The Power of the Action Item List

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How many times have you had a seemingly simple goal or plan fail along the way because you lost sight of the little things that were critical to a successful outcome? It’s happened to me many times, and I’ve learned to use action item lists to combat these failures. It’s not for lack of good intention or work-ethic that we fail; we just overestimate our ability to focus and remember our plan in the days or weeks that follow the creation of it. We leave a meeting with clear direction believing it will be easy to remember everything we had to do, and then the inevitable happens…..our attention is drawn elsewhere, then we sleep, and before we know it, we’ve lost focus or plain can’t remember what our part even was!

Action lists are incredibly powerful tools, and are simple to create and use. One of the reasons they work is because we remember more if we write it down. The second reason is psychological; creating a plan that gives us clear direction to achieve the goal gives us the confidence to go GET IT DONE! It also makes the goal appear much less daunting and uncertain than it did before we took the time to formulate a plan of attack and write it down. As we make progress and check off action items, it gives us even more confidence and security that we’ll achieve the goal on time.

With New Years around the corner, many of us will be creating personal goals to achieve in the coming year. Do yourself a favor and take the time to create a plan to achieve those goals and write it down. Then post it where you’re constantly reminded of each step needed to accomplish the goal so you don’t lose focus as unforeseen distractions unfold throughout the year. A white board mounted somewhere you frequently look works well. If you’re prone to watching TV instead of walking after dinner, mount it above the TV for instance. This reminds you that your time is better spent on achieving your goals. I recommend making the first few steps simple and easy so you can get a little traction and confidence going before things get tough.

Final words: This is going to take some humility to admit that you can’t keep everything straight in your mind for you to effectively use action item lists. Wear your action item lists as a badge of honor; after all, the reason you need them is because you’re someone who GETS IT DONE, and people respect and count on you to perform! There’s no shame in using all the tools available to you, so drop the ego, and make those lists!


Marginal Gains Theory

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The reason the Start Small method of achieving goals works, is rooted in the marginal gains theory. I’ve only recently heard of this theory and have to credit Joel Cochran for introducing it to me on an episode of the Proclivity Podcast. When I researched it a bit further, there’s a ton of evidence out there that supports what I’ve come to realize; making small gains yields big improvements in the long run. Essentially, the marginal gains theory supports the idea that 1% gains in many areas will cumulatively create a large positive impact.

The research and evidence supports the notion that as you make changes and see positive results, you continue to be motivated to achieve more gains and will look for ways to improve elsewhere. I believe this has the potential to help millions of people and organizations improve their results, so it’s my hope the theory will be taught in schools at scale someday. What better way to prepare someone for the world than giving them a tool to succeed in both their personal and professional lives?

Organizations already use the continuous improvement model but many times they make the same mistake individuals make; they take on huge projects that are difficult to complete and end up failing. If organizations were to take a 1% improvement approach, the projects would be much smaller, take less time to complete, and hold everyone’s interest long enough to make a positive impact. Over time, this could change the culture to one where employees are taking it upon themselves to make positive changes to benefit the organization.

The Start Small method and the marginal gains theory help build mental toughness, just like exercise helps build physical toughness. By being intentional about making 1% improvements, you’re changing the way you view the world and building the confidence that you’re in control of your life. I bet you can make a 1% improvement in your life before the end of the day!

Personal Growth

Personal growth is the best place for using the Start Small method because of the complex nature of working through your emotions and beliefs. The more complex the situation is, the better the method works and it doesn’t get more complex than trying to work through decades of experiences that have brought you to the place you are today, both good and bad. Most of us struggle to make changes because we’re afraid we’ll be judged by others if we fail, so we choose to just keep going with what we have, just waiting for “the right time” to change.

By Starting Small, there’s less chance for failure because you aren’t taking on a monumental goal, just taking the initial step that puts you closer to the goal to build confidence in yourself. How many people want to lose 20 pounds? 50 pounds? They choose a date to start, roll out of bed 2 hours early, run 2 miles when they haven’t run in years, and eat nothing but kale and broccoli, only to find they didn’t lose 5 pounds that week, call this a failure and give up because it’s really hard and they aren’t making large gains. In other words, the juice isn’t worth the squeeze. Maybe this works for you, great; but it hasn’t worked for millions of people looking to reach their personal goals so those people need another method.

With the Start Small method, I suggest those people don’t even focus on losing weight but on making small changes to behaviors they know contribute to the problem. If you’re drinking a soda every day with lunch, decrease the size a couple days a week for a month, then cut out soda one day a week. Soon, you’ll be losing weight without suffering through the pain of kale and running. You’ll begin to build confidence and making small behavioral changes will become a part of your life over time, ultimately allowing you to achieve success. Build off the small gains, and don’t let the end goal overwhelm your focus on positive daily activities.

The key to this working is to remain intentional about your goals and admit to yourself that going all out on a large goal isn’t sustainable for your personality and forgive yourself for failing, because you will fail from time to time. Accept failure as an opportunity to improve and get back to making small changes. Focus more on the behaviors than the goal itself so the failure doesn’t destroy your confidence. What small change can you make today to get you closer to the goal?