Small Steps Challenge

During a recent visit my parents went out one morning to run some errands. I took something down to our guest room in which they were staying to notice that they had cleaned things up impeccably. It contrasted wildly with the state of our children’s rooms. I corralled two of my kids and brought them down to our guest room. I asked them if they noticed anything about how the room looked. I prompted that before their grandparents arrived how did it look? The boys acknowledged the room looked pretty good. In fact, it looked better now than it did before their grandparents arrived. I mentioned that a great rule of thumb to consider when being a guest in someone’s home is to try to leave things nicer than how you found them. This approach is likely to ensure you’re invited back in the future. I then asked them what the well kept room reflected about their grandparents that looked after the room so well? They acknowledged it reflected both personal pride as well as respect for the environment they were in which were both worthwhile things. I asked them if they could consider trying this in their own rooms and reflect on how a clean room would make them feel about themselves. It certainly hasn’t worked perfectly but the effort to take better care of their personal spaces began and has seen consistent improvements.

Starting your day by making your bed has been recommended as a worthwhile effort by many highly accomplished people. Jordan Peterson offers it as part and parcel of one of his 12 Rules for Life. Making your bed becomes part of the rule to Clean Your Room. The idea is that we should focus our efforts closer to home as opposed to worrying about what the rest of the world is doing. By making our own bed, we’re exerting some control over our own environment and doing something constructive. It sets our day off in the right way. The same idea has been echoed in a well received commencement speech given by US Admiral William McRaven. McRaven is a four star Admiral of the US Navy and has held a number of military leadership positions over the past few decades. Even with his high levels of accomplishment and responsibility he emphasizes the importance of making your own bed offering in his commencement speech, “If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.”

What seems trivial can set the stage for bigger and better things. Author James Clear encourages his readers in an email to “Be great in small ways. Writing 100 words today doesn’t seem worthwhile when you see people publishing bestsellers. Exercising for 10 minutes doesn’t seem valuable when you see world records posted on Instagram. But winning the next 10 minutes is its own form of greatness. People are so busy wishing for more time and better resources that they fail to make the most of the time and resources they have. Be great in small ways and you may be surprised by what you’ve achieved within a year or two.” Small steps are those little things that make a big difference. They are everywhere and available to all of us. If the idea of small steps making a big impact is of interest, consider initiating a small steps challenge at home alone, with your family, or within your work place. What you choose to do is limited only by your imagination. Our small step need contain only three components according to Stanford professor B.J. Fogg author of Tiny Habits. They involve something that we can do, which makes a difference, and is something we want to do. What can you do that makes a difference that you want to do?

There are any number of challenges that circulate social media these days. One of them that’s taken off in the past year or two is known as the Hard 75 or 75 Hard. In this challenge people commit to taking on five lifestyle habits for 75 days. They work to drink a gallon of water daily. Two forty-five minute workouts, one of which is done outside, are pursued daily. A diet of some kind must be pursued. Reading ten pages of a non-fiction book daily is also part of the program. And, the final commitment in the Hard 75 challenge is to abstain from any alcohol consumption every day for 75 days. The challenge is to do all these things daily each day for 75 days. If any one of these isn’t completed on a given day, your counter resets to zero and you start over. The framework offered is pretty loose on details. What is meant by a diet is an effort to eat healthier. There’s no specific program advocated. The proponent of the program has no horse in the race. He’s not advocating for Paleo, Keto, or any other specific diet. He’s basically saying hold yourself to a standard other than Supersize Me. It’s similar with exercise. He’s not promoting a specific program. He’s not mandating a routine. He’s simply saying do some kind of exercise twice daily. He does offer some options to consider, but the implementation is largely left to you. He’s suggesting with your decision as to what to do, you’ll be more likely to stick with your program. Any of these tasks may be considered a small step. As we group them together, they become a bigger commitment increasing the difficulty of the challenge. If you’re willing to bite off the Hard 75 and commit to all five components in one go, good for you. However, chipping away at one of these at a time may meet with a higher degree of success while disrupting your day to day less.

