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My husband and I stood at the base of Mount Cowles. It would be 1,600 feet of climbing, over 2 miles to reach the top. As we started along the trail, I glanced up wondering if we could do it, the summit seeming so far away. Still, we were optimistic and hopeful at the beginning, walking with a spring in our step and happy to be outside. We made our way over rocky terrain and narrow slopes, stepping on makeshift log-steps on the trail, finally stopping for water near a sign post that said we were still 1.25 miles away from the top.

Really? I looked up, wondering if we would reach the summit before dark. The only way we would get there was to keep putting one foot in front of the other, making sure each next step was secure. As we climbed higher, the trail widened but became steeper, sloping upward for half a mile. We slowed our pace, took off our sweatshirts, and stopped for more water. We could see the top of Mount Cowles now, seemingly just out of reach, always around the next bend. I looked behind me, far down below at the winding path, impressed at our progress. We’re going to make it, I thought to myself. Each step was bringing us closer. We kept walking until there was nowhere else to go, until we were standing at the tip-top of the mountain, enjoying the views of the valleys and lakes down below.

THE MESSY MIDDLE

There are two exciting aspects about goals: the day we set them and the day we accomplish them. When we start out, we are filled with so much enthusiasm, hope, and optimism. When we achieve our goal, we celebrate with pride and excitement! There is something deeply rewarding about accomplishing a big goal. It’s a victory brought about by hard work and determination.

That hard work and determination happens in the middle—that long stretch of time between the day we set the goal and the day we accomplish it. The middle part is the least exciting; it’s the grunt work that gets you to where you want to go. It is often overwhelming as you consider the gap between where you are and where you want to be.

When we look to others who have accomplished goals similar to ours, it can sometimes feel discouraging. We forget that we are comparing their achievement to our messy middle. We don’t see all the behind-the-scenes work that went into their success.

TWO TOOLS TO HELP YOU SUCCEED

People who are successful in reaching their big goals are skilled in task analysis and habit management.

Task analysis involves breaking down a goal into a series of smaller steps that build on each other. If you want to write a book, you’ll need an idea, then an outline, then a chapter, then a first draft, then an edited manuscript. If you want to run a marathon, you’ll need a good pair of running shoes and a time set aside every day to train. You’ll need to run increasingly long distances to build up your endurance, starting very small and working your way up.

Habit management is a way to create productive routines that allow us to accomplish our tasks. Sometimes, we know exactly what steps we need to take to reach our goal, but we don’t create habits that will guarantee we achieve them. If you want to write a book, you’ll have to develop a writing habit. If you want to run a marathon, you’ll have to establish a running habit. Creating these habits will allow you to make progress on your goal every day, one step at a time.

In my quest to write a book, there were three principles of habit management that helped me make daily progress.

1. Pick a small chunk of time.

I thought I needed hours every day to write my book. When I couldn’t get those hours in, I wouldn’t write at all. I felt stalled and frustrated most days until I read “Atomic Habits” by James Clear. He suggested picking a very small chunk of time to ensure that I show up every day. I started setting my timer for 15 minutes. Even on my busiest day, I could always find 15 minutes to squeeze in some writing. Sometimes I wrote a sentence or two, sometimes I was able to write a few paragraphs.

Fifteen minutes may seem laughably small, but those small chunks of time will add up into something substantial!

2. Make it a priority

Mark Twain is famous for saying, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”

Think of the time you spend on your goal as your biggest frog. When we decide to make our goal a priority, we will do whatever it takes to make it happen. For me, this meant getting up before the kids to squeeze in my 15 minutes of writing. Sticking to this habit freed up my mental energy later in the day; I was no longer anxious about finding the time to work on my goal.

3. Use a habit tracker

Every day, once my 15 minutes of writing were up, I colored in a square on my habit tracker. A habit tracker is a way to visually mark your progress, whether it be checkmarks on your personal calendar or a special piece of paper you hang somewhere you can see it. Habit trackers are a great way to stay motivated and they provide a kind of instant gratification in recording your success. I hang mine on the refrigerator and now my two boys hold me accountable to it!

These three principles of habit management were key to helping me achieve my big goal. Once I picked a small chunk of time, made it a high priority, and used a habit tracker, I had a system I could implement and sustain easily over time. It made daily progress as automatic, easy, and non-negotiable as brushing my teeth.

THIS IS YOUR YEAR

What big goal do you want to accomplish this year? Instead of feeling daunted by your big dreams, write out the series of tasks you’ll need to tackle in order to get there, and create habits to ensure you make progress every day.

When we can analyze a big goal into a series of smaller tasks and create habits that allow us to tackle them, suddenly the goal becomes possible. We can see the path laid out before us and can mark our progress along the way. Our focus shifts from the impossibility of our goal to just paying attention to our next step. If we keep putting one foot in front of the other, no matter how slow our pace, we will eventually get to where we want to go. Soon, once we’ve started accomplishing these little tasks, we will be motivated by our progress and propelled by our forward momentum. Eventually we’ll look back on the path behind us and marvel at how far we’ve come.

As you work toward your own big goals, are there any tips that keep you motivated in your “messy middle?” What principles mentioned in the article might you want to implement going forward?

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