Baby-Steps: Fixing Nine Common Problems One Step at a Time


The key to solving most problems is creating small successes.

Mattie says that rather than sleeping in on Saturdays and wasting a good part of her day-off, she wants to get up early and go to the gym. The problem is that she has been saying this for months, and has yet to make it. Why? Despite her Friday-night resolve she wakes up and “doesn’t feel like it”–she’s too tired, she deserves to rest, the bed is too comfortable, etc. And so, the Saturday goes by, she feels a sting a guilt, and resolves the next week will be the week…

In the 1991 movie What About Bob, Richard Dreyfus plays a psychiatrist who has written a book called Baby Steps, which Bill Murray’s character takes to heart and uses to help him step out of his neurotic life. Baby-steps is actually not a bad idea and a good way to tackle stubborn problems and patterns.

There are usually two things that usually get in the way of our making the changes we need to make to solve and conquer our problems: One is setting goals that are too large, expectations that are too high that leave us feeling overwhelmed. Here’s where deciding to lose 20 pounds or go to the gym 5 days a week, or “just be more assertive” quickly falls apart. The second is underestimating the power of the setting that you imagine starting with; often it is too fraught with triggers that can easily undermine your good intentions.

This is what is likely happening for Mattie. Once Saturday rolls around, her apartment, her bed, the fact that it is Saturday all conspire to trigger Mattie to follow her same routine, Similarly, the triggers of close relationships create the same challenge: It’s more difficult to be more assertive with your supervisor about your work schedule, or to bring up thorny topics like money or sex with your partner because the nuances of the relationship dynamics trigger the same old brain-firings that cause you to revert to auto-pilot. These challenges are the emotional equivalent of deciding to give up drinking and have a Coke while sitting in a bar.

This is where baby steps come in.

The key here is changing both of these subversive elements: By first defining the broad underlying dynamic that is driving the problem, then paring down the expectations so you can create success experiences, and finally practicing in less-triggering, less-challenging settings.

Here are some suggested baby-steps you can take for common problems:

Being Emotionally-Driven

Mattie’s problem isn’t about Saturdays or the gym but about her “doesn’t feel like it” refrain, a stance that likely spills over to other areas of her life and keeps her from following through on her goals. This is the underlying problem she needs to tackle. Rather than focusing on the alarm-clocks and bed, she wants to challenge herself to act in-spite-of how she feels. This is about developing will-power, having her rational brain override her emotional one.

She can start anywhere but Saturday. She wants to deliberately “experiment” with following through with anything she may plan rather than letting her emotional state decide the outcome. So, when her friend at work suggests doing lunch together on Wednesday, she goes even if she feels when Wednesday rolls around that she rather eat-in. This is not about lunch or Wednesdays but about her taking a small step towards breaking that emotional pattern, practicing acting in-spite-of and following through. Even if the food at the restaurant is lousy, she wants to pat herself on the back for doing what she said she was going to do. A small success that with continued practice will make Saturday mornings eventually easier.

This same dynamic applies for other will-power based goals, such as dieting. The starting point is changing the emotionally-driven, auto-pilot pattern, and accumulating successful experiences.

Rigid / Controlling

David’s would admit that he can be a bit rigid–with his set routines–and a bit of a control-freak at times–pressuring his girlfriend to do things the way he thinks they should be done. The underlying dynamic for him is in many ways the opposite of that of Mattie. Where she doesn’t do because she doesn’t feel like, David’s got to do (and he tries to get others to do) what David’s got to do. He’s driven by the rules in his head, and he gets anxious when he or others close to him don’t follow them.

If David decides it’s time to change this behavior, his overall baby-step goal is experimenting with “letting-go,” and not following his routines and rules. This is like to trigger his sense of guilt and anxiety so he needs to take small steps that don’t overwhelm him.

Courtesy: Psychology Today

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