Change through small simple steps

Rome wasn’t built in a day. It’s a well-trotted out phrase at this stage, used in all sorts of contexts to illustrate that anything and everything takes time. You could apply the phrase to Rome the city or Rome the empire, it makes no difference.

In a world where we constantly need to have instant results it’s easy to forget the power of small changes and how they add up. It’s something I came across during lockdown, and it’s how I ended up in my 20 pages a day reading challenge (still haphazard, but it will overall hit the annual reading target).

I follow and learn from a wide variety of individuals representing a wide variety of backgrounds. One of these is the brain trainer and speed reading guru Jim Kwik. Kwik had a brain injury as a child and struggled with learning but has since retrained his brain to work efficiently and has a prodigious memory. Although he would complain that “prodigious” is the wrong word to use, arguing that there are only trained brains and untrained brains.

I recently watched an interview with him where he discussed limitations and how they are generally down to our own perceptions of ourselves. One quote stuck out for me: “If you fight for your limitations, you get to keep them”. Meaning, if you say to yourself “I can’t do this, I’ll never be able to do this”, then you won’t because you’re programming yourself to think that you can’t.

I took a number of online courses since the onset of covid, including several on leadership, organisational design, and management styles as part of a programme offered by Australia’s Macquarie University. Some of these courses were focused on how to be a better, more effective leader, but they also dealt with coaching and supporting employees. One approach that was discussed and which repeatedly pays dividends is, for want of a better name, the power of positive thinking. This is a growth mindset. Believing you can improve is key, much like what Kwik was talking about. And by telling employees they can improve or do new tasks, the research shows they are more likely to actually be able to do them. Provided you ensure they feel supported and that you genuinely believe in them.

But what if the task you need to accomplish is a big one? Well the tried and trusted way of taking it on is to break it into more manageable chunks. So, you want to read more? Do 20 pages a day, it adds up to 7,300 a year. Or read 20 minutes a day. Need to write that novel? Well try 500 words a day and build from there. Stephen King writes six manuscript pages a day, every day. Six. That works out as a book every two months (eg, 360 manuscript pages). A whole project management approach revolves around increments, particularly for software projects.

Kwik, in that interview I watched recently, which was part of an online festival so I can’t link out to, had a formula for progress in which he advocated a variation on this sort of thing: Short Simple Steps.

Like many useful ideas, the simplicity is what makes it works. Think along the lines of what I’ve said above about reading: You might want to kick off by reading, say, 20 books a year and then burn yourself out putting yourself under pressure. Instead, set a manageable target and chances are you’ll find yourself coasting past it because the pressure isn’t there.

I’ve written “Short Simple Steps” on the whiteboard in our kitchen so I can break it out the next time my son is tangling himself up in knots overthinking or telling us he can’t do something.

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