One Tiny Step At a Time: Baby Steps to Achieve Larger Goals
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.- Chinese Proverb
When I was growing up, family movie nights provided my four siblings and me a chance to connect, share, learn, and laugh. To this day, we quote films and conjure up memories of our childhood. One of our favorite films was ‘What about Bob? ‘.
In the movie, Bill Murray plays Bob, a man riddled with phobias who becomes an extremely dependent patient of the egotistical Dr. Leo Marvin, played by Richard Dreyfuss. After Bob shares some of the fears that dominate his life, Dr. Marvin introduces the concept of baby steps:
Marvin: It means setting small, reasonable goals for yourself. One day at a time, one tiny step at a time.
Bob: Baby steps.
As kids, we would laugh at Bill Murray’s antics, and the phrase “baby steps” became our way of approaching challenges and change. When I set goals in my life, I often think of small, manageable steps that I can take that will build towards the larger goals. Others consider SMART goals - ones that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-based - as thresholds to success. For me, baby steps are often much simpler and straightforward. Sometimes goals seem scary or out of reach, but baby steps enable me to create small victories that lead to major change.
In our work with school partners, we collaborate with school leaders who are highly reflective, dedicated, and committed to the students, staff, and families they serve. All of them have set goals for themselves this year, but many have expressed concerns about how to identify first steps, create momentum, and hold themselves accountable.
In one example I have been working with a school principal who wants to be more of a presence in classrooms, but she finds that her tasks and responsibilities often restrict her to her office. Her goal this year is to spend 75% of her school day in classrooms. She is discouraged because she is not reaching her goal. Many times, especially at the start of a new year, we set lofty goals that require big shifts in the way we work, and after a few days or weeks, we find it challenging to keep up. The principal and I reflected on her goals and daily habits, and we identified baby steps that would ensure that she would be more present in the classrooms.
Baby steps free us from feeling stuck or thinking that we have to make sweeping changes quickly, have to have a strong plan for implementation before we begin, or that we need to seek perfection. Instead, focusing on small, quick changes can get us moving us in the right direction.
Consider this process to help set you up for success:
Set a realistic goal → what is something you want to change or achieve?
Example: “I want to have a more frequent presence in classrooms.”
Take baby steps → what is a small, first step you can take and implement now?
Example: “I am going to visit two classrooms immediately after finishing announcements this morning.“
Celebrate → recognize how good it feels to experience success and create self-affirmations.
Example: When you take the baby step, pause to celebrate and acknowledge how you feel. Write yourself a quick note to celebrate the win!
Community → share your goal with someone or with your team so they can support you and share in the feeling of success when you achieve your goal.
Example: Share your goal to get into classrooms right after announcements with your office manager so the manager can serve as an accountability partner and help you celebrate when you succeed.
Reflection → There does come a point when the baby steps start to feel natural and become habit. That means that it is time to take the next baby step until you reach your larger goal!
Small yet significant steps toward change could be applied to many areas of our professional and personal lives. Here are some examples:
Fostering a welcoming culture of belonging → Every morning, genuinely smile and greet students by name as they enter the building.
Tackling your inbox → Set times of day when you will respond and stick to those time frames (i.e. a half hour in the morning and thirty minutes at the end of the day). Put a note in your email signature stating that you are spending your time during the day focusing on teaching and learning and that you will not be checking email throughout the day.
Addressing staff concerns → Practice responding consistently to concerns and complaints in a way that affirms and moves to solutions. An example could be, “Thank you for that question. I don’t really have an answer, but I think we could solve that together.”
Keeping meetings on track (agendas) → Practice saying something like, “Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Let’s make time to discuss that outside of this meeting” then bring the meeting back to the agenda item.
Cultivating appreciation → Keep a box of thank you notes on your desk, and commit to writing 1-2 gratitude notes for staff members, family, or students every Wednesday right when you get to school.
So often, big changes seem overwhelming, but positive habits are created incrementally. What baby steps can you take to achieve your goals?