Micro-Step Strategy. Baby Steps, Big Wins

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Making changes in our lives and creating new habits isn’t easy. As we approach the new year- 2022; we would most likely be taking inventory of 2021 and setting up resolutions for the new year. According to the U.S. News & World Report, up to 80% of new year resolutions will fail by the second week of February!

To help us improve on the probability of hitting those new year resolutions we are in the process of making [or even already made], we may need to consider a behavioral change system built on the Micro-Steps Strategy where Baby Steps can mean Big Wins.

“The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones”

– Old Chinese Proverb

Micro-steps are relatively small, actionable steps you can take to make immediate changes in your daily life. It’s the idea that if you make the steps small enough, they’ll become too small to fail. And as research has shown, starting small makes new habits more likely to stick.

In our new [or better] norm, more than ever, people want to live and work in a way that doesn’t overwhelm them. Studies have shown that even very small changes in our trajectory can, lead us to significant improvements overtime. By breaking down our goals into micro-steps, we’re creating a fail-safe, error proof strategy to win! This is because micro-steps are too small to fail! There’s absolutely nothing wrong with aiming big; however, we can help ourselves and improve our chances by starting small.

Overtime, research has shown us that small steps are more likely to take us towards achieving our objectives. We have also been taught same principles in school, experienced same at work or in our personal lives. However, one needs to note that these micro-steps need to happen consistently: in the right direction and complementarily like a set of Lego building blocks with each constituting a support to the other.

Ultimately, when we have this ‘system’ in place for a time period we will develop that magical Habit: Yes- but this time; habits we deliberately designed to deliver for us as a gift that keeps giving. Building a life-changing habit appears tough at face value, but is very doable if we’re able to activate four (4) critical things:

  1. Understanding Why we’re up for the habit change
  2. Engaging in deliberate practice
  3. Establishing an Accountability system
  4. Leveraging our Trusted Auto-Pilot

1] Understanding our Why

First things first- we need to understand why we do the things we do? Our why connotes the reason behind our actions and speaks to the mandatory, compelling force that drives us to do what we do whether in our personal lives, in business, school or any other endeavour.

“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”

– Mark Twain

For quite a few of us, our why is driven by a necessity. For instance, the need to cater for running expenses and overall family support in the home would cumulate together as needs to be met. But one needs to be careful here as only meeting the needs of others without any consideration for one’s own needs may lead to a gap. This is where many may miss it as they forget they also have their own dreams driven by their passion.

In turning those micro-steps into a habit, we need to align our why with the ultimate goal. Once we do this, we would channel our passion to consistently making those micro-steps which would be converted into a sustainable system-A Habit

2] Engaging in Deliberate Practice

Joe DiMaggio Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

Deliberate practice refers to a unique method of practice which is organized, systemic and purposeful. Normally, regular forms of practice may comprise spontaneous repetitions which may come through based on our whims and caprices; deliberate practice however, would require focus based rigorous repetitions which are conducted with specific expectations of improving performance. 

Deliberate practice also means being aware of relevant corridors of improvement and speaks to small incremental improvements vs huge interventions. Using Japanese business philosophy, one may think of this as deploying Kaizen [continuous improvement strategies] vs Kaikaku [radical interventions]. Regardless of where we choose to apply this principle, deliberate practice can help us maximize our potential—no matter what cards we were dealt. It enables us convert potential into reality.

Joe DiMaggio was one of the greatest hitters in baseball history. A three-time winner of the Most Valuable Player award, Joe DiMaggio is best known for his remarkable hitting streak during the 1941 season when he recorded a hit in fifty-six consecutive games—a record standing over 75 years later.

A journalist interviewed DiMaggio at his home to understand what it felt like to be such a “natural hitter.” DiMaggio took the journalist to his basement, picked up a bat and began to repeat a series of practice swings.

He picked up a piece of chalk, and scratched a tally mark on the wall and then flicked on the lights to reveal thousands of tally marks covering the basement walls. DiMaggio then looked at the journalist and said, “Don’t you ever tell me that I’m a natural hitter again.”

Obviously, DiMaggio had fully embraced the principle of deliberate practice which led to his recipe of success and which today experts refer to as focused and effortful training

Many more examples abound like golfer Ben Hogan, Mozart, Picasso, and Kobe Bryant, the list is endless. The principle remains constant: with deliberate practice engrained in our daily routine we will make those micro-steps a success recipe to meeting our goals. 

3] Establishing an Accountability System

“Accountability breeds Response-Ability.”

