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Take Small Steps for a Big Career Move

Whether you're planning to go back to work or shift fields, the process will be easier if you take it step by step

By Julie Shifman

This article is adapted from Act Three: Create the Life You Want, available at and local bookstores. For a signed copy, visit Julie Shifman’s website.
I am a big fan of the TV show The Biggest Loser. I love to watch people tackling what seems to be an overwhelming challenge and then succeeding. One of the best success strategies they use on the show is also helpful if you're contemplating a major change on the job front, whether you want to return to work for the first time in years, change careers or launch a major project.

It’s what I call “small steps motivation,” and I employ it often with the clients of Act Three, my career coaching and consulting firm in Cincinnati.

Here's an example: In a recent episode of The Biggest Loser, one of the contestants had to lose 300 pounds. But whenever he thought about the fact that “I have to lose a whole person,” he got discouraged and was ready to quit. The long-term goal seemed insurmountable. Bob, the show’s trainer, gave him smart advice: “Just think about what you need to do tomorrow. The rest will take care of itself.”

Doesn’t that make sense?

Why worry about whether you can ultimately hit the big scary goal a year or more down the road when really what you need to push through is just that one step you need to take tomorrow?

2 Reasons to Take Small Steps

The first reason to take small steps is that it allows you to avoid the feelings of hopelessness that may occur when you look at the big “I have to lose 300 pounds” goal. It’s much easier to draft a resumé or do market research about a field you’re considering than to vaguely pursue a whole new career path.

The second reason for taking small steps is that this approach lets you get fully comfortable with each action before you undertake the next one.

Humans are hardwired to want to feel comfortable. We’ll do anything to avoid a high level of stress. Feelings of anxiety and discomfort are only natural if you try to take on too much, too fast. But if you focus on just one small step at a time, easing in to your eventual goal, you have a much higher chance of success.

When I was writing Act Three: Create the Life You Want, I interviewed more than 1,000 women over 45 who were considering “third acts” (the life stage following their first careers and full-time motherhood). Many of them had already mastered the art of taking small steps to achieve their goals.

Small Steps Created an African Youth Village

Take Anne Heyman of New York City, who successfully used “step-by-step” project management. Heyman was determined to make a difference in the lives of millions of orphans in Rwanda. So she embarked on the ambitious idea of forming a nonprofit called Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village to create a youth village in the African republic. Here’s how Heyman told me she did it:

In typical project management, you’d have the entire project mapped out. But here I just took it one step at a time. First, we put together a group to go to Israel to see what the model of the youth village should be. Then we looked at land in Rwanda. After that, I was willing to talk to architects. Once I’d found an architect, I was willing to talk to builders. I think the only way to have done this was step by step. If I had looked at the whole picture, I might never have done what I did. But by taking it piece by piece, it didn’t get overwhelming.”

When you think about your vision for changing your life, you may feel overwhelmed. Maybe you wonder if you can really make a significant move at your age or with your background.

Make a Small Steps List

To make your overall goal less overwhelming, your first step should be to make a list of all the steps you’d need to accomplish in the next month to get started. It’s what I call a “small steps” list.

(MORE: What’s Holding You Back From a Big Career Move?)

Then, at the end of that month and every successive month until you reach the goal, redo the list. Cross off what you accomplished and add new steps for the month ahead.

If a monthly list seems daunting, try a weekly list — or just map out what you need to do in the next two days. It doesn’t matter how many small steps ahead you’ve planned. It just matters that you plan them and that you keep taking them.

To help you see what I mean, below is the small-step list compiled by one my clients, Elizabeth. A stay-at-home mom, Elizabeth decided at 52 that she wanted to become a social worker and knew she’d need a master’s degree. So we made a small-steps list of what it would take to get into school over the next seven months (including one month with no steps, since everyone deserves a break):

Elizabeth’s Small-Step List

Month One

  • Meet with admissions officers of all five local universities to find out about their master's programs.
  • Evaluate each university's curriculum, tuition costs and job placement help.
  • Meet with a graduate of each program.
  • Learn about taking the required GRE standardized test (Graduate Record Examination).

Month Two

  • Pick the top two university choices.
  • Begin applications for the top two choices.
  • Register for and start studying for the GRE.

Month Three

  • Complete applications for the top two choices on time.
  • Study for the GRE.
  • Get necessary recommendations.

Month Four

  • Study for the GRE.
  • Take the exam.

Month Five

  • Off

Month Six

  • Visit each school (assuming acceptance into both).
  • Choose the one to attend.

Month Seven

  • Start school.

Today, Elizabeth is in her first year of the master’s program.

When you’re planning your small steps, keep in mind what Henry Morton Stanley (of Stanley and Livingston fame) was quoted as saying about his African exploration: “I did not see the whole. I only saw this rock ahead of me; I only saw this poisonous snake which I had to kill in order to take the next step. I only saw the problem directly in front of me. If I had seen the whole thing, I would have been too overwhelmed to have attempted this.”

Spoken like a true small stepper.

Julie Shifman is an inspirational keynote speaker, career coach and the author of Act Three: Create the Life You Want, which is available on and in bookstores. You can buy a signed copy at her website. Read More
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