A “turtle step” is the least I can do, divided in half. It’s also the only way I’ve ever achieved anything.

-Martha Beck (Twitter post on July 5, 2018)

picture of a turtle to accompany a blog post about turtle steps

Like many of my recent posts, this one is repurposed from my weekly newsletter. The theme of that newsletter was “a turtle step approach to goals,” and this post is an extended version of it.

Side note: If you like this post and would like to receive this kind of content via email, you can subscribe to my weekly newsletter here.

Theme: A turtle step approach to goals…and life

My mentor, Martha Beck, is a huge proponent of changing your life via turtle steps.

According to Martha, a turtle step is “a step that takes you toward your ultimate goal, but is so tiny you could do it easily on your worst day.”

A turtle step is smaller than a baby step.

I like to think of them as being laughably easy, but sometimes they do require a bit of effort. 

For example, if you’re struggling with depression, a turtle step might be to take a shower. If you’ve ever been depressed, you know that finding the motivation to move at all – much less to toss those sweats that you’ve worn for days into the hamper and then bathe – is challenging. But even then, it tends to be something that’s doable.

When we focus on taking turtle steps, we’re not plotting out our entire course of action to move us towards our end goal. We’re simply taking one teeny tiny easy step towards it. Once we’ve completed that step, we can hang tight for a bit or immediately take another. There is no pressure to layer the turtle steps in the beginning, although this tends to happen as their benefits inspire momentum.

[Note: Martha has advocated taking daily turtle steps, which is similar to what James Clear advocates in Atomic Habits. While I love this layering approach, I don’t always approach turtle steps this way. Sometimes I prefer to take things more organically.]

Turtle steps have significantly improved my life.

Before I dive in, I want to mention that some of the turtle steps I’m about to describe may appear at face value to be bigger than turtle steps. For reasons I’ll explain later, they aren’t (although turtle steps often look a lot “smaller”). What I want you to take away from what I’m about to share is that you can truly change your life in incredible ways via turtle steps, and it’s you who gets to define what constitutes a turtle step.

By nature, I’m a planner. But some of my greatest accomplishments that have significantly altered my life didn’t come from planning. They came from turtle steps.

I didn’t set out with some grand goal in mind. But as I reflect on the aggregate of all the turtle steps I’ve taken since 2022, it’s clear to me that my wise inner guide (who I call la que sabe, she who knows) has a grand vision for how I live my life.

She wants me to live more intentionally, more mindfully. She wants me to stop stressing about and heal my relationship with money. She wants to liberate me from the suffering I create when I distract myself from my own life.

And so while I didn’t take the turtle steps that follow with any grand vision or goal in my conscious mind, it’s clear to me that I did harbor a vision for myself of a life that was truly liberating. And with that…

On December 25, 2022, I dumped the vino down the drain.

I haven’t had a drink since.

I didn’t plan to quit drinking, despite my bottle-a-day wine “habit.” But I knew that life would be better without it, and something nudged me on that particular day to sever my relationship with alcohol. [I’ve written about that experience ​here​, in case you’re curious.]

Now, quitting drinking may not be a turtle step for many; it hadn’t been for me all those times in the past when I’d tried to quit but failed. But this time was different. Something in my soul had been yearning for change, and so at that particular moment, it truly was a turtle step for me to pour that wine down the drain.

The next day, my turtle step was to simply not take that first drink, and I succeeded. It’s now been 14+ months since I’ve had a drink, and the only time I kinda sorta miss it these days is when I’m eating Italian food *queue Eat, Pray, Love*. But not really.

Once it became clear that I was truly done with the booze, I took another turtle step.

So let’s talk edibles.

I’m not a big edibles person, but on occasion (like maybe once a month) I’ve been known to partake for this or that reason. But something shifted when I was no longer distracting myself with alcohol.

I felt clearer and more in sync with my own spirit. The reasons I’d consumed edibles before – namely to shut my brain off so that I could sleep or to heighten sensory pleasure – had lost much of their relevancy. I was now able to get this coveted “high” simply by “living in the now”; I no longer required nor even desired the assistance of substances.

And so, I took another turtle step. I ditched the Mindy’s.

And then another turtle step happened.

For some reason that I still don’t fully understand, I created the most bare ass naked budget I’ve ever dared to create because I wanted to. [To be clear, I was living on credit and paying exorbitant interest…and it was catching up with me. Like, I knew something had to change But in the past my response was to just open a new credit card account so that I could leave the real work for another day. But I digress.]

I also quit because it was time. And holy shit! I’ve now blown this whole frugally hedonistic budgeting thing out of the water two months in a row! The momentum is growing, and it’s freaking exciting and liberating AF.

Had I not wanted or been ready to do this, creating such a restrictive budget would have been way too big to be a turtle step; it would have been setting myself up for failure.

How I managed to absolutely love spending so much less still baffles me a bit*, as does the fact that despite how little I’d budgeted, I still managed to carry some money over last month. Like how TF is that even possible? This is not who I’ve ever been during my 47 years on Planet Earth! And yet, here I am on my way to becoming a budgeting success story.

