Baby steps solve more problems than you might think. Even small ones.
A baby-step approach to cliff diving probably seems obvious. You wouldn’t start out by diving off of a 100-foot ledge.
But have you ever thought about baby-stepping more things at work?
Sure, that big project must be broken down into smaller milestones. Annual goals must be worked on consistently over time. And earning a promotion doesn’t happen after one task.
But what about simple things like writing an email, preparing a meeting agenda, or reviewing a contract?
Could those mundane, common tasks be improved with baby steps?
Definitely. Because baby steps tap into one of the most powerful laws of the universe. The power of incremental improvement.
Here’s how it works.
Your work could be better
If you stop and think about it, you will realize that your work can always be improved. You probably know that intuitively.
After all, we know that more time and effort generates better results in almost anything we do. But, we are all busy so we have to constantly make choices about trade-offs.
Should you wordsmith that email for another 10 minutes or simply hit send and move on to the next thing. That 10 minutes probably means one more thing off of your to-do list today.
We always want to get more done. And we want to do a good job on each task.
Therein lies the tension. That’s the trade-off dilemma we are trying to balance all day every day.
So, reasonably, we cut through small tasks quickly. Which is a great strategy. Until it isn’t.
Have you ever sent one email that resulted in a seemingly endless thread of confusion?
Or one that didn’t get the response you needed? Or no response at all.
Have you ever setup a meeting agenda that didn’t really organize the discussion in the way that made the best use of everyone’s time?
Have you ever reviewed a contract only to discover some small clause later on that came back to bite you?
It’s funny how small things can have a big impact. But not really “ha ha” funny when the impact is negative.
This kind of leaves us with another balancing act to perform.
Maybe we need to do less stuff so that the quality can be better for the things we do do.
The problem is that today’s work environment doesn’t really tolerate that so well. There is always pressure to do more and to do it faster. And nobody wants to stop and have this sort of discussion about balance and strategic choices.
Fortunately, there is a way you can keep ticking smallish things off of your to-do list but also minimize the chances of negative follow-on consequences from being too hasty.
At the same time, you can also make the chances of improving follow-on consequences positive. Maybe better than you would have imagined.
The power of iteration
Chipping away at big things in small chunks makes a lot of sense.
But have you ever thought about chipping away at small things in the same way?
Yes, you could tap out a meeting agenda in two-minutes.
But what if you spent one minute jotting it down and then set it aside. And later on you spent that second minute reviewing and revising the agenda.
Chances are that you would think of something you left out on the first draft. Or you might re-order the points. Or maybe you’d realize that one more person should be invited to the meeting.
And those small changes could make a big difference in how successful your meeting goes.
Maybe you could quickly reply to that email while waiting in line for your sandwich at lunchtime.
But what if you read the message in line, then pondered your response a bit while eating your sandwich.
Later on, perhaps when back at your desk and sitting behind a full keyboard, you might craft a more complete response. One that minimizes back-and-forth follow up messages, avoids confusion, or is simply more professional and polite.
That could make a big difference in how your inbox management goes tomorrow, and the next day, as well as how well that particular issue is addressed.
What if you prepared for your annual performance review by jotting down notes for five minutes per week over the course of a month instead of cramming it together in an hour?
That could make a big difference in making sure that you have a complete set of accomplishments, that you phrase things well, and that you recognize areas where you want to set better goals for the coming year.
In all of these cases, you would not be spending more time on a task, but you would end up with a much higher quality work product.
And even if this approach took a little more time, in most cases you would actually be saving time in the long run.
Not to mention the stress relief you will feel.
Coming to your emotional rescue
Better quality work is always nice. So is the productivity gain over the longer term.
But just as important–if not more important–may be the peace of mind that comes with iteration.
First of all, as soon as you get started on a task, you begin to feel a sense of relief and accomplishment.
You have started! You have shifted from “Ugh, I need to work on that” to “I am working on this already!”
A small, but profound change.
Moving things, even small things, from your “to do” list to your “am doing” list is always energizing.
Because humans are motivated by a sense of progress.
You can also feel great because you are doing higher quality work.
As much as we like to think we pride ourselves in getting lots of things done, we recongize internally when we are putting out low quality work. And we don’t feel good about it.
Taking pride in your work is a little like dressing nicely. It seems vain and unimportant, but it’s actually motivating because self-care is not vain, it’s important.
Feeling like you are at your best helps you to actually perform at your best. And this snowball effect may help you more than any level of productivity.
Because you are not a machine that’s just supposed to spit out widgets all day. You are here to think, strategize, analyze, and create work at the highest quality possible. Which, by the way, also gets you noticed and inspires people around you.
Putting it all together
You know that breaking down big projects into small tasks makes sense. It’s the only way to really get things done.
And you know that getting things done is important in today’s hectic world of work.
But you also know that high-quality work is more important. Because it saves you time in the long run. And it makes you feel better about your work experience.
Now you know that you can apply this same benefit of iteration to even the smallest tasks on your list.
The time gap between iterations, even if small, allow you a chance to think more clearly and completely about whatever it is that you are working on.
Just as important, iterating can help you feel a sense of progress. Which helps to keep you motivated.
And the sense of pride you have in doing higher quality work not only makes your workday better, it makes you better in a way that other people will recognize.