4 Ways "Thinking Small" Can Help You Succeed

Updated 05/09/19

Maxie McCoy is the author of You’re Not Lost: An Inspired Action Plan for Finding Your Own Way. Committed to the global rise of women, she writes weekly inspiration on her website and specializes in creating offline experiences for top brands. Her work has been featured on Good Morning America, Bustle, Fortune, INC, Women’s Health, and more. Below, McCoy discusses four ways thinking small can help you succeed. 

Maxie McCoy
Sarah Deragon Photography

Big goals and grand plans get all the glory these days. Often we feel that if we don’t have a five-year strategy for life, then we’re totally lost. When we find ourselves completely unsure about what we want, or when we’re confused about what we should be doing next week (much less the next decade), the frustration can set in, making it nearly impossible to make progress.

But what if I told you that you could ditch the big-picture thinking for now and still succeed? Whether you’re itching for a career move, a life-shift, or some general direction, you don’t actually have to have it all figured out before you begin. Despite the copious amounts of encouragement, advice, and coaching around all the ways we should be better visionaries and blue-sky thinkers in order to succeed, it can actually be much easier. And much smaller.

What we all need isn’t the perfect plan, but rather the willingness to think small, which can be really hard when everything you’re scrolling through on the gram seems to be big, glamorous moments. However, coming back to the power of really small plans can give you more direction and success than you realize. 

First, look back

Instead of trying to figure out what your entire life looks like going forward, take a few minutes to reflect back. Think about or write down all moments that really mattered to you and made you feel like the highest expression of yourself. These things that light you up will be key to moving forward. To do this reflection, write down three answers to each of the following questions:

1. In the last year, what made me feel inspired?

2. In the last year, what actions gave me the most energy?

3. In the last year, when did I feel the most proud?

Then, circle or note any themes in your answers. These are micro-insights that will help lead your forward.

Second, ask yourself this single question

Once you’ve figured out where you’re sourcing inspiration and energy from—whether that’s a love for people, a special talent for writing, a gift for financial modeling, or an obsession with decorating your apartment—ask yourself What’s the absolute smallest thing I can do to pursue this right now? Specifically list out all the potential answers to this question. Keep writing down ideas until you’ve exhausted your mind around all the tiny and quick ways you could make progress. Then, choose the single action that feels the most manageable (and promising!).

Next, act on an impossibly small plan

The great thing about small plans is that you get to start anywhere. The barrier to entry is really low, which makes it easier to get going. And so much of getting to where you want to be is simply getting started and continuing to move. However, you can’t refine and recalibrate your path if you have no starting place. So a small plan, whether firing off that one email, requesting a meeting, signing up for a dance class, or watching some tutorials on YouTube, is easy to do but powerful for beginning your momentum.

Small plans are meant to lower the barrier to entry, but you might still need a bit of accountability especially when you’re first starting. So once you’ve decided on what your small plan will be, do the following:

1. Write your plan in the present tense with a due date attached that is sometime in the following week. For example, “I will research fiction writing classes by next Tuesday.”

2. Schedule the time in your calendar that you’ll act on that small plan.

3. Ask a friend to check in with you one week from today to see how you’ve done.

Lastly, small steps = major feedback

You don’t have to go changing your life in one fell swoop in order to find success. Rather, you create major change over time by making small step after small step after small step. And in all of those small plans, you get major feedback that can tell you how to shift, change, and continue. Consider how a boat charts its course. If it’s off even a few tenths of a degree, after a hundred miles, it’ll be so far off the intended destination that getting back on track is so much harder than if it had made mile-by-mile check-ins.

Thus, once you’ve taken your small step, repeat steps two and three by asking yourself What’s the absolute smallest thing I can do next? and then make a tiny plan to do so. Before you know it this cycle of tiny decisions will carry you forward.

If you release your need to have the big-picture plans all figured out and sorted and instead allow yourself to think small, it’ll be far easier to begin your path to success (and have it be the right one). Small thinking, small plans, and small steps give you more freedom to create direction for your life rather than obsessing about the end destination. So go on, let yourself think small.

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