– Steven Covey

Accountability is simply being held responsible for what you have said you will do. When we have an objective or a goal to meet- we often would plan to hold ourselves accountable as we have the right intentions to meet the goal. But is this sufficient? Well, maybe it is, maybe it isn’t…depends as they say.

What is quite certain though is that the chances of meeting our objectives significantly increases when we’re accountable to someone else.

According to an accountability study conducted by the American Society of Training and Development (ASTD), there is a 65% chance of completing a goal when we commit to someone; which increases to 95% if there is a standing appointment with the accountability partner. This is quite a significant uplift in success rates simply behind establishing an accountability system

We have loads of examples in our everyday lives where we utilize the concept of accountability via accountability partners: going for a walk with a partner, planning a work out session with a friend and so on. We simply need to build this principle which we’re all very familiar with into our micro-steps strategy to enhance our goal achievements.

We can strengthen our accountability with the right control systems to check and balance our progress along the way. A few of these would be:

1) Defining the right accountability partnership to keep us committed

2) Establishing the frequency and form of updates required

3) Ensuring the activity itself is interesting as well for the accountability partner. This will keep your accountability partner engaged as well in the activity

4) Creating an accountability system that recognizes your improvements and progress

4) Leveraging our Trusted Auto-Pilot

“The times when I am running the best are when it feels effortless. The body is on autopilot, doing what you have trained it to do.”

– Perdita Felicien

Studies have shown that 45% of the time, we act based on our ‘auto-pilot’. This simply means almost half of the time, we’re doing things without even consciously considering them. Science tells us that this happens when our basal ganglia [our subconscious brain] takes the lead ahead of our pre-frontal cortex [conscious brain]

Our autopilot state which is basically the action of in-action is still a choice- just that this time around- it’s a subconscious choice. It can be explained in science as ‘Automaticity’ from the Greek adjective- automatos meaning self-acting.  Most of us can relate to this when driving as we perform a complex series of tasks very quickly and efficiently, without having to think about the various components and subcomponents of actions involved.  Sometimes we are even unable to think of them explicitly, and therefore we may have trouble explaining to someone else for instance how to use a piece of software, even though we use same with extreme ease. Simply put, this is Automation.

When we execute the previously discussed three steps [Understanding our why, deliberately practicing and establishing an accountability system] we invariably lay the building blocks for our brains to Automate.

Once these habits are formed, the brain will be slow to changing them and as such, the key to induce the right habits that will sustain our micro-steps is to influence the behaviour(s) we establish before they become habits. This is done when our brain establishes a neural pathway based on activity creation which is then reinforced with Habit loops.

In his book ‘The Power of Habit’, Charles Duhigg explains that habits have a three-part structure [the Habit loop]:

  • A Cue: Basically a ‘prompt’ or a ‘signal’ that triggers the start of the behaviour. This could be as basic as going to sleep in your gym clothes to remind you when you wake to jump into the gym. It could also be placing a couple of books right by your bedside to remind you to get studying.
  • A Routine: Getting into the activity itself. So, now running on the tread-mill or actually studying that book.  
  • A Reward: The compensation for engaging in the behaviour (the dopamine boost which would help reduce cortisol [stress hormones]; the satisfactory feeling of knowledge accumulation or readiness for that test

The Habit Loop can work both ways- to establish new habits or to substitute new habits for old ones. In the case of the latter Charles Duhigg advises in his appendix to the Power of Habit called How Habits work to first identify the routine, then experiment with a reward, isolate the cue and then execute a plan to simultaneously substitute a new habit.

For sure – it takes a conscious effort to establish a new habit as making even small improvements will require will-power, commitment and dedication. However, once we understand and leverage the Micro-Steps Strategy – we will significantly improve our probability of delivering on our goals in 2022!

This disclaimer informs readers that the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, committee or other group or individual.

Sources / Further reading

Duhigg, Charles (2014). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks

James Clear (2021) Deliberate Practice: What It Is and How to Use it. https://jamesclear.com/deliberate-practice-theory

Peter Robinson (2001) Cognition and Second Language Instruction. Cambridge University Press. https://pgone.sharepoint.com/sites/APACSalesCapability/SitePages/Home.aspx?e=1%3A3bd1f6feb3a54ef4916f56688d1d1249

Mackenzie Amundsen (2020) Research shows up to 80-percent of New Year’s resolutions fail by mid-February.https://www.wbay.com/content/news/Research-shows-up-to-80-percent-of-New-Years-resolutions-fail-by-mid-February-567530441.html

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