On Friday afternoon, my friend called to ask if I could help her organize some files and paperwork. She’s had, by her own account, a nightmare year since a tragedy struck her family last year. Mail, files, and paperwork are the last things she really wants to deal with, and so of course I told her I’d be there Monday morning.
We carried the stacks, boxes and baskets of files and papers to her living room, sat in the middle of her living room rug, and while we chatted and reminisced, we went through each piece of paper and she decided whether to recycle, shred or keep them, and I moved them to the appropriate category. I labeled the Keep stacks with a quick sticky note so we’d know where to put them away later.
Three hours later, we were surrounded by dozens of low stacks of paper with orange sticky notes, and we still had more to go through. While this could have been overwhelming, we instead felt that we’d made progress. Things felt clearer, one very important document had been found, and one bill that needed to be paid immediately had been identified.
That was an improvement, a forward movement, and we’ll continue to make small forward movements this week, and the next, and the one after that.
Take the Tiny Steps Forward
Tiny steps forward is what self-improvement is all about. All kinds of gurus and companies have spoken and written about how one percent improvement every day makes you 37 times better at the end of a year!
In an email to employees in January 2009, Alfred Lin, then Chairman of Zappos, wrote:
Lin wasn’t the first, or the last, to realize the power of the 1% improvement, and I can see this in motion now with my friend’s stacks of papers.
If she had continued to look at these multiple boxes and baskets and file cabinets of papers as one giant bunch of paper, the chances of her going through them would be slim. Overwhelming would be an understatement. But taking one tiny step, in this case, calling me to come over to just start doing something, is all it took to start forward motion, instead of being stuck.
How Should You Set Goals with One Percent Improvement?
Wait, so should our 2022 goals be just to improve by 1% in every part of our lives?
Well, it’s fine to set lofty goals, as long as you realistically know how you’re going to get there.
Lots of us want to be more organized in 2022. Let’s say you want to organize your home office so that if you or your family has to quarantine this year, you’ll have a calm space with no mess or distractions to work, or to rest and recharge.
You’ve gotten behind on filing, your email inbox is exploding, books and articles that you’ve been meaning to read are sitting on your desk and in various spots on the floor, your kids’ artwork and bedtime stories are on your chair, you’ve shoved a lot of “I’ll get to that later” items on your bookshelf. Now you want to organize it all, including getting a better handle on your schedule so you actually have time to work, instead of spending most of your day answering emails.
How much time can you set aside to filter through your email inbox? Will you fall further behind? Should you focus on organizing your inbox first, or cleaning up your paperwork?
Setting the goal of “organizing my office” with 1% improvement in mind means that maybe I won’t drastically clean off my desk, and get to Inbox Zero, and make my bookshelves neat again in a single day, but by making tiny changes daily – refresh my family’s financial file by shredding the oldest and putting in the newest documents today, unsubscribing to unnecessary emails that come in tomorrow – will ultimately get me there. It’ll be a much slower change than, say, spending three non-stop hours culling my email, but it’s more sustainable because the changes are tiny and I have time to adapt to them.
Celebrating the Small Wins
Progress and setbacks are daily occurrences. Harvard Business professor, Teresa M. Amabile, and her colleague, Steven J. Kramer, found that when any ‘good’ thing happens during the day, we’re boosted by it. Conversely, when something ‘bad’ happens, any setback at all, we’re dragged down by it. They also found that these effects can last into the following day.
When you have any wins for the day, no matter how seemingly small, celebrating that win can set you up for positivity and optimism the next day. You took the bedtime books back to your son’s room this morning before sitting at your desk? Woohoo! Reward yourself with a manicure!
Understand and Deal With the Setbacks
It’s more important not to beat yourself up about the setbacks. Amabile and Kramer found that daily setbacks had a more powerful impact than daily wins. I know this to be true for me. If I miss a self-imposed deadline (like I missed reading a bedtime story to my son because I realized that an email had to be answered today, and I still had to prep dinner), I’m angry and disappointed with myself, and those negative feelings could bleed into the evening and the next day. No one likes to start a fresh day with negativity.
To get over setbacks and continue forging ahead, we again go back to 1% improvement.
First, understand why the setback happened. I let myself get too distracted by external forces earlier in the day, like a huge volume of incoming email and phone calls. Or I didn’t plan my time sufficiently, not accounting for driving time from an appointment. Or maybe there was an emergency that took me away from my task.
Second, identify the catalysts that will prevent such setbacks from happening, and that will help me get back on track. Catalysts are the actions or situations that will support getting my tasks done. In my case, this would be checking and clearing email earlier, saying no to answering the work phone after 6pm, and having a last-minute back-up plan, like cooking extra on the weekend and freezing a healthy meal in case of emergencies.
Third, take a tiny step forward to get back on track. I missed the bedtime story but woke up 10 minutes earlier the next morning to prep breakfast and have extra play time with my son. Woohoo! And then, I’ll look towards the next bedtime story.
Instead of Shooting for a Lofty Goal and Missing, Make One Percent Improvements Every Day and Reach Your Goal Over Time
If I did spent an entire day doing nothing but clean up my office, email and schedule, I could certainly get my office and my time in order temporarily. Reality tells me that this type of clean-up isn’t sustainable because I’d be cleaning up what’s on the surface, rather than create ongoing habits and systems. I’d likely hit all kinds of setbacks that would breed negativity, making me a cranky, sad, disappointed, and angry wife and mom during the weeks that follow. I’d likely also go back to some of my old email habits and miss important communications and time with my family.
If I make tiny changes, slow and steady improvement that is sustainable I more likely to happen. And over time, let’s say six months, I could certainly master healthier email practices, and keep it going, having slowly adjusted to the tiny changes in habits and schedule I’ve made.
- Lofty goals are fine; however, goals that require drastic change are difficult to sustain.
- One percent improvement every day will make you 37 times better at something in one year.
- Celebrate the small wins. This will enforce positivity, and you’re more likely to continue.
- Deal with setbacks by finding catalysts, the actions and situations that support getting your tasks done and will help you prevent future setbacks.
- Take a tiny step forward after a setback. This helps to pull up positive feelings rather than allow the negativity of a setback to bleed into the next day.