How to start making progress on that one big goal

This morning I ran a total of 24 minutes.

This is a small miracle for me. A month ago I couldn’t make it two (short) laps around the track without feeling like I was dying.

Now, here’s the thing: I ran those minutes in intervals, not all at once. And I have no idea of my speed (although I can guarantee it was not very fast) or distance.

Also, I don’t care.

I jogged a total of 24 minutes and it felt great. It felt great because running–being able to run, becoming a runner–is a goal I’ve had for a long time. For years.

But I’ve never put in consistent, meaningful action to get better at running. I like running (the little I can do) but I’m not good at it. My physical stamina is low. My running form is terrible, so I get a lot of aches and pains and twitches that make running even more difficult.

Every year for the past decade, I’d make at least one attempt toward my running goal. And so far, every year, I’ve failed.

Years of this attempt-and-failure cycle created mental blocks to go along with my physical ones.

For example, I started working out more regularly since moving to Puerto Rico three years ago. I’ve increased my stamina, I’ve lost weight, and I’m more fit and energetic. I can walk miles at a brisk pace without feeling fatigued. I often make the 3+ mile trek home from the library (my “office”), in the tropical afternoon humidity, just because I enjoy it. Despite my increased fitness and energy, and the ease with which I walk miles, I haven’t been able to translate these improvements into progress toward being a runner.

Until now.

At the end of May, I made the attempt once again. But I did things differently this time, and for the first time, I can say that I am making steady progress toward being good at running.


This morning, I wanted to figure out how to make progress on some other big goals that feel depressing rather than inspiring. As I started writing, I thought about running, and how I’ve made more progress in the last month than I have in the last ten years.

Hmmm. Maybe I’m on to something here. So I wrote down what I’m doing this time, to figure out what’s making it work. Maybe, I thought, I could figure out how to tackle these other big goals I’ve been hauling around.

Here’s what I found:

  • I’m focusing on a single part of the goal that I could picture easily, that feels within reach: being able to easily run to the sports complex, which is about a mile from where we live.
  • I’m not planning it all out or trying to see all the steps of how I would get from here to there. I’m only looking at the NEXT STEP I need to take: what is the thing I can do RIGHT NOW that will move me somewhat closer to the goal?
  • I clarified my NEXT STEP into a single action (a daily morning run or walk) and then fully committed to consistency while also setting the “standard for success” really, really low.
  • I’m following a simple system from an expert that gave me distinct, progressive steps to follow to ‘level up’ the quality of my runs over time.
  • I’m celebrating my successes, talking about my attempts/progress with trusted, supportive friends, and not dwelling on my failures, mistakes, or misses.

As I wrote those steps, I realized how different (and easier!) they were than the steps I had taken in the past.

In my past attempts at running, my process has always gone something like this:

  • Focus on trying to reach the big goal the entire time, which means the standard to reach is really high, somewhere between perfection and superhuman.
  • Try to come up with a plan that would get me all the way to that impossibly high standard, and would also account for all potential obstacles.
  • Translate the plan into a series of actions, with a timeline/deadline attached, so that if I messed up one actions or missed one day I would inevitably throw the whole plan into a train wreck.
  • Did I also mention that the series of actions would be of a level that required me to be in top form mentally, emotionally, physically: if not, if my willpower was down, I was feeling bad, etc., it would be insanely hard–perhaps impossible–to get myself to complete the actions.
  • I would mentally beat myself up for every mistake, seeing it as a failure of the whole plan and thus, the whole attempt at reaching the goal.
  • After a few mistakes (inevitable, in this kind of “goal-reaching system”), I would inevitably give up because everything was simply too hard: it required way too much effort to succeed, and only a simple error or mess up to completely fail.

I’m sure you can see all the glaring terrible moves I made in that previous “trying to be a runner” process. There are plenty. What’s interesting is how I spent so long blaming myself rather than analyzing my process. I mean, c’mon: I write about productivity for a living! I know this stuff, right? Or I should. But this was routine, this weird little pattern. I repeated it over and over. It was so ingrained that I no longer questioned it.

Until this year. Finally.

So let’s take a closer look at what worked. Maybe it can help you reach your big goals, as well.

Step 1: Focus on the one part of the goal you can picture yourself doing.

