Start Small, But Start Now -- the Brain-based Road to Success

Adapted from the book Activate Your Brain

Most people want to get better at something. It can be as mundane as keeping a more pristine checkbook or something as grandiose as becoming an elite-level athlete or leader. The process is the same, whether it's big or small. You have to activate your brain to give you the momentum to achieve the goals your set for yourself.

Activating your brain begins with realizing that you do have a say in how your life progresses. Starting with small steps, you have the power to change your life.

Think how small a paperclip is. Imagine trading it for a house. Seems impossible, right? Kyle MacDonald did just that. Through a series of swaps and trades, Kyle MacDonald traded his red paperclip for a house.

It started with a Craigslist ad, turned into a trade for a fish pen, which he swapped for a Ski-doo snowmobile. The snowmobile led to an afternoon with Alice Cooper, which led to a movie role courtesy of Corbin Bernsen, which led to one house in Kipling, Saskatchewan. He tells the tale of the trades, the travels and of the people he met and the movements he started along the way in his book One Red Paperclip.

This story is a perfect metaphor for how everything big in your life begins with a very, very small step. While choice is something your brain wants, so is completion. If you want to feel the bliss of completion, you have to take action once you have made your choice. You just have to decide to start, to activate yourself.

Start small, but start now is the mantra I like to use (it was the working title of my book!). Your brain operates better when it sees goals in small steps so that it can complete them. You can have a BHAG (big, hairy, audacious goal), and the likelihood that you accomplish it goes up exponentially when you offer your brain bite-sized pieces on a daily basis -- or at least a more frequent basis -- than when you lay out a huge goal with a completion date way down the road. You are more likely to procrastinate if the goal is just one big idea, like sell 20 percent more in the next quarter or lose 50 pounds this year. The guilty pangs you feel when you keep putting something off is like taking a whiff of the stress hormone cortisol every time you are reminded about the looming deadline. Conversely, every time you complete a task you set out to do, you give your brain a teeny tiny dopamine bump. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that gives you feelings of pleasure and joy and accomplishment. Go for the daily dopamine bumps!

So, take the plunge on your next BHAG and break it down into micro-goals you can accomplish at least weekly, if not daily (more frequent is better). You're not going to lose 50 pounds today, and your brain's BS monitor is going to alarm if you tell it that you are. However, you offer your brain a very convincing goal proposal when you tell it you can lose and keep off 8 ounces today.

The final thing you have to do when you break down your goal into smaller pieces is then give each step an accomplishment activity. If you say today's goal is to lose 8 ounces, you have to tell your brain how, for instance, cut out carbs after 6pm, take the stairs all day at work, cut out sugar-laced drinks -- you get the idea. String a bunch of those micro-goals together and BAM! You have a BHAG accomplished!

One last notion on goals. My good friend and speaking colleague, marketing guru Sean Roach says, "Don't set goals, make a promise. If you don't hit a goal, it's no big deal, but if you break a promise, it's a really big deal." I love that and I think it's true (he promises to expand his promise concept into a book!).

And, I'll repeat something I've said before, "The degree to which you keep your agreements with yourself is the degree to which your life will work."

Start small, but start now. Do it. Start.