The Doc running the Outer Banks Marathon, November 2016.

Do you want to accomplish big things? Then get really good at focusing on accomplishing small things.

It’d be lovely if all we had to do to accomplish big things was to make up our minds to accomplish big things. To hear some people talk, that’s really all there is to it anyway. Just get your mindset right, we’re told, think positively, think BIG, and viola— our dreams are ours.

Isn’t THAT spoken like someone who has never achieved a real world goal in their life.

The fact is, a big reason most people run out of steam on their big goals is, they didn’t count on the fact that big goals are really just the cumulative sum of small goals. And while our big goal may be motivating and exciting to think about, those smaller stepping stone goals are often boring, painful, and frustrating.

The idea of achieving a decade sober is motivating. The idea of getting through one day, one hour, one minute without a drink, when literally ask you want to do is drink, is excruciating.

The idea of losing twenty pounds is motivating. The idea of abstaining from ice cream when all your friends are pressuring you to go with them to Baskin Robbins is no fun.

The idea of earning a degree is motivating. The idea of writing research papers, sitting through class, and dealing with academic politics is mind numbing.

You can think big all you want, and believe me, I’m a fan of thinking big. But when it comes down to it, “thinking big” isn’t going to be the deciding factor in who wins versus who doesn’t. The decisive set of skills is going to be who can figure out ways to embrace the grind that comes with pursuing goals.

A huge look part of successfully embracing and overcoming that grind is learning to break goals down into their smallest, most easily achievable components, then giving ourselves credit when we cross those components off of our to do lists.

To accomplish big things, think small.

I’ll bet on a small, step by step, one day at a time thinker over a bombastic, “think exponential” dreamer any day of the week.

I run races. Five and ten K’s, half marathons, and at least one marathon a year. And what running has taught me, far more effectively than anything I’ve experienced as a psychologist, is that the key to finishing is no more or less than figuring out some way to take the next step.

Not to take three or four steps at a time. Not to try to run whole miles at a time. But to figure out what is necessary to take one. More. Step.

Sometimes the key to taking that next step is distraction. Figuring out some way to take your mind off of the soreness in your legs and the burning in your lungs, long enough to take another step.

Sometimes the key to taking that next step is remembering why I took the first step. Thinking about this example I’m striving to set. Thinking about what my experience in completing this race can help me explain to my patients and readers.

Sometimes the key to taking that next step is to visualize my own role models, the people and characters who taught me who I am, who I can be, and what’s important.

The important lesson, however, remains: focus on that next step. If you focus on the miles ahead, you’re going to start to get queasy. The like aches and pains in your body are going to start aching and burning worse. Your brain is going to start working overtime, finding reasons why you can’t possibly complete all the miles ahead.

If you want to run 26.1 miles, don’t even focus on running one mile. Focus on the step that’s right in front of you.

After all, you’re going to have to take that step anyway, right?

If you want to get ten years sober, don’t think about ten years. Think about getting through this day sober. And to get through this day sober? Think about getting through this hour sober. And to get through this hour sober?

You got it. Only focus on this minute. (You’ll have the opportunity to focus on the next minute soon enough, I promise you.)

Dream big, by all means. We’re capable of so much more than our cultural and historical conditioning has allowed us to believe. Set goals that inspire you, goals that motivate you and turn you on, goals that will put to rest the ghosts of your past.

But one you’ve decided where you’re committed to ending up? Start thinking small. Way small. One day at a time, one minute at a time, one step at a time small.

I’ll see you at the finish line.


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One thought on “Dream big– but think small. Smaller. Smaller still.

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