By Anant Gupta
In a few weeks, we’ll be launching the beta version of our app. This is the first app we've built, and as a non-technical person I’m amazed that we even got this far.
When we started a few weeks ago, we had two founders, one goal, and zero clues. I spent a lot of time learning from everyone who would take my call about building apps like ours, and came away even more freaked out about how little we knew, how far we had to go, and how little time we had. Every conversation made our goal feel that much more out of reach.
There’s nothing special about the way I felt about this situation. Think of any ambition, any goal you’ve never followed through on. Training for a marathon, learning a language, quitting your job. Change is a scary road to travel: the path is murky, the end feels distant. It’s easy to nestle ourselves in the familiar comforts of Plan B - the status quo.
In this case, I had no Plan B. I, literally, couldn't afford to not follow through. So I had to figure it out. And the most important thing I did to figure it out was also, perhaps, the simplest.
I gave up on our goal.
Instead of pursuing the outcome, I focused on the process. Instead of one big, vague objective, I defined 34 specific, discrete, actionable steps. While a big goal felt paralyzingly difficult, every little step felt achievable, tangible. And it gave me the confidence to act. Behavioral science tells us a couple of reasons why this worked:
1. Start With One Tooth: As Stanford psychologist BJ Fogg explained - and your frustrated dentist will corroborate - it’s hard to commit to something like flossing every day. It feels like such a hassle. On other other hand, flossing just one tooth trivially easy. When you see how easy one tooth is, you’ll probably floss one more - just for fun. You might even go crazy and finish a few more. Before you know it, you’re flossing every tooth. Even those pesky back molars.
In other words, little steps are easier to commit to. People are much more likely to start and execute a task if it feels accessible, even easy. A task that’s big and abstract is hard to visualize, requires too much imagination to feel realistic. A small and specific task is a (relative) piece of cake. Just make sure to floss after.
2. Green Smoothie vs. Pancake Decisions*: If you start your day with a positive step forward - e.g. a green smoothie, you’ll make “green smoothie decisions" all day. You’ll take the stairs and order a salad. You’ll stand straighter, dress better, call your mother.
Start with pancakes, though, and you’re doomed to "pancake decisions." You’ll probably take that leftover blueberry muffin from the office kitchen, forget your mom’s birthday, and fall asleep wiping Cheetos powder onto your ketchup-stained sweatshirt.
This is because, as the late Dr. Richard Hackman put more eloquently in his research on workplace teams, we tend to enter "self-fueling spirals.” Progress, even small progress, proves to ourselves that change is possible. Incremental steps create opportunities for quick wins. In sum, momentum matters.
Transformation doesn’t happen in big leaps. It is the sum of small parts: discrete steps and cumulative wins. From this single lesson, I've had to reconsider what I thought I was capable of, and change how I approached a bunch of other projects I’ve shunted aside. My dentist is thrilled. Yours might be too.
*Credit to author Kevin Gianni for coining the term