In the past two weeks, I have read Layla Saad’s White Supremacy and Me and Tim Ferriss’s The Four-Hour Workweek. These are very different books, but they both ask readers to dig into deeply held beliefs and uproot them to make a powerful shift. As I think about the lasting impact of these books and what about each one has caused me to make real change, it is these two components: identifying and unlearning long-held beliefs and taking three next steps.
In White Supremacy and Me, Layla Saad has readers end the book by writing “three concrete, out-of-your-comfort-zone actions” you will take in the next two weeks. In The Four-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss has readers identify four life-changing dreams they have, and then tells readers to take three next steps over the next three days for each of the four dreams. He notes that each step should take a maximum of 5 minutes.
I am constantly dreaming of what is possible, envisioning how things could be better. But I do not like just existing in a dream world. I then try to break these bold ideas down into concrete steps to make big changes and make what initially felt impossible, possible. Sometimes, that can come off as “This is easy to do!” which is far from the truth. My brain just goes directly to action. In a year when COVID-19 has caused a major upheaval in the lives of educators, I tend to skip right over the fact that this is incredibly difficult work to be forced to adapt instruction and while navigating the uncertainty and anxiety of ourselves, our students and families, and our colleagues.
Additionally, in doing antiracism work, it is important to sit with new understanding and seek to learn more about the complexity of the problems—not rush to action. So many of us (definitely including myself here) want to rush to action before taking the time to fully understand the complexities of what’s going on and how our response could be unintentionally harmful, possibly by just paying lip service to racial justice without enacting any real change.
That said, once we have a deeper understanding of a problem or can concretely define who we want to be or how we want to show up for our students, we will need to take action. That is when I can lean into my strength of breaking down a big goal into actionable steps to make big changes. I achieved my goal of running a marathon without stopping (after two attempts that required some walking), and I completed my Ph.D. program in three years while working full time. I did this through sheer force of will and some very specific calendars and timelines.
I have also had dreams that have remained in dream form for years. For example, becoming multilingual has always been a goal. Why haven't I been successful? My goal wasn’t specific and I didn’t make a plan. Because I never made a clear plan, I never really got started.
I often end my professional development workshops by encouraging participants to write down one next step they will take after the workshop. But, what I’ve learned from Saad and Ferriss (and my momentum towards the goals I set for myself after reading their books) is that taking one next step is not enough. There are more aspects to this “next step” thing that I did not realize missing from my workshop closing.
Set a Deadline. Saad’s deadline was two weeks. Ferriss’s deadline was three days.
I have found one week to be a helpful time frame for me to complete three steps. This has provided enough flexibility to work around the busy-ness of life and work, but also a close enough deadline that I’m less likely to forget. Whatever you choose as your deadline, make sure it is soon enough that you won’t put it off until “tomorrow,” which in my experience quickly becomes much later.
Build Momentum. The difference between one next step and three next steps to make big shifts? Momentum. I can energetically dive into a new goal on Day 1, but after that, it’s easier to fizzle out. If we commit to three steps, one after the other, we build momentum, we start to make real progress towards our goals. That momentum is critical for working towards real change.
Make The Actions Doable. Tim Ferriss says each of the first three steps should take no more than five minutes. In another book, Atomic Habits, James Clear recommends each habit takes two minutes or less. For example, if my desired habit is to practice on Duolingo every day, I can complete a lesson in two minutes and still continue my daily streak of practice. For these first few steps, aim for actions that will take 2 to 5 minutes.
Write out your plan. I used to write down two big things I wanted to accomplish each day and focus on completing those tasks. Now, it feels more powerful to tie each of those tasks to a larger goal. So, I now frame each day’s task as: Which life-changing goal(s) am I working towards today? That fills my day with far more purpose than two random “check-the-box” tasks.
Connect these steps to your identity. Layla Saad talks about being a “good ancestor.” Antiracism work requires us to unearth and discard white supremacist beliefs we have (often unknowingly) held. Rooting them out is difficult, emotional work, and what enables us to do that work—even when it’s hard—is to tie our identities to being antiracist or being a “good ancestor.” Atomic Habits author, James Clear talks about linking our habits to our identities as a way to ensure we follow through on our goals. He talks about conducting a yearly “Integrity Report” in which he asks: What are the core values that drive my life and work? How am I living and working with integrity right now? How can I set a higher standard in the future? He says this work helps “revisit my desired identity and consider how my habits are helping me become the type of person I wish to be.” We are more likely to continuously take action towards a goal if we see this work as critical to living out our desired identity, our best self.
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Lindsay Lyons (she/her) is an educational justice coach who works with teachers and school leaders to inspire educational innovation for racial and gender justice, design curricula grounded in student voice, and build capacity for shared leadership. Lindsay taught in NYC public schools, holds a PhD in Leadership and Change, and is the founder of the educational blog and podcast, Time for Teachership.