A separate challenge that has proven popular on social media is hashtag trashtag. Here people take responsibility for not complaining about poor behavior of others in their neighborhood but, instead, take responsibility for doing their small part to make a difference. People commit to walking 15-30 minutes daily around their neighborhood while picking up trash they encounter along the way. They get a little exercise and the community ends up cleaner. They are embracing the reality that change starts with the individual. By focusing on what we can control instead of complaining about things we can’t, things get done. Those that embrace this challenge have asked and answered the question, what is it that I can do and will do that makes things even slightly better? They’re adopting the posture of a first responder. They aren’t complaining about circumstances nor are they blaming others for causing a mess. They identify a problem, lean-in, and go in. They are there to help. The trashtag challenge serves as a constructive small step to consider. It encourages people to instead of complaining to focus on leaving things better than how they found them.

Should you be interested in initiating a small steps challenge at your office, here are some ideas to consider:

  • Suggest phone free meetings for a week or a month. Ask all meeting attendees to show up at your next meeting and all meetings for a defined period without their phones. Record at the start of each meeting who has been successful at arriving without a phone. At the end of the period talk about what benefits may have come from the exercise and offer an award to the most committed to the cause or celebrate with your entire team.
  • Select an app you can install on your cell phone that will track your usage of the device. Share this with others and, as a group, agree to anonymously contribute the data collected to see how much time your group spends with its devices and how that time is being spent. Before the app is installed and usage tracked ask participants to make guesses of what they think their usage and the group’s average usage is across several categories of activity. Break out the number of times the phones are touched daily, to total time spent using, to time spent on social media, etc. Doing this anonymously and discussing the data gives you the starting point to developing awareness of the time suck of our devices.
  • Meetings could also be a place where your team works to practice not complaining.
  • A separate meeting related challenge could be to seek to foster a culture of curiosity. This could be done by initiating each meeting with a few inquiries and then inserting questions at the close of each meeting.
  • Gratitude, too, could be practiced in a meeting context. Ask each attendee to offer something for which they are thankful for related to the business or group meeting.
  • Introduce a discussion around notes in a meeting. You could assign a new person each meeting to record notes from the meeting. These notes could be reviewed at the start of the next meeting and positive parts could be highlighted. Individuals will each become better at taking notes over time and your organization will benefit from having an improved record of your activities.
  • Have a sleep challenge. Ask people to track how much sleep they are getting nightly for a week or a month. Once done, determine what the average a night is. Then ask your team if they’re willing to try to increase their sleep by 15 minutes to an hour nightly. Share a pizza lunch talking about some strategies to accomplish the effort to increase sleep. Then set a challenge and see how everyone does for a week or a month.
  • Set a goal for daily steps. Show staff how they can measure their daily steps on their smartphones.
  • Try having a walking meeting if you have a good place to get outside and can have small groups get outside. This is especially worthwhile during the summer months as it is more pleasant to stroll outside when you’re not bundled up hiding from a blizzard.
  • Have a social media fast. Step away from scrolling other people’s lives. Use the time gained by avoiding social media to learn something with some friends or work colleagues.
  • Start a reading challenge. Initiate a book club at work. Read something together. Anything. It can be fiction or a book related to a current movie. Celebrate by going to the movie together once the book has been read.
  • Practice assuming positive intent. At a meeting review recent customer complaints. Make it a game to try to come up with interpretations of the customer which suggest they are coming from a well-intended positive perspective. Offer a prize to the most creative response.
  • Connect a reading of some kind to watching a TV show together and then discuss. For example, there’s an old news article that apparently is the most popular one requested for reprints in the US over the past 100 years. It’s called A Message to Garcia. Separately, I was introduced to a show now available on Netflix called Big Timber. I like to encourage our team to read A Message to Garcia then to watch an episode of Big Timber. We talk about the burdens and stresses of being a business owner and the types of skills that are most in demand. I try to highlight that the value of initiative is a secret superpower held by those that get things done.
  • Look for small steps that can be taken to make an environmental difference within your business. Look for simple things that can be done which both may save money as well as reduce the organization’s impact on the environment. Consider, for example, tracking the amount of paper used in printers within the organization from year to year. Is it decreasing? How about the amount of garbage generated?

Regardless of the challenge that’s created, work to record your efforts. Prominently display on a large posterboard or whiteboard somewhere in the office the challenge and your progress. Detail the small step, the goal, the participants (if it is being done individually). Either assign responsibility to one person to update results or task each to post their own contributions individually. Celebrate along the way those that are committing to and taking constructive steps to pursue your small steps challenge. An individual reward could be a gift certificate for $50 to a local coffee shop and a celebration with the team could be a pizza lunch. Consider shelving a personal New Year’s resolution and try one to do together at the office. I hope you enjoy picking and pursuing a small steps challenge and come to see the value of your efforts.