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How to accomplish your most ambitious goals

"I am still that C- student. I'm still that kid who can't settle down and focus for more than 5 or 10 minutes at a time. And I remain a guy who possesses no special gift of talent or skill. All I do is take really big, ambitious projects that people seem to marvel at, break them down to their simplest form, and then just make marginal improvements along the way to improve my odds of achieving them."

As a student, Stephen Duneier found himself struggling, unable to concentrate and focus on school work. He began to wonder if life ahead would be a difficult one. 

Yet, he would emerge with top academic honours, became a very successful trader, and just a few examples of a ridiculously long list ... picked up auto-racing, helicopter flying, rock-climbing, skydiving, aerobatic plane flying, learning German, hiking, losing weight, uni-cycling, parkour, performing at comedy clubs, drumming, ballroom dancing. Oh, and also knitting... which eventually led to the Yarnbomber movement and a Guinness Book of Record for the world's largest crocheted Granny Square.

How did he manage to achieve all these in one lifetime? And how did he pick so many skills while working full-time and being a father 2 children? 

Well, through the realisation that learning and accomplishing anything does not come from one piece of major action; instead, it comes from breaking the goal down into small slices and consistently making correct micro-decisions to complete each slice

Here's an example of how he broke down the task of losing 25 pounds:

  • He chose not to sign up for a gym membership or swear off foods he loved, because he knew he couldn't do those. 

  • Instead, he thought about the habits and passions he already had - a habit of walking daily for about an hour and a passion for the outdoors

  • He endeavoured to combine his habit (walking) and passion(outdoors) - to hike all 33 trails in the front country of Santa Barbara Mountains where he lived. He had never hiked before in his life.

  • Then he further broke this endeavour into smaller pieces. 

  • He didn't think of the task as finishing all the 33 trails. He didn't even think about the task at the level of finishing 1 trail. He broke it down even further. 

  • He started with the most basic and smallest unit of action: when he was lying on the couch at the end of the day watching TV, or scrolling through his Facebook, that was the first unit of action that he needed to make the right micro-decision on:

    • Stop whatever he was doing and put on his hiking clothes

  • And then to follow- up with the making the right micro-decisions for each subsequent slice of action:

    • Walk out of and shutting the front door

    • Walk to the car and drive to the trail-head

    • Get out of the car and take 1 step

    • And then a second, and a third step and a fourth step.. until he completes the hike

  • Every single action is a micro-decision that needs to be made correctly. If one decision is not made correctly, then nothing happens. But it helps that each decision is small and achievable.

  • By the end of the year, he hiked all 33 trails at least twice.

  • He lost the 25 pounds

 

Duneier didn't focus on the big goal. He might not have been able to achieve his goal if he didn't break it down into mini-steps. Instead of trying to tackle the big goal - he focussed on making every one of those tiny decisions right.  

This was the very same strategy that Duneier used to learn and accomplish all his other goals in life, in so many different fields. You can find out more about what he did in his Ted Talk above. 

This idea of breaking tasks into small actionable steps is wisdom in many cultures. 

In Dao De Jing, Lao Tze wrote that "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. However big the things you are doing, see the small. If you draw a line with a brush and scrutinise it, you will see the line is made of up countless tiny dots. Missing any of these dots makes the line incomplete." 

 

The Japanese advocate the method of Kaizen: no matter what is the task, to just work at it for 1 minute.

We also see ultra-endurance athletes completing seemingly insurmountable distances to tiny micro-chunks - and to just make it the next chunk, and the next and so on.

The impact of micro-achievements

 

The impact of micro achievements are easily underestimated. But these 3 examples show otherwise:
 

Are the small changes really enough to make a big difference?

Novak.png

Adapted from Stephen Duneier's TedX Tuscon talk: "How to Achieve your most ambitious goals"

Novak Djokovic went from being ranked 650th in 2004 to world number 1 in 2011. During this time, he went from winning about half his matches to 90% of his matches. 

It would have seemed like such an intimidating challenge to go from 650th to world number 1, and to win almost every time he played. 

But if you notice, as World Number 1 with a 90% winning record, he won "just" 6% more points than when he was ranked 650th. 

Of course, this "just" 6% is not easily accomplished - but it shows that the difference between the very best and everyone else is not quite as large as we would imagine it to be. 

 

power of tiny gains.png

Adapted from Jamesclear.com

This graph, showing the power of compounding, is often used in the world of financial investments. But the power of compounding can be applied to our daily lives. Of course, there is an element of sophistry in this graph - but it highlights how just small improvements or small regressions can accumulate into huge margins. 

“Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.”

Bill Gates

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How Great Britain completely reversed their fortunes in cycling by focusing on the smallest changes. Read more here.

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