Miguel Panao | Professor and Author

Finding ways to improve scientific writing and academic productivity.

What do you need to reach big goals? Small steps

Imagine those tasks you have to do, but you lack the motivation for doing them. It can be something simple as cleaning the kitchen or something more complicated like reviewing a thesis, writing a paper, or performing an experiment. What can you do to fulfill your task when you lack momentum?

This happened with me recently and the task was a simple one. Cleaning the kitchen. I lacked the strength, the motivation, I even could find valuable reasons to procrastinate on this one. But I thought – “Well, I can put, at least, the cutlery in the dishwashing machine”, then I thought – “Well, after the cutlery, I could put this dish, and that one, and that other one”. Soon I realized the best way to find momentum is to step back, look to the big picture and then get back and start small.

It is important to know your goal, but reaching it often depends on small actions to gain momentum. I applied this simple idea of starting small and tried to achieve a small part of a whole I had to do to reach the goal and it works. Another example is a PhD thesis I’m reviewing. The literature review chapter is always demanding because the author has to make a synthesis of all the knowledge involved in his topic. Thus, it contained a lot of concepts, and I’m familiar with some of them, not all, thus reading is demanding and the tendency to procrastinate is high. So I started one-page at a time, then section by section, and after 1h I read more than half of the chapter and gained momentum.

The secret is to find the small tasks you can do, to gain the momentum you need to reach your goal. These are 3 simple strategies I came up with from my kitchen experience… go figure.

1. Step back

Behind apparent unreachable goals is a purpose. The big picture. Stepping back is to have in mind the big picture. If you don’t, your mind might get stuck in the hillside slope, and you procrastinate the first step. Don’t look at the slope but to the whole mountain.

2. See details

After the big picture, the mountain. Look for the details and make a plan. What is the smallest detail you can do, or step you can give to reach your goal? Maybe reading a paragraph, or a page. Attending to the first column of a spreadsheet, or writing the first line of code in your programming algorithm. You could turn on the computer or some device you will use to measure. It can be anything as long as it’s small enough it becomes irresistible not doing.

3. Start small

Then, just start. Although it’s small, a lot of small things done will give the momentum you need to reach you big and demanding goals. And whenever something you previously considered small becomes too hard to do, repeat the process and see if there is something smaller you can do. Metaphorically, you only stop at quarks.

QUESTION: Do you have a big work to do and lack the motivation to do it? Try to apply these 3 simple strategies and share your experience in the comments below.

About Miguel Panao

I am a Professor at the University of Coimbra in Mechanical Engineering. I am also author of books in the fields of environmental ethics and Science and Religion. From the several research projects, this site is personal and dedicated to the search for the best approaches, tools, techniques to improve scientific productivity.

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