I could not picture myself winning a race, or even competing in one. I could not picture myself running miles at a fast pace. Well, I could picture it, but I couldn’t believe it was possible. I’d made so many attempts and failed at them that I had partially convinced myself that I was incapable of getting better at running.

What could I picture myself doing?

I could picture myself being able to jog (slowly) to the sports complex, about a mile from our house. So that’s the part of the goal I focused on: the part I could picture myself doing right now. The part I could believe possible right now. The part I mentally understood how to do and emotionally believed I was capable of doing.

How do you get from “big goal” to “smaller part of the goal I can picture and believe”?

  • Try free writing, which is writing out all the thoughts you have in a stream-of-consciousness way. In this case, you’ll focus on the big goal and the question you need an answer to: what part of this big goal can I see/believe right now? Set a timer, get your notebook or open your writing app, and start writing. Try not to stop or slow down to think: instead, let out everything that comes to mind. You don’t need to worry about grammar, spelling, structure, whatever. You don’t even have to write in complete sentences. Often, this exercise is enough. You’ll uncover the right slice of the goal and be ready to move on.
  • Try talking it out, which is the same as free writing but you do it aloud instead of on screen/paper. If you can find a trustworthy, supportive, intelligent friend who’s willing to listen to you for 20 minutes or so, even better. Ask them to listen and feedback what you’re saying.
  • Make a list or mind map. Start big (the big goal! so exciting!) and then divide it into sections. For each section, write out all the pieces, smaller goals, roles, accomplishments, milestones, etc. that you can think of. If you think in a linear way, use a list. If you think in a web, use a mind map. Somewhere in there, you can identify a piece that you can see, believe, and start working on today.

Step 2: Forget planning and look only at the next step.

I have spent so many hours making plans. I don’t regret them, because planning does have value. But the value it has is not the value we think it has.

Planning can help us get clarity when we are confused.

Planning does not help us generate willpower, overcome obstacles, or safeguard ourselves against future problems in our pursuit of… whatever it is we’re pursuing.

A plan is only an idea of how things might work out. It can point you in the right direction. It can help you eliminate options. It can’t predict reality. It can’t prepare you for every potential.

The only way to deal with reality is one moment at a time. For that, you have to trust yourself and your own capabilities in any given moment. And that’s why most of us are addicted to planning: we don’t trust ourselves. We don’t trust our intuition. We don’t trust our capabilities. We don’t trust that we can learn what we need to learn when we need to learn it. Without that trust in ourselves, however, we feel overwhelmingly insecure. We make plans to compensate for the distrust we have in ourselves, and to give ourselves a sense of security.

Too bad that sense of security is destroyed when Plan meets Reality. Plan meets Reality, Reality wins, and we have internal conflict: do we distrust the plan, and collapse back into insecurity? Or do we distrust reality (which seems risky, at best), and stick to our plan?

Here’s another option: limit your planning to the next step.

A next step is something you can decide and take action on today, right now.

A plan that extends further, into the future, is another burden you put on yourself. You can’t act on it today, which means you can’t really decide on it today. A decision without action is just (what? Oh, that’s right) a plan for the future. The future doesn’t exist. The present, my friends, is all we have. And the next step you need to take in the present is all we need to know.

How do you find your next step? 

If you’ve isolated the slice of the goal you can picture and believe, you’re almost there. Think about the action that will help you achieve that slice of the goal. The “slice” might be the next step. Don’t overcomplicate it. And don’t worry about what comes after the next step. Identify the next step: the thing you need to do next–now–before you can do anything else to reach your goal. What is it?

If you have trouble coming up with a next step, or if you’re coming up with too many essential next steps, you might need to revisit your slice of goal and narrow it a bit more.

Step 3: Clarify your next step into a single, specific action.

Then make the action stupid-easy and fully commit to being consistent.

My next step is to be able to jog to the sports complex.

My single specific action is to go for a run or walk, first thing, every morning.

I chose to fully commit to consistency: every single day except Sunday, I get up and go for a run or walk.

And I set a very simple, easy baseline for what “counts as success”: there’s no minimum distance or time for these morning excursions. It doesn’t even have to be a jog! I can just walk. I can jog at the pace of a sloth around the block and call it a win. I can walk in any direction for two minutes and then turn around and go back to bed. I can run fast, as far as I can, then collapse into a haggard walk. Whatever. There’s no requirement of distance, speed, time, etc., just the one single specific action: get up and go for a walk or run, first thing in the morning, every day but Sunday.

