The Road to Joy is Paved With Turtle Steps

“Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force, but through persistence." Ovid, Roman poet

Let me tell you about my friend, Martha Beck.

To be clear, Martha does not know I exist, but I consider her my friend anyway. Her story of how she maneuvered from a life of unhappiness and stress to one filled with joy and meaning has inspired me.

You may know about Martha already. She’s kind of a big deal: a Harvard-trained sociologist, world-renowned life coach, New York Times bestselling author and O Magazine columnist.

In short, Martha is not exactly a slacker. For starters, she has three degrees from Harvard (yes, that Harvard). This might make you think that she's the kind of overachiever we all secretly envy but also intensely dislike - the type of person that doesn’t need to sleep or relax and binge Netflix on a semi-regular basis like the rest of us mere mortals.

But this isn’t how Martha rolls. (I have it on good authority that she actually loves watching TV). Instead, Martha learned to accomplish important and difficult things in service to a life of joy and purpose by mastering “turtle steps.”

“Turtle steps” is the term she uses to describe the process of breaking down big, audacious goals into ridiculously small, super easy steps - steps so easy that they can’t help but inspire action. “A turtle step is the least I can do, divided in half. It's also the only way I've ever achieved anything,” says Martha on Facebook.

Turtle steps are so easy, in fact, that they’re often overlooked. “Many people are unwilling to take turtle steps, for the odd reason that they’re too small,” says Martha.

What we fail to understand is that turtle steps are extremely powerful. First, they set us on the right path. Performed over and over again, they give us the momentum we need to make change happen.

Woman leaving footprints in the sand

For these reasons, “turtle steps” make time our friend rather than our enemy and when taken consistently they get us places we otherwise might never go at all. Since making change is difficult, we often suffer from inertia. Turtle steps are the way out and forward.

Let’s say your goal for 2020 is to reduce the amount of stress in your life by taking some time to yourself each day. In theory this sounds simple, but it is actually extremely difficult.

Many of us feel immobilized by various things, perhaps skepticism that living with less stress is possible, guilt at the idea of taking time for ourselves or leaving tasks undone, or paralysis brought on by overwhelm. In order to begin the process at all, we must find an initial step that feels incredibly easy and manageable.

Turtle steps, if used properly, both respect and engage your willing self - the part of you that wants to do something. By harnessing the power of your willing self, turtle steps make doing anything easier and therefore much more likely to get done.

Let’s say your stress-reduction goal is to have 30 minutes to yourself each day to recharge and reflect. Carving 30 minutes of time from a packed schedule on day one will likely feel impossible, so don’t start there. Offer yourself a variety of turtle step options, reducing the level of expectation with each iteration, until you find the one that your willing self enthusiastically embraces. Here are some examples:

  • How about 10 minutes of quiet time in the morning before work tomorrow?
  • 5 minutes?
  • 5 minutes of quiet time on Saturday?
  • 3 minutes?
  • 10 seconds of sitting quietly in your car before you turn it on and drive to work?
  • Put “consider creating time for myself” on your to-do list for a date in the near future? (Don’t underestimate the power of simply allowing for the possibility that something can happen as a meaningful first step.)

When you come up with a step to which your willing self says “YES!” without hesitation, that’s the step you begin with. The next day, identify and take another turtle step, and then another.

Woman relaxing with cup of coffee

The most important thing is to make sure that each consecutive turtle step engages the willing self. Let’s be honest: if the goal you have in mind could be accomplished by pushing yourself past your comfort zone on a regular basis, you’d already be doing it and wouldn’t have read this far.

We’re talking here about goals that are important to you but that you haven’t found the willpower or means to accomplish. This, my friends, is where the road to mecca is paved with turtle steps.

Just ask Martha. Identifying and taking turtle steps is how she earned the Ph.D. that put her on the map as a sociologist and helped her launch an amazing and rewarding career. As she puts it, turtle steps are how she finished her “deadly dull, bulky dissertation: 15-minutes a day, over the course of a year.” (Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live)

If you want to make a meaningful change in 2020, I promise turtle steps can get you there. Plus, the journey will be so much more fun than it would be otherwise.

As author Anthony Trollope reminds us, “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labors of a spasmodic Hercules.”

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