Turtle Steps & Treat Day for New Year's Resolution Success!

Are you already taking action steps on your goals? Wonderful! Are you still as motivated 12 days later as you were on day 1? Hopefully the answer is yes, but it's completely understandable if the answer is hell no.  Maybe you're now so overwhelmed by what you want to get done that 2020 is sounding like a better year to dive into all of this. Have you started telling yourself you'll just tuck these emails away and do it next year?

Don't quit on me, we need to just feed your elephant!

Let's remember, again, the duality of our brains. We've got our emotional brain (we previously referred to as our elephant) and our prefrontal cortex (our smart and savvy rider) and they both need to work together to get each goal off of the ground and all the way to the finish line.

Big surprise, your emotional brain wants immediate gratification and constant feedback to stay motivated. It doesn't want to wait 12 months to see results. It would rather have a glass of chardonnay and a cone of truffle fries TODAY than try green juice and wait for uncertain rewards a year from now. 

The solution is to simplify the steps 

My piano teacher tells me to practice difficult songs measure by measure. A measure is short. There are only 3-4 beats in a measure. He tells me that I should practice one measure until I can play it 3 times without error. Then I can move onto the next measure. After I've mastered the second measure, I can practice the two together and continue on, measure by measure, until I've made it to the end of the song.

I frequently ignore his advice and just flail away at the whole piece only to decide that I suck at piano, I don't even like the song and I'm too "busy" to practice piano, anyway. I then make up a million excuses, procrastinate practicing and, instead, do really important tasks such as mindlessly scrolling through Facebook or Instagram. When I actually follow his advice and break the song down measure by measure for even just 20 minutes a day, it's a helluva lot easier to stick with my piano goals.

Plot your year - measure by measure

We tend to overestimate what we can do in a month and underestimate what we can do in a year. Instead of doing everything at once and giving up quickly, let's take our top priorities and use the Paul Potyen brilliant jazz pianist way: do them measure by measure.

First, let's look at the whole year and plot out priorities. My wildly innovative friend, Jay O'hare, created this calendar a few years ago so that he could see his year at a glance.  Find whatever works for you. With a year at a glance, you can be optimistic and realistic in one fell swoop.

Here's my rule of thumb. Pick 30 day periods for one small habit change (like a mini meditation or exercise habit) and 90 day periods for one BHAG. No you probably aren't going to accomplish your entire BHAG in 90-days and move onto the next one, but it needs to be broken down, measure by measure, and I prefer 90-day increments for the big ones. 

Now Take Turtle Steps:

No, it's not a dance move to go with the jazz piano theme, but it is an incredibly helpful way to take your elephant's emotional freakouts down several octaves. Dr. Martha Beck (whom I did my coaching certification through) taught us to take our BHAGS and break them down into what she calls turtle steps.

Turtle steps are steps that are so RIDICULOUSLY easy to take, your emotional brain can't possibly back out of the goal. Positive neuroscience agrees and suggests simplifying your goals into the smallest possible action steps (but saying turtle steps is much more fun, isn't it?).  While turtle stepping, both Martha and positive psychology researchers agree you need mini celebrations to stay motivated.

Today's exercise:

What itsy bitsy, easy peasy, turtle steps can you detail out for your BHAG? What are the tiniest steps you can take this week and every week over the next 90 days? What wins will you celebrate each day to keep you motivated? How can you link these mini steps together to see big progress, measure by measure?

Here's my example:

One of my goals is to start a podcast. When I think about my BHAG of how I'd like to have 200+ episodes in the can that are inspiring, funny and entertaining, with hundreds of thousands of downloads, 5-star reviews, lucrative sponsors and a top rating on itunes, I quickly turn into a puddle of panic when I think about how to even record numero uno. 

This represents what my podcast feels like right now :)

My emotional elephant brain wants to avoid pain, seek pleasure, and take the easiest route possible. It knows I'm pretty far from 5-star reviews, hundreds of thousands of downloads, sponsors and a top rating from itunes, so why bother getting started. It reminds me that I'll be lucky if even my mom listens to my future podcast, especially since she doesn't know what a podcast even is. My emotional brain has all kinds of other instantly gratifying activities, such as instagram scrolling, that it'd rather work on than my non-existent podcast.

Let's clarify that my rider (prefrontal cortex) knows, intellectually, that I am not in actual physical danger in taking action on creating a podcast, and that my instagram habit can easily be a time suck that isn't moving me forward, but my elephant believes the struggle is real and guess who can more easily throw her weight around?

If I don't feed my elephant, it's much more likely that I'll procrastinate this podcast or give up on it altogether. So turtle steps becomes my positive neuroscience intervention to give me the momentum to move forward.

My method here is to break the goal into ridiculously easy steps. Make the steps soooooo easy my elephant cannot object (or open Instagram). 

Day 1 of my podcasting turtle steps...
Step 1) spend 15-minutes researching microphones within my budget
Step 2) purchase microphone
Step 3) open box
Step 4) open manual
Step 5) plug into USB port on computer
Step 6) turn on microphone
Step 7) test it out in garage band
*REWARD - I get to watch an episode of Empire tonight!

Look ma, I've got a microphone. It's out of the box, plugged in and I've tested it out! Yay me!!!

Day 2
Step 1) Pick one blog post
Step 2) Record blog post as a podcast draft episode
Step 3) Listen to it
Step 4) Spend 5-minutes revising it.
Step 5) Now that I've practiced, re-record
Step 6) Send to trusted colleague for initial constructive feedback 
*REWARD - treat myself to a celebratory bubble bath

You get the idea, right? Obviously, I still need to figure out how to upload to itunes, record an intro/outro, make or hire someone to do the cover art, create content, record podcasts, edit them and launch the damn thing. But I'm quite confident that by turtle stepping my way through the next 90 days, I will have a podcast with at least 5 initial episodes launched. Will I have my reviews, downloads, sponsors etc, yet? Umm I highly doubt it, but the turtle steps for the second round of 90-days will be different than the first.


Your elephant also really likes treats - who doesn't? Rewards, rituals and celebrating small wins are important to keep moving forward. We have so many ways we can easily get a hit of dopamine, so in order to not give into temptation, we need to create a new reward system with delayed, but not too delayed gratification.

Human beings are biologically wired to react well to rewards (heath & Heath 2010). And your celebration does not need to break the bank.  Your elephant is actually a pretty cheap date. We're not talking "buy yourself a new car" reward, but maybe buy a new song on itunes, savor a bubble bath, have a 5-minute dance party, do some karaoke with your kids, treat yourself to a favorite TV show, a favorite magazine or relax somewhere comfy! 

These rewards should come only after you've made it through all of the turtle tasks of the day, if you treat yourself regardless of whether or not you've completed the mini tasks, you've missed the point. These are treats not cheats. If you're finding your tasks are too hard to complete, this is your signal that your turtle steps need to be broken down into even smaller and even more ridiculously easy bite-sized bits to celebrate. 

Measure by measure, we can become the maestros of our own lives!

–Lizzie Larock

P.S. Want to see a hilarious video from the Holderness Family about "cheat days". It's right here.


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