Learning to Take Small Steps: Tips for Creating Change in Your Career

I am a big fan of the TV show The Biggest Loser. I love to watch people tackling what seems to be an overwhelming challenge and then succeeding. One of the best success strategies they use on the show is also helpful if you’re contemplating a major change on the job front, whether you want to return to work for the first time in years, change careers or launch a major project.

It’s what I call “small steps motivation,” and I employ it often with the clients of Act Three, my career coaching and consulting firm in Cincinnati.

Here’s an example: In a recent episode of The Biggest Loser, one of the contestants had to lose 300 pounds. But whenever he thought about the fact that “I have to lose a whole person,” he got discouraged and was ready to quit. The long-term goal seemed insurmountable. Bob, the show’s trainer, gave him smart advice: “Just think about what you need to do tomorrow. The rest will take care of itself. Doesn’t that make sense?

2 Reasons to Take Small Steps

The first reason to take small steps is that it allows you to avoid the feelings of hopelessness that may occur when you look at the big “I have to lose 300 pounds” goal. It’s much easier to draft a resumé or do market research about a field you’re considering than to vaguely pursue a whole new career path.

The second reason for taking small steps is that this approach lets you get fully comfortable with each action before you undertake the next one.Humans are hardwired to want to feel comfortable. We’ll do anything to avoid a high level of stress. Feelings of anxiety and discomfort are only natural if you try to take on too much, too fast. But if you focus on just one small step at a time, easing in to your eventual goal, you have a much higher chance of success.

Doesn’t that make sense? Why worry about whether you can ultimately hit the big scary goal a year down the road when really what you need to push through is just that one step you need to take tomorrow. That step is certainly more manageable: running a mile to lose two pounds, drafting a resume’ and doing some job market research, or getting a short-term loan. The first reason for taking small steps is that it allows you to avoid the feelings of hopelessness that may occur when you look at the big-I have to lose 300 pounds- goal. It’s easy to convince yourself that your objective is unattainable, especially if there’s a wide gulf between where you are and where you want to be.

The second reason for taking small steps is that it allows you to get fully comfortable with each small step before undertaking the next one. Humans are hardwired to want to feel comfortable. If we are too uncomfortable and feeling too much stress, we will do anything to avoid feeling that way. (Think of the last time you walked into a cocktail party full of people you didn’t know, you probably wanted to get out of there.)

Many of the women I interviewed for my book, Act Three, mastered the art of taking small steps. Anne Heyman stands out—what she calls “step-by-step” project management was a particular strength of hers, enabling her to organize the challenging project of a creating a Rwandan youth village piece by piece. “It was not the way project management is supposed to happen,” Anne told me.

In typical project management, you’d have the entire project mapped out. But here I just took it one step at a time. First, we put together this group to go to Israel to see what the model should be. Then we looked at land in Rwanda. Once we looked at land, I was willing to talk to architects. Once I’d found an architect, I was willing to talk to builders. But I wouldn’t be pushed faster than we could move, one step at a time. I think the only way to have done this is step by step. If I had looked at the whole picture I might never have done what I did. But by taking it what are the piece by piece, perhaps it didn’t get overwhelming.

Exercise: Make a Small-Steps List

Thinking about your own vision, you may feel overwhelmed but how far you need to move from where you are now and how much you might need to change. You might even get discouraged. Maybe you wonder if you can doing anything significant at your age, or with your background, or with your finances or with your health condition. To help you accomplish your goals, the first step is to make a list of all the steps you need to accomplish in the next month. What I call a “small steps” list. Then, each month redo the list, crossing off what has been accomplished and adding new steps. If you get overwhelmed with the monthly list, scale back to a week. If that’s still too much, map out what you need to do in the next two days. It doesn’t matter how many small steps ahead you’ve planned—it just matters that plan them and then you keep taking them.

To help you see what I mean, here is the small step list compiled by client Barbara. Barbara decided at age 52 that she wanted to become a social worker, for which she’d need a master’s degree. Before she got overwhelmed by all the huge steps she needed to take to get from being a stay at home mom to working as a social worker, we made a small steps list of just what it would take to get into school.

Barbara’s Small Step List:

Month One

1) Meet with admissions officers of all five local Universities to find out about their masters programs

2) Evaluate curriculum, tuition costs, job placement help

3) Meet with a graduate of each program

4) Learn about taking the GRE

Month Two

1) Pick top two University choices

2) Begin application for top two choices

3) Register for and start studying for GRE

Month Three

1) Finalize application for top two choices; get in on time

2) Study for GRE

3) Get recommendations done

Month Four

1) Study for GRE

2) Take GRE

Month Five


Month Six

1) Visit each school (assuming accepted to both)

2) Choose school

Month Seven

1) Start school

You can see that this process took Barbara seven months. I am not saying that taking small steps requires this many months, that’s just how it worked out for her. If this was a job search, and not conditioned on a school calendar, the time frame could have been significantly compressed. The key is not how long, but that each step was thought out, written down and manageable.

As Henry Morton Stanley, the African explorer is quoted as saying,

“I did not see the whole. I only saw this poisonous snake which I had to kill in order to take the next step. I only saw the problem directly in front of me. If I had seen the whole thing, I would have been too overwhelmed to have attempted this.”

Spoken like a true small stepper.


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