*Actually, I’ve been getting more and more tired of escaping my life via distraction. Distractions like booze, food, substances, and buying shit I don’t need. I’ve also been getting more and more floored by the chaos that plastics create in our environment and how we’re all complicit in this devastation. And so, the budgeting thing was, in part, a way to “be the change” towards mending my own relationship with Mama Earth.

And now a turtle step that’s made me healthier…

Sometime last year, I decided to be more mindful about what I put into my body. And maybe four months after I made this decision – without following any sort of diet plan or setting weight loss goals of any kind – my weight dropped by fifteen pounds! It’s now the lowest it’s been in five years…and it’s a healthy weight for me to maintain.

I didn’t go on a diet. I didn’t set the intention to lose weight. I didn’t bother weighing myself until curiosity got the better of me (which happened once my stomach got flatter and my clothes got looser).

Here’s a sampling of the turtle steps I took:

  1. Allowing myself to get hungry (but never famished) between meals.
  2. Being very present with my food so that I could truly taste it.
  3. Upgrading my breakfast once I discovered that (due to #2) I actually preferred my steel cut oats without sweetener or cream. Upgrading my breakfast has made such a massive difference in my day!
  4. Eliminating caffeine. Not that this assisted in my weight loss, but it did heighten my ability to perceive la que sabe’s wisdom, my body’s signals, and my energy levels – all of which were intertwined with my success.

I didn’t map out these or the other turtle steps I took. I didn’t increase my level of exercise…though writing this does lead me to ponder what my first turtle step might be in this area.

I just took one turtle step. And then I took another. And another.

When I reflect back on these turtle steps:

  1. Ending my relationship with alcohol,
  2. No longer turning to edibles,
  3. Joyfully living frugally and more sustainably, and
  4. Being more mindful about what I put into my body,

I can see that they’re deeply interconnected. If I hadn’t stopped drinking, I wouldn’t have seen the point in not taking edibles, nor would I have been able to slash my spending the way I did (for starters, a bottle of vino a day adds up!). And I certainly wouldn’t have exercised as much mindfulness around what I was putting into my body.

I didn’t really have any big goals when I ended my relationship with alcohol – at least none that seemed relevant. I just wanted to live more intentionally, feel more vibrant, and stop wasting money on things that didn’t add value to my life and/or in some way harmed Mama Earth.

I didn’t map out the steps I’d take later – ditching edibles, spending less, or being more intentional about how I nourished myself. When I was ready to do more, I simply did more.

This approach flies in the face of traditional goal-setting.

And yet, I went somewhere amazing that I hadn’t even dreamt of going to. Not only that, I did so nearly effortlessly. That’s what turtle steps are about.

If I had set the goal to quit drinking, stop taking edibles, lose 15 pounds, and drastically cut my spending on food, clothes, beauty products, etc., I guarantee that I’d either (1) have failed, or (2) had to white-knuckle it all at the expense of my joy and wellbeing. 

Which way sounds more joyful to you?

How this can be applied to your own life.

When we’re evaluating a potential turtle step, the metric we’re looking for is whether it’s ridiculously doable, with barely any effort. If it isn’t, it’s not a turtle step.

Let’s begin…

First, find what my mentor refers to as “an area of least satisfaction.” For example, maybe you want to lose weight because you’re tired of feeling like a stuffed sausage in your jeans that fit just fine pre-pandemic.

Then, instead of committing right here, right now to spending five days a week at the gym (especially when you haven’t already been going to the gym five days a week), eating 1,200 calories a day, and forgoing all the foods that bring you pleasure, consider committing to a single turtle step.

Maybe it’s taking a walk around the block in the morning. And that’s it. For now.

Of course there will be more you’ll need to do if your goal is to fit into your old jeans again. So, once you’re ready to do more, you’ll take another turtle step. Maybe this time you add a post-dinner walk around the block to your day.

And then when you’re ready to do more, maybe you’ll decide that you feel better when you eat oatmeal instead of a bagel and schmear for breakfast…and so you make the switch. And then maybe you enjoy your oatmeal so much that you’ll switch to steel cut oats with fruit and nuts and no added sweeteners. And then maybe you feel so freaking AMAZING post-breakfast that you’ll feel inspired to see what other tweaks to your food choices you can make so that you can feel more freaking AMAZING after lunch as well (true story!).

You see where I’m going, right?

Yes, it takes longer than starving your body and torturing yourself at the gym and all, but how often have you starved and tortured yourself already…and then failed because you hated it so damned much? Yep. What if, instead of white-knuckling it, you enjoyed the process, never did more than you were readily able to do, achieved the result you were after, maintained the result, and enjoyed a higher quality of life in the process?

Wayfinding is about taking (soul-aligned) turtle steps. If you’d like to explore Wayfinder coaching with me, please ​click here​.

That is all.