Stepladders through the Dark

When I was 10 I decided I was too old to sleep with a nightlight. As a budding young psychologist, or having some intuitive sense, or, really, who knows how I came to this: I devised an ingenious plan to wean myself off my nighttime companion. I found an extension cord and attached the nightlight to it. The first night I placed the light close to its usual location. Then each subsequent night I moved it several inches toward the door. The changes were subtle enough to make only a small difference in the light I was used to. Bit by bit my nighttime bedroom fell from warm, cozy light and into greater and greater darkness. Unwavering, I kept dragging that light along its cord, until one day it was in the hallway. I was free from my ties to what I (for whatever reason) saw as a “childish” light. Having gained confidence, I went even further. To get used to being alonein the dark, closed off from the comforting presence of my parents across the hall, I began to move the door inch by inch from wide open the following nights. Each successive inch towards shut was hardly different from the last, yet eventually I could easily sleep with no extra light and my door completely closed. Boy, was I proud!

This process is not far from what teachers do in “scaffolding” difficult material. And it also nicely illustrates the process of “Stepladders” in habit-formation as described in Sean Young’s Stick With It: A Scientific Process for Changing Your Life for Good.

In trying to create a new habit, Young says, we often confuse goals with what really are far off dreams, and then we underestimate the steps it takes to achieve our short term and long term goals. As I try to help my clients deal with to-do list overload, this concept is also useful in just trying to create a productive day. My lesson: don’t try to suddenly one day shut off the nightlight or close the door, but rather slowly adjust to darkness in a stepwise, unthreatening manner. Break it down, folks.

A surprising finding: we are less motivated by far off goals (really, dreams) than the everyday accomplishments of steps towards a goal. People who actually became rock stars focused on the mundane steps to achieve greater and greater success, not on the ultimate goal of rock stardom. And dieters who kept their attention on daily eating habits were far more successful than those who kept thinking of a distant future thin self.

It turns out, when we think of something too big to be attainable in the present, we feel unmotivated to even try. Yet when we think of a small step we can take that moves us in the right direction, we feel up for the small, doable challenge.

Don’t most self-help books exhort us to dream big and keep those big imaginings close (on a vision board, for instance)? While having big dreams doesn’t stop you from achieving them, Young says, your steady vision has to stay within the scope of what you can do this week.

Thus, eyes on the tiny little prizes that lead up to the eventual big prize. Each success gives us a jolt of dopamine, the brain’s reward chemical, and helps motivate us to complete the next step and the next and so on.

I admit I have a whole lot of books in roughly the same genre as Stick with It:  scientifically proven approaches to self-help. I’ve got books on scheduling and un-scheduling yourself. Becoming highly productive. Creating and breaking habits. Becoming happier, finding flow, enhancing well-being, influencing others, eating better, the power of neuroplasticity…and that’s just a glance at my bookshelf. How does this one stack up?

I like to say that I read the books and journal articles so that you (my readers) and my clients don’t have to. I read, absorb, get the bottom line, figure out how to put it into practice. And with my clients, tailor it to the individual and provide support and adjustments to help make the techniques work.

Still, there are some books and articles worth reading, if you’ve got the time and inclination. I’d say Young’s volume on habit change is worth it. It’s a quick read, includes illustrative stories, brief science support, concrete ways to use the information, and exercises with every chapter.

“Stepladders” is just one such chapter, and at the end, your homework is to divide your dreams into goals, and then into small steps. The following chapters help you get over the road blocks to making your most important goals into life habits. I think this volume might be helpful in understanding blocks to doing what we most want to do and providing concrete solutions to getting to these most important goals.

What might be missing is a concrete way to translate all these ideas into your every day schedule.

Do you have items on your to-do list hanging about your shoulders like an albatross? My clients describe a familiar scenario: items carried from one day to the next and one month to another. Some things only get done as they turn into emergencies. Others never get done, perhaps missed opportunities.

I’ve tried a lot of books and a lot of productivity and mindfulness hacks. I’ve seen what works and doesn’t help various clients. Here’s what I’ve come up with at present:


  • There is no one right way to schedule the day for every person
  • A schedule—or not scheduling—must match different types of priorities and different styles of working for individuals and at different moments in their lives
  • There are some commonalities, however:
    • Avoid a giant to do list—too long and/or with steps too large is de-motivating for most people
    • Decide what is most important to you (and why) so that you are not being fabulously productive at unimportant tasks
    • Keep goals and dreams but break them down into tiny doable steps
    • Figure out why certain things on your to-do list aren’t getting done and if they should be crossed off, scheduled, broken down, or dealt with emotionally
    • Remember that there is enough time to do everything that is most important, though there is never enough time to do everything you can think of to put on your to do list, especially things that seem like you “ought to” do them
    • You are allowed to cross things off your to do list and say you are just not going to do them. Ever. Or at least this week.
    • Don’t confuse your list of what you want to do for yourself, your work life, your family, and what you think others want/need you to do. Keep these in order of your own priorities.
    • Delegate. Not everything is actually your problem.

If you do the most important things first in the day–or if you schedule the task and complete it at the assigned time–you’ll have accomplished something meaningful by night, and perhaps everything that truly needed to be done. If you you go off on tangents, you may or may not get to the most important tasks of the day.

Get a goal setting and time blocking blank and see my example (You will be prompted to sign up for my mailing list. If you’re already on my email list, this won’t work but you will find the link in the January 21, 2019 newsletter…thanks for your patience! I’m having technical difficulties making it available here for current subscribers. Arghhhh!)

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