Set big goals, they said. Take massive action, they chanted. Go big or go home, they shouted. The sky is the limit, they mused.
Meanwhile, for someone dealing with anxiety or overwhelm these words are at best meaningless and at worst just mean.
Think about it, when gripped by unrelenting fear and wearing the lead boots of someone paralysed in action none of these words are encouraging. In fact most of them quite frightening.
If there’s anything that will cause a recoil effect in someone who is teetering on the idea of being brave it’s the already brave or full of bravado, shouting ahoy from the mountain top to just get up here already.
If you’re struggling with anxiety or overwhelm or even just a below average level of self-confidence, big goals and massive action may feel incredibly daunting and I’m here to tell you that’s okay and you can now close the book from well-meaning shouty motivational coach and breathe a sigh of relief.
There is another way. A better way, that meets you exactly where you are now which I’m assuming is not half way up El Capitan.
But you know what is fascinating, even if you are there, hanging off your right index finger, trying to avoid plummeting to your demise, this teaching still applies and could possibly be more crucial to your success than ever.
It is learning to take tiny actions in the face of fear.
Tiny. Did you get that? It’s equally as important as the action part and here is why.
Even though my knowledge of free solo rock climbing is very limited, let’s stay with this example for a moment because when I sat down wondering how best to explain this to you dear reader it was the sinewy form of Alex Honnold who appeared in my brain.
If you haven’t watched the documentary Free Solo about Alex’s attempts to climb 900m of vertical rock in the Yosemite National Park with no safety ropes, this is your homework, it’ll blow your socks off.
Without giving away the story it must be obvious to you that Alex has a HUGE goal. But if all he’d done was dream the dream, write it on a post it note, drive down there listening to Eminem and climb he’d be driving home again tail firmly between legs.
To accomplish a big goal, there are a thousand tiny actions that need to happen. Some of these are once off actions while others are tiny actions repeated over and over forming a habit that is part of getting you to where you want to go.
When Alex FINALLY did find himself hanging off the vertical cliff face by the skin of his knuckles, it was those tiny actions that he called on to move himself forward and upwards, inch by inch.
He had prepared so thoroughly and practiced so methodically that he knew focusing on the next tiny action (in the face of fear) was the only thing he needed to do. My feeling is that if Alex had allowed his mind to wander at that point and to dwell on the enormity of what he’d set out to accomplish he may not have made it.
Let’s bust a couple of myths about Big Goals and massive action
MYTH ONE: You’re selling yourself short if your goal isn’t big
I’ve encountered this one in business circles when I’ve shared goals that were based on my values and involved small upgrades and incremental changes. My goals didn’t require putting my low-stress weekly schedule in the bin and learning how to work in my sleep and that obviously triggered the big hitters. I was left feeling I hadn’t stretched far enough.
My current thoughts are small goals and tiny actions are just as beautiful as big ones but far less scary. Our goals don’t need to be difficult either, we can choose something small and easy to do, it’s just as valid and often more enjoyable.
MYTH TWO: You need to spend a large amount of time conquering your big goals
This is simply not true. I believe in taking small, consistent actions to achieve big results and the smaller the action the more likely it is you’ll do it and therefore succeed. The smaller the action, the less resistance which means less time fighting those demons and procrastiscrolling or procrasticleaning. You can do the action and then get on with it.
It doesn’t mean you won’t end up doing something huge in the end but if you start small, it gives you the best opportunity to cement the action as a habit and habits over time lead to big change and big results. It’s just that you got there in a way that required less risk in the beginning.
“Can one tiny change transform your life? It’s unlikely you would say so. But what if you made another? And another? And another? At some point, you will have to admit that your life was transformed by one small change. The holy grail of habit change is not a single 1 percent improvement, but a thousand of them.” James Clear, Atomic Habits.
The benefits of Tiny Actions
Building confidence is by far the most important reason to take tiny actions in the direction you want to go. Not only does achieving something you set out to do set off a nice squirt of dopamine in the brain which makes you feel great and want to do more; but just knowing you set a task for yourself and did it is a quick win and a great self-confidence boost.
Tiny actions are much easier to focus on than big goals. This is because a big goal can usually be broken down into a multitude of tiny actions but it’s much easier to focus on just one of these at a time and then move onto the next one rather than thinking about the mountain in its entirety.
It’s easier to track progress and build momentum with tiny actions. When you have a big goal and haven’t broken it down into tiny actions it just feels like a big insurmountable goal. Usually a big goal will take time and if there’s no way to know how you’re going along the way it’s very easy to get off track and give up.
Tracking tiny actions gives you an ability to see that you’re making progress and doing all the right things even when the results are still unseen. It also builds momentum and muscle memory and slowly over time your actions start feeling easier.
Examples of tiny actions
Tiny Actions can be anything at all that feels doable in a short amount of time; a week, a day, an hour or even doing one thing for one minute:
- Writing 50 words a day on your book, article or journal
- 5 minutes of stretching in the evening
- Putting on running shoes and walking around your block
- Writing an email response to someone
- Making time for breakfast tomorrow
- Adding one piece of fruit to your daily diet
- Spending 10 minutes researching something you’re scared of
“Mini habits are too small to fail; and so they lack the common destructive feelings of guilt and inadequacy that come with goal failure”. (Stephen Guise)
And then there’s the fear piece that we started with; if you are in fear of taking that first step towards something you want whether it’s a healthier mindset, a fitter body, a new relationship or job, a better life, make that first step small. No make it tiny! Do this consistently and you are well on your way out of whatever pickle you’re in, moving forwards and upwards.
It’s your time: What is the first tiny action you need to take towards your big goal or dream or to simply feel better than you are right now?