publisher. No small feat, but one that required a recognition that it absolutely had to be broken down into accessible pieces of behavior.

If your home office is a mess: Every time you go in there, pick up one document and file it – even if it’s not yet the perfect place for it.

If you’d had a date with a woman and then became overly zealous and told her you’re taking her to a resort in Mexico, but then she began to answer your texts ambivalently, don’t automatically assume that it’s all over. Decide on a small step you can take to lower the timbre and intensity of it. Begin a small meta-conversation (see posts META-CONVERSATIONS and GO META (in perception, language and behavior) explaining how you can sometimes get a bit ahead of yourself but would like to see if you can have a dinner or a walk together soon to help you clear the air.

If your father has an incurable disease and you’ve been angry at him for years but realize it’s time to communicate: write down a few things you’d want to tell him when you write that first note or decide to call or visit. Don’t flood yourself with the vastness of what went wrong; remind yourself that you can only comfortably take in a little bit at a time. And that it’s going to be a work in progress. The ultimate, larger goal isn’t that all will be repaired; perhaps it’s simply to help you know you’d made an effort, that you opened a door for yourself and for him to come to understand what happened. It is a means to help you say goodbye, both of you recognizing that despite all, there’d been love.

If you’re about to take a drink when you’ve been sober for 30 days, take 5 minutes to contemplate what other soothing behavior you can do instead (and do it). And each day, take a minute or two more, then 7 minutes, 10, then 15, etc before you take that first sip. At some point, you’ll have waited an hour because you’ll have found some equally effective method(s) to stave off that first drink. By then, you’ll have come to disconnect the impulse from the act of drinking – which opens up myriad other ways to cope.

After each of these small steps, take a break, do something sweet and fun – but don’t fall into the “Oh, but I should do more today now that I started”)

And if you can’t do these things yet, vow to try again tomorrow starting with an even smaller piece of the desired behavior. 


I’ve come to the point on this piece that I feel ready to stop; yet there’s this nagging perfectionistic tendency to tell myself: add even more examples, explain the origins of indecision and so on. But I remind myself that I addressed what I’d sought to do and I can close this for now. Add more later if I want, create another piece related to this and so on. One piece at a time. I’m telling you to focus on shorter, incremental goals: I’d better do the same 🙂

In a world where we’re often stumped by where to go, what to do, being human, afraid, figuring out next steps, it’s pretty wonderful to know there’s always the tiniest micro piece of behavior that you can start with toward change. To move, you have to make movement, one incremental step at a time (see post: YOU’VE GOT TO MAKE MOVEMENT TO MOVE).

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