When I went through life coach training with the wonderful Martha Beck, I learned about what Martha calls “turtle steps.” Turtle steps are teeny-tiny increments that help us reach a goal. The main thing about a turtle step is it has to feel do-able. It has to feel, as Martha puts it, ridiculously easy.
When I coached my very first client, I suggested she break that overwhelming goal down into turtle steps, and she said, “Turtle steps sound great, but I’m forty-five years old. I don’t have time to move that slowly.”
The coaching session came — for a moment — to a screeching halt. She’d triggered one of my own big fears. She’s right! I thought. At the time, I had two unfinished novel drafts and an image of them sitting in the corner of my office flanked by dust bunnies and cat hair popped into my mind. If I use turtle steps with my novels, I’ll be ninety before I finish them!
Luckily, by then I had enough evidence from the experiences of Martha and my fellow coaches to know that turtle steps worked. In fact, the more ridiculously easy they felt, the better they worked.
My client wasn’t ready to try turtle steps — yet. A month later, when she’d done nothing to move her goal forward because she kept approaching it with her familiar “bite off more than I can chew” method, she showed up for a session and said, “I think I’m ready to try out turtle steps.”
That’s the funny thing about the way our minds tend to work: We’d rather hold on to the idea of taking giant leaps forward that only exist in our fantasies than take smaller, less glamorous steps that we actually do complete.
If you have a tenacious inner perfectionist (as I do), know that you are probably going to have a tough time accepting the idea of turtle steps.
When I was an undergraduate in college, literally every semester I signed up for five or six classes, even though by my third semester it became blatantly obvious that I could not take on more than four classes without feeling overwhelmed and scattered. My inner perfectionist (who is best friends with my “social self”) loved the idea that I was tackling a huge course load — and besides, other people took six classes and aced them all, so why couldn’t I?
Almost every semester I ended up withdrawing from a class or two at the last minute because I felt completely overwhelmed. Twice, I withdrew past the deadline and therefore received a grade of a big fat F. Twice. The person who couldn’t stand the thought of getting less than an A+ actually ended up with F’s on her transcripts simply because she voluntarily took on too much.
The idea that we can take small, easy steps is anathema to the perfectionist, whose identity is formed out of the belief that if she can take on more than is necessary and excel at it, she will finally be worthy, and therefore, loved.
But it doesn’t work this way, my sweet little inner perfectionist is slowly discovering. She is loved, deeply, simply for existing and for being who she is. And she does not get more accomplished when she takes on more — she actually accomplishes less that way.
Back to my two unfinished novels: they have long since stopped communing with the dust bunnies in the corner of my office. They’re up and dancing around now, dust-free and shiny. How did this miracle happen? Since September of 2011, I’ve been taking ridiculously easy steps, on a regular basis, to finish my novels. (Read more about how I’ve done that at the end of this post.)
Yes, sometimes that means I write for fifteen minutes a day. Yes, sometimes that means I write one sentence. And no, I do not write every single day. But I’ve completed two novel drafts and I’m 240 pages into a third.
The key is making it ridiculously easy, step by teeny-tiny step. Any step can feel ridiculously easy if it is small enough.
Ridiculously easy isn’t as easy as it could be, though, because we live in a culture that tells us that for something to have value, it has to feel impossibly hard. And so we take on enormous “to-do” steps like “write novel” or “get new job” or “lose twenty pounds.” Seriously! These are actual items I’ve seen on clients’ to-do lists. But they’re not action steps, they’re long-term goals. In fact, I’m loath to call them goals — they’re actually processes, ways of life, daily habits we develop.
So a huge part of all this is allowing ourselves to do what feels ridiculously easy. That might mean a daily goal of “write one paragraph” rather than “write ten pages.” But it’s one paragraph that gets written, rather then ten pages that don’t.
Often our minds won’t allow us to embrace ridiculously easy. It’s a total shift for most of us, right? If it feels easy — or, at the very least, not hard, we don’t trust it. “But life isn’t easy!” we think. And that is certainly true. But we don’t need to add hard to the hard.
This is one of my favorite beliefs to challenge with my clients. When we make the shift from “It has to be hard” to “I can allow it to be easier,” amazing things happen. Believe me. I’ve seen it.
If you need support in allowing your process to feel easier, I’d love to help. See if we might be a good fit, here.
And: One of the biggest reasons I’ve moved forward with my novels is due to my participation in Jenna Avery’s Writer’s Circle. This is where I’ve put my writing turtle steps into action. This group offers me daily support, accountability and community around my writing. The last day to register for the next session of the Writer’s Circle is tomorrow, May 16. Check it out, here!