Turtle Steps: When Progress Is Slow to Come

TV, radio, and the Internet told me that the start of a new calendar year is a great time to take on new projects and establish productive habits. Like I do every year, over the holidays I got excited at the prospect of doing these things. Then the new year arrived, and not much changed. Now, over a week after the last gasp of holiday carousing has ended, I am still trying to build up momentum to take on new projects and revisit ones that took a back seat to family and a bit of relaxation.

That part happens every year, too: I get excited about reengaging with the world now that most people are back from the holidays, but then I hit a wall before I even get started. Inertia is a powerful thing, it turns out, and I tend to experience pronounced holiday hangovers that last well into January.

During these times in my life, which I like to call the Molasses Ages, and which are not limited to the new year, I do manage to get the bare minimum done so that none of the working parts of my life grinds to a halt, but the plans for dramatic improvements remain plans. (This is a nicer thing to call them than “self-deceptions.”) Little progress occurs on my bigger ideas for a better life. It is hard to remain optimistic as I struggle to motivate, harder still in the face of peppy accomplishers who never seem to hit roadblocks and appear to tick every item off their to-do lists—items that include posting inspirational memes targeted to people like me.

Fortunately, I have experienced this phenomenon enough times to know that beating myself up for being slow on the draw does no good and may do harm. Over time and through a lot of trial and error, I have also come to recognize that my trajectory in life is rarely a straight line on the graph. Rather, there are stretches where I trundle along, not entirely sure how to focus my time or effort, punctuated by stretches where I seem to catapult forward, where it feels like every decision or action brings me straight to pay dirt.

Right now, I am in a trundle phase, taking what self-help guru Martha Beck would call “turtle steps” (check out her fantastic book Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live for more details.). These are smaller even than baby steps, which you can picture if you imagine a human baby and a grown turtle walking side by side. (Yes, some babies crawl and some turtles are huge, but for argument’s sake let us agree that the baby is walking and the turtle could fit in a shoebox.)

If you think about turtle steps in terms of productivity or forward momentum on a new project or life goal, you can imagine them as teeny tiny tasks or action items, like sending one email. Making one phone call. Writing one paragraph. Having one conversation. When I cannot seem to get on the stick, I know I am in the turtle steps phase. I make a list of turtle steps (which itself counts as a turtle step), and I require myself to do one every day.

Sometimes doing this feels worse than doing nothing, because if I do nothing, I can distract myself from the fact that I am doing nothing. So turtle steps serve two purposes: helping me make consistent if slow progress, and keeping my head in the game. It’s like eating my vegetables. Sometimes I want dessert, but that comes later.

I have used turtle steps at different times for everything from earning my black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to earning a doctorate to writing a book. I say this not to brag, but as evidence that they work. I know they eventually lead to quicker progress, where the groundwork I have laid begins to pay dividends beyond each single micro-item I get to cross off my list. Eventually these turtle steps can get me to the point where I am on a roll, where my mini-movements combine to create real momentum. It is at those times that the days go quickly and I feel like Bradley Cooper’s character in Limitless, like I can get anything and everything done that needs to get done, and that the work I do is rewarding and of high quality.

I enjoy those times while they last, and then when it is turtle time again, I make another list. And then I have dessert.

How do you keep your head in the game when the going seems tough? Are you working on goals that you need some help with? Contact me at valerie@valerieworthington.com  or visit http://www.valerieworthington.com to learn more about how we can work together.




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