Baby Steps

This was the first personal productivity method that ever stuck with me, and it came from Richard Dreyfuss:

“Baby steps?”
“It means setting small, reasonable goals for yourself, one day at a time. One tiny step at a time… For instance, when you leave this office, don’t think about everything you have to do to get out of the building, just think about what you must do to get out of this room. And when you get to the hall, deal with that hall, and so forth. You see?”

Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss) describes his book Baby Steps to Bob Wiley (Bill Murray).

That’s what Dreyfuss (as Dr. Leo Marvin) offers as a path to curing the severe phobias of Bill Murray (as Bob Wiley) in the 1991 film What About Bob? (you can watch a clip of the scene here), which of course leads to increasingly wacky situations (and one of my favorite Bill Murray performances).

It’s a made-up conceit for the movie, but… there’s something very real and familiar about the idea that has always stuck with me. It’s simple enough for anyone to understand how it works, and it’s easy to remember and try for yourself. In fact, part of why it works so well for comedy is because it seems obvious and simplistic enough to be plausible, so there’s no way it could actually work, right? But it does, and it’s not a new idea.

The “Baby Steps” method is about learning to focus, but it’s also about learning to let go of the fear and anxiety that prevents us from finding that focus. Bob Wiley lives in constant anxiety about hundreds of ways he could get hurt or fail out in the world, and those phobias prevent him from being able to function. But focusing on one small, simple goal means putting aside all other fears. With all the resources of his mind focused on doing one thing, and all other anxieties on hold, Bob is able to finally able to venture out into the world.

Actually, “Baby Steps” isn’t about actions at all—it’s about making decisions. It’s about letting go of thinking of all the things you have to do, and deciding on one small, manageable task you can do right now.

Decide what you can do right now that will be useful, something you have to get done today, and give your full attention to doing that one thing. When you’re done, reward yourself with a little break, then decide to do another thing, and do that. Repeat.

It may not be easy or practical to apply this to your entire day. There will always be interruptions and things beyond our control, but we can find the smaller steps within those moments too if we need them. It may not be a complete solution to all your problems, but if you want a simple method for making better decisions about how you spend your time, “Baby Steps” is a step in the right direction.

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