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Small Steps

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Big changes come in small steps. The key to success in achieving big things is breaking them down into small pieces and making steady progress over time.

In life and software

Many of us try to set goals for our lives like losing weight, getting fit, making money, getting promoted, making friends, or finding love.

When these goals are huge, like losing 50 lb, becoming a CEO, making a million dollars, getting married, or building a new group of friends, it’s hard to track how we’re doing. These goals take multiple years, so we benefit a lot from breaking the goals down into smaller changes, and tracking progress against these smaller steps that we can measure weekly. This way we can tweak our behaviors more often as we evolve toward the goal.

My background is in software engineering. One of our most important concepts is decomposition. Master engineers always decompose big changes into a series of small changes. Small chunks are independently verifiable, understandable, and easy to work with.  When things go wrong it’s easy to pinpoint where they are and debug them.

When changes come in big monolithic chunks, progress grinds to a halt and it’s impossible to tell on any given day how much progress you’re really making. The work is slow, difficult to debug, hard to verify, and difficult to understand.

We can’t simply start out walking in exactly the right direction on the path towards some big distant goal and make a series of steps in a straight line. There are always going to be detours and steps backwards along the path.

Decomposing big goals into small goals with explicit hypotheses

When breaking big goals down into smaller ones, it’s powerful to explicitly state hypotheses. There are hypotheses inside each step towards the bigger goal whether you make the hypotheses explicit or not.

Maybe I want to close 5 new customers this month, and I plan to send 500 emails with the expectation that I can close 1 customer from every 100 emails I send. The 500 emails are a hypothesis. Maybe I think i can get 10 meetings from every 100 emails, but I only get 2. Then I’m going to reconsider if I should be doing something differently to close those 5 customers – maybe a different campaign in parallel with a completely different leadgen strategy like going to events or asking my network for referrals.

Small goals with explicit hypotheses enable experimentation, and experimentation enables winning.

Easy to debug

Achieving big goals involves many hypotheses along the way. Many times we just proceeded towards our bigger goals with implicit hypotheses. This cheats us out of an awesome debugging opportunity. If we just proceed towards the larger goal without checking in, it often ends in disappointment. Even if we do succeed, we don’t know why, so it may not be repeatable. We get frustrated about our lack of progress towards the bigger goal after some period of time, and we’re not really sure how to debug the situation. What has worked and what hasn’t? What should we do now? Maybe we change our diet around a bunch of different times and we’ve lost 5 lb in 6 months but the progress has slowed to a halt and we’re not really sure why, so we get frustrated and give up.

Small goals with explicit hypotheses enable persistence, and persistence enables winning.

When you look at small steps individually, you can investigate short term results and understand what’s driving them. Let’s say you change your diet for a month but you don’t lose any weight. What’s your calorie burn – have you burned less than you expected? Do you need more or some different types of workouts? Are you sure the diet has resulted in the calorie intake you expected? Did you cut calories too much then binge snack to avoid crashing? Did you not cut calories enough? Rather than sticking to the diet that didn’t give you any results in the first month, try something different in the second month based on what you’re learned.

Easy to achieve and measure

Big goals are hard to measure. Let’s say for example you want to become a millionaire.  You can measure your bank balance if you’re expecting that to go up every week, but what if you’re working on something longer term like a new startup or getting a new job? It takes many years for most people to make their first million, so what do you track along the way?

If you’re planning to make your first million from compensation, you might want to focus on the kinds of jobs and your pace of promotion in order to get to the earning power you need in your target time frame. This way you can come up with short term goals around education, career progression, or short term impact at work that tell you that you are on track or not.  If you’re planning to make your first million from your own business, then you can start from determining a realistic time for you to generate that liquidity for yourself from selling some or all of the business itself, or from distributing its cash flows. In either case, you can set up different financial milestones along the path that will tell you if you are building value as fast as you want, or if your expectations are unrealistic.

Celebrate small wins

Small goals and small steps means small wins, and this is very important.  I’ve learned over the years to celebrate small wins. Celebrate every day if you can – even multiple times a day! Celebration and winning builds momentum and positive energy around your progress, and that solidifies into a habit of thriving and celebrating rather than stressing out trying to survive.

Going back to the software example, great software engineering teams release software multiple times a day into production. The teams feel a sense of accomplishment with every little bit that gets pushed to production, and they never need to feel stressed out about major releases that could be broken in millions of tiny little ways. Only a little bit changes with each push to production, so changes are smaller, faster, less stressful, and can be celebrated more frequently.