How do you clarify your next step into a single, specific action? 

In many cases, the next step is a single specific action. In that case, you’re set. You need to fully commit to consistency by saying what consistency means. Does it mean daily? Weekly? Monthly? You decide. Once you decide, commit. (Don’t be a martyr, either. If you don’t need to take action daily, don’t. Give yourself a rest day, or whatever makes sense in the context of your action.)

Then set a really stupid-easy baseline for success. Don’t skip this. It’s important, because the first time you’re distracted, exhausted, overwhelmed, and dealing with 17 urgent issues, you will want to skip your action. You will feel justified. Making it easy to succeed is so important. You need it to be so stupid-easy that you’ll feel stupid if you don’t do it.

Step 4: Follow a simple, already-built system from an expert. 

You may not need this at all. This is an optional step. But if you want a way to increase the quality of your single, specific action, follow a simple method or system made by somebody else.

Don’t try to build your own. Don’t come up with your own plan. Quit reinventing the wheel. That is not the best use of your energy. Listen: this is a goal you want to reach, which means you haven’t yet reached it. Find someone who has reached this goal (or one that’s very similar) and follow their plan. Stick to it. Commit. Do not give yourself the option to tweak it, improve it, customize it, optimize it, or anything else that involves you putting energy into preparation rather than action.

All your energy goes into action: the single, specific action you clarified in step 3. Keep your energy focused. Keep your attention pure. Be humble. Accept help and quit being a know-it-all isolationist. Do you want to make progress or not?

How do you find a simple system to follow? 

If you know someone who’s qualified, ask them. They might be willing to share their own system or methodology, or recommend a good one to you.

Otherwise, my recommendation is to find a book (or system) by someone who can prove their expertise. Scan it. Pull out the action points. Follow them.

There’s plenty more to say on this topic, and there are plenty of other options. You can get lost here. The goal is to keep moving forward into action.

These three factors are the ones to keep in mind:

  • give yourself a time limit. Choosing a system is preparation: implementing a system is action. You want as much of your energy as possible spent on action.
  • choose a system that is as simple as possible.
  • choose a system that is easy to implement.

Step 5: Celebrate successes, share with supportive people, and don’t dwell on mistakes.

I scribbled a note every day, in the margins of my journal, for the first two weeks.

“Went for a walk.” “Didn’t go.” “Did the first run.” “Did the second run. Everything hurts and I’m dying.” “Took the shortest walk in the world.” “Third run. Felt better.”

After two weeks, I made a dedicated page in my journal to keep track of progress because I get a huge kick out of seeing checkmarks line up.

I don’t have any unsupportive friends, but if I did, I wouldn’t tell them about what I’m doing. (I wouldn’t tell them much of anything.) I have been sharing with my supportive friends, particularly those who are further along in this area: people who are good athletes, in great shape, who have great workout habits, etc. Not all of them are runners, but they all understand what it means to push yourself to reach a level of physical fitness and ability. And they’re all so encouraging.

I used to be afraid to share my minuscule progress with people who were (obviously) much better than me. I felt embarrassed that what I was doing was so amateur compared to what they were able to do. I thought they’d find me silly. I thought it might be embarrassing. A few DGAF projects later, I no longer care if anyone finds me silly and I find that choosing embarrassment is a powerful way to expand your options in life.

But that didn’t even matter.

None of them laughed at me. None of them (as far as I know) find my efforts silly.

In fact, they’ve all been generous with their encouragement and insight. Just today, I was having lunch with my husband when a couple we know, vaguely, walked by. I’ve seen the husband at the track many times, running. He runs fast and looks like he’s having a great time, and it’s been so inspiring to me to see him. Today I told him that, and he told me how he’s trying to run a faster mile. I told him I’m just trying to run a mile, period, and he laughed and said, “Well, that’s where I started too.”

That’s where we all get started. At the beginning. With the next step.

Your turn!

  • What’s your big goal?
  • What’s your seeable/believable slice of that goal?
  • What’s your next step?
  • What’s your single, specific action?
    • Consistency means …
    • Stupid-easy baseline for success is….
  • How will you celebrate successes?
  • Which of your supportive friends will you tell about what you’re doing?