Productivity and the Magic of Baby Steps

Ever been to one of those time-management seminars where the guru says something like, “Your first step is to get everything out of your brain and onto paper. Start by making a master list.”

So you do a massive brain dump, consulting your calendar and the sticky notes you’ve strategically placed all over your office, your bathroom mirror, and the dashboard of your car.

The result? Oh, you’ve got a master list all right. A gigantic monster of a master list. A really big, scary list of large tasks that all seem important.

Next, you are supposed to prioritize the list and then get started knocking things out. But in reality, what happens? Usually, very little. You know what you need to do, at least in theory, but getting started seems rather daunting.

That’s because it’s easy to get overwhelmed when we are confronted by multiple tasks that all seem important, all at the same time.

When Overwhelm Sets In, Productivity Shuts Down

When a task seems too big or too important, it’s easy for our thoughts to run amuck. What if we can’t get it done? Or if we screw it up? The mind loops in endless, fruitless circles and anxiety creeps in.

If we’re not careful, we end up distracted and off track before we ever get started.

This sense of overwhelm is behind a lot of addictive behavior that allows us to feel better at the moment but does nothing to help us gain traction to get important tasks accomplished. This includes stress-eating, binging-watching television, getting lost in computer games, shopping, et cetera. Pick your poison.

What doesn’t happen is productivity. And the longer you procrastinate, the greater the sense of pressure.

Baby Steps Make Tasks Seem More Approachable and Doable

Research indicates that if a large task has too many steps, say more than four or five, our brains won’t retain them. We draw blanks when trying to recall which step comes next in the process. Therefore, progress is interrupted each time we have to stop and figure out the next piece of the puzzle.

With each mental interruption, momentum shuts down. This represents an opportunity to give up, procrastinate, complain that things are taking too long, and head for the couch and the remote (or that pint of ice cream hidden behind the Brussels sprouts in your freezer).

On the other hand, when you take a large task, such as cleaning out the garage, and chunk it down into bite-sized steps, good things happen.

First of all, you get the large task out of your brain, where it has probably grown horns and become the devil, and you commit it to paper. Then you think to yourself, what is the first, tiny baby step I need to take in the process of getting this thing accomplished?

The Magic Begins on Paper

Write that baby step down. That becomes an action item on your to-do list. Instead of that big scary devil project, you now have this little tiny thing to do.

Photo of someone writing in notebook

Then keep listing the tiny things. These are your baby steps, and they are no longer in your brain causing stress. Your short-term memory can handle one thing at a time. It’s the complicated series of steps your brain rejects.

Don’t worry if you don’t know all the baby steps that will be required. They will come to you as you make progress checking things off your list as you do them. You can always add more baby steps as you go. Again, get them out of your head and onto paper.

In fact, it was those unknown steps that probably made the formerly big scary devil-task seem so confusing. You knew at the start that you didn’t really know how to get it done. So you got bogged down in fear or overwhelm.

But no more! You’re in the process of discovering the magic of baby steps.

When Baby Steps Are Too Big, Try Micro-Steps

Baby steps usually only take one step. But then again, if you feel yourself resisting a particular baby step for any reason, it’s probably because it can be broken down into what I call “micro-steps.”

What’s a micro-step? It’s a baby step broken down into even smaller bits. They can seem almost comical, but believe me; you’ll laugh yourself all the way to the end of your to-do list.

Once I had to call a company to discuss a complaint. That seemed like a simple enough baby step. But I couldn’t make myself do it. I kept procrastinating.

So I further broke that baby step into micro-steps. “Call the company” became: turn on the computer, search for the website, find the phone number for customer service, write down the things I want to say to them, find the invoice so I have the account information in front of me, dial the phone, ask for customer service, say the things, ask for a refund, and so on…

Turns out my original baby step had too many steps, and my brain couldn’t cope with all those tasks within a task.

Why Your Brain Loves Baby Steps

We’ve already talked about your short-term memory. If there are more than four or five steps to a task, they tend to fly right out of your brain, causing an interruption of momentum and an opportunity to get distracted and off track. A written list of baby steps keeps you focused and moving forward.

Yay for progress! But that’s not the only brain benefit.

Photo of a woman smiling in satisfaction at work

Another one is that every time you complete a task, your brain does a little happy dance. Well, not literally. But chemically speaking, your brain gets a little hit of happiness in the form of dopamine.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain associated with attention span, the ability to follow through, focus, and motivation. Your brain on dopamine is a brain that anticipates the pleasure associated with finishing a task and helps you move toward it.

Lack of dopamine is associated with fatigue, apathy, difficulty focusing or concentrating, sugar cravings, and insomnia.

Those are not good things when it comes to making any sort of headway on your to-do list. So let’s talk about how to hack your brain for dopamine production.

How to Boost Your Motivation With Dopamine

Actually, there are a lot of ways to boost dopamine production in the brain. Diet, exercise, and sleep help. But for our productivity purposes, you boost dopamine by training your brain to anticipate a reward.

In the case of baby steps, the reward is created by noticing and celebrating the completion of each baby step. I do this on paper because it gives me a big kick to see the check marks adding up and the progress being made.

(I’m a paper girl, but I recognize that some folks prefer to keep everything on their phone or tablet. So there are list-keeping apps you can try. One of them is Trello, but this is not an endorsement. I’ve never used it. Another is Todoist, which my daughter has used and loved for years. I just know you can find ways to track progress and get a digital dopamine hit, if you prefer.)

As you make check marks on your list, your brain gets that little shot of dopamine. Couple this with anticipating and focusing on the positive results you’re creating and soon your brain will be well-trained for motivation and getting things done.

For more information and a great tool for creating baby steps, click above to get my Guide to Better Self-Management: 4 Steps to More Comfortable Self-Control.

About The Author

Kathryn Leslie is an established author, speaker, wellness instructor, and certified professional life coach. With over seven years of coaching experience, Kathryn knows first-hand that with the proper mindset, support, and tools, it’s never too late to create a life you love. Her unique coaching model is based on six principles of self-management to help you take stock, take steps, and take control. She lives on a beautiful marsh in St. Augustine, Florida, with her adult children nearby and her puppy dogs in tow.