Monday, February 1, 2010

When Life Doesn't Work: Try Mini-Steps

Why is it the ship beats the waves when the waves are so many and the ship is one?

The reason is that the ship has a purpose.

--Winston Churchill

Setting goals during challenging times is an acquired skill. This is because what normally works for you won't.

But you can still make progress.

Knowing how to do this is crucial to your success over the long haul. Because some days, some months, and even some years will be littered with unexpected setbacks and problems. This is typical to the experience of raising a family. In fact, it's more typical than days where things go smoothly and your plans are executed without a hitch.

When this happens, when you have day after day of spoiled plans, you can start to feel like the road you've taken was a mistake. You're hitting one icy patch after another, and the year seems to be sliding out of control.

What can you do when life hits the ice?

The first thing, and the most essential, is to slow down. I know this is frustrating to even consider. But it will help you gain traction and make steady progress forward, instead of stalling completely. Moving forward, even by small increments, is better than standing still.

One simple technique is to focus on accomplishing mini-steps. Divide your daily learning objectives into smaller components. Work on the next mini-step, then the next, then the next. As you break lessons down into mini-steps that are achievable and measurable, let your personal goal be simply to attempt the next mini-step with a positive attitude. Then, after several mini-steps have been accomplished, you can reward earnest effort with praise for your kids and something pleasurable and concrete for everyone involved.

When my sons were overwhelmed by a lesson and we could make no progress, I learned to break our lesson down into tiny units. This almost always worked wonders.

I figured out ways to do this with housework and meals. This let me take advantage of small snippets of unused time. It's amazing how much housework can get done in one-minute to five-minute increments! While I'll never win any awards for the beauty of my home during these times, I can get the basics done until better days arrive.

I've learned to do this with personal disciplines, as well. If I can't do much Bible study, I can read one verse and think about it. Or I can read one Psalm and offer thanks to God over breakfast. If I can't walk for an hour, I can do one brisk mile in 15 minutes at the end of the school day, or first thing in the morning. Better yet, I can walk and pray at the same time. That's enough to keep me connected to God in a vital way and in decent physical condition until I have more time. Although this doesn't create big strides in my personal life, I'm not losing ground, either. And it's much easier to take advantage of new opportunities if I'm already doing something.

Is there a task that is frustrating you right now? How can you break it down into mini-steps?

photograph, copyright 2010 by Benjamin Frear.


  1. This is so helpful to me. Thank you!! We do this with school work all the time, it just seems obvious when things aren't going like they should, but how often do I apply it to the rest of my life? Never. I seem to think that if it cannot be done entirely then it simply a.) does not matter, or b.) it cannot get done, period; thus failing to realize the power of taking seemingly insignificant steps in one particular direction, over time becomes a silent, huge matter, indeed. It forms me by neglect, or perhaps by default, rather than with intention. And I have failed to see it for myself. So, thank you again. It frees me from feeling overwhelmed and no longer focusing on what I cannot do and shifts it to what is manageable, what CAN be done and ought to be done.

    A thought this morning came like this after reading your post and conversing with another friend:

    We all structure (build) our lives, either by default, neglect or intention.

    May I live with active intention, however small it may seem.

  2. Someone recently told me about mini-steps (actually her terminology was different, but same basic idea) and it really helped me get things done. Now when I make a to-do list, I don't put clean bathroom. I put clean toilet, clean tub, mop floor, etc. It may look like a lot more, but you cross them off so much faster, and you can get one thing done in 10 minutes that you might have ignored because the whole job would have taken longer than that. thanks for reminding me!

  3. It is amazing how much can get done in a short amount of time. Often I will take a couple of minutes and straighten something up whether it be my desk or toys on the floor. Even cleaning tasks can get done with the same approach. Take 5 minutes before school and clean the bathroom sink and counter. Take 5 minutes and sweep the floor. And so on....

    Hope you have a great week!


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