It’s taken me 38 years, but I think I’ve finally learnt the importance of breaking down big, ambitious goals and ideas into manageable chunks. I’ve read several books that have hammered on about this, as well as dozens of blog posts, and it’s something the business coach I worked with in the summer was very keen on.
The theory goes that whilst you need a big ambitious goal to aim for in the medium to long term, in the immediate day-to-day you need to break it down into much smaller chunks if you want to make any progress.
Imagine putting “get better at photoshop” on your daily to-do list. Not only is this goal very badly defined (how will you know when you’ve got better?) but it’s pretty daunting, staring at you on the page. By comparison, how much more sense does it make to write “spend 1/2 an hour watching a tutorial on compositing, then practice on some images of my own.” This second one is much more manageable, much more appealing, and of course “getting better at photoshop” is made up of many smaller steps like this.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve not mastered everything in my lifetime “to-do” list – I’ve barely even scratched my new year’s resolutions, and it’s December – but I’ve made much more progress than ever before towards some quite big meaty goals. The way I’ve done this is to think carefully about that big goal in the first place, to make sure it feels right, is ambitious enough, and yet still feasible. Then, break that goal down into the smallest chunks possible, and start taking action towards it as soon as I can.
For example, one of my long term goals is to shoot more work for major outdoor brands. So one of my first steps was to spend some time researching which agencies represent these brands, and what they’ve got responsibility for – social media, above the line advertising and so on. Doing this alone doesn’t achieve the goal, but it’s a vital first step. Put it together with dozens of other steps, and I’ll get there. If I write on my daily to-do list “shoot for a major outdoor brand” I’m unlikely to tick it off in an afternoon.
There’s a subtle but powerful corollary to using bite-size chunks. They’re “easy wins”, and they set me up for more of the same. Working for myself, and working from home, requires quite large doses of self-discipline and willpower, and as I’ve mentioned before, this is a finite resource. Achieving success, even in small areas such as “watch a tutorial video and make notes” actually works to reinforce willpower and self-discipline. It helps to convince me that I CAN get things done, and that it’s within my power. On the flipside, continually failing to tick something off the list – because it’s too large, or too vague – has the opposite effect. It’s demoralising, and makes me feel like a failure.