Trim Tabs

Trim Tabs

It’s spring in Alaska and days are long again. It’s a funny mix of hope, new beginnings and the "sins of winter" - dog treasures buried under the deep encrusted snow.

This last winter I focused on building some habits or "trim tabs" to help me stay calm and happy with fewer internal gyrations. 

Trim tabs are a concept I learned from aviation. Here's an example.

When a pilot taxis a small bush plane out to the runway, lines up and takes off, the plane and the pilot use a ton of fuel, energy, mental focus, and control to lift off the ground and into the air. But once they are up at a cruising altitude, they can set the "trim," a tiny strip of metal that acts as a small rudder in the air. Boats and ships have trim tabs too.

A pilot isn’t required to trim the plane, but if they don't, they’ll have to use their full focus to keep the plane level and pointed in the right direction. The result is a bumpier ride for the passenger and can leave the pilot tired and cranky. If they trim the plane, the plane stays on course by itself and you can turn on the music and revel at the glaciers.

If it takes hardly any effort, why wouldn't you trim out a plane, right? A better result with less effort... two, please!

The same thing applies to our careers. Once we figure out what we want, we can set up conditions to make meeting our goal inevitable. The trick is to use the basic principle of trim.

Trim is small.

Tiny adjustments applied over a long course of time.

Um... boring!

I don’t know about you, but I’m hard-wired for the big push of takeoff, heroic efforts, all systems go, let's launch, simplicity, hacks!! Not so much the mundane daily systems that make my life sustainable.

I try my best to be compassionate with myself for my lack of talent in the consistency department. Instead of repeating the lifelong criticisms of my caregivers and teachers in my head, I focus on building habits, so I don't have to work so hard to keep things from going off the rails all the time.

Trim tabs are tiny adjustments applied over a long course of time.

Habits are the trim tabs or automation of life. But building a trim-tab-style-habit takes patience.

It needs to be a change small enough to become permanent.

A small tweak in thought or behavior applied consistently over time to create a result with little to no effort.

Did I mention it takes patience? I had to laugh at myself with my recent walking goal.

I'd set a daily minimum of half a mile, about 1,200 steps. I was doing okay, ticking off at least a few little blue calendar dots a week. But two weeks ago I got a wild hair and decided I should increase my daily minimum. So I upped it to 5 miles a day or about 12,000 steps.

Wait, what? A 900% increase?

It backfired. Shocking. I did good for two days, then nothing. It was worse than having no goal.

Why? The jump was too big for my mind or my body. I just couldn't make the leap. I tried to keep it in perspective, chuckled, and course-corrected.

I decided to try the plan that has worked for my breathing exercise that helps me stay calm. My breathing exercise goal is "try to do something" even 30 seconds, as long as it happens every day. Uber lazy, and it works. In fact, I hit another 150-day streak yesterday. What's even more surprising is my daily average is 27 minutes a day, far more than my 30-second minimum.

And the payoff is big. I feel more calm and confident, even though I have more going on in my life than ever before.

So my new walking goal is "try to do anything" even 5 steps, as long as it happens every day. I'll check in to see if I need to increase it in a year, no earlier.

Is it the Charles Atlas fitness plan of the century? I doubt it. But is it likely to build a habit of walking every day without the dramatic flailing? Research says yes. And over the next 80 years, this small tweak has the potential to pay off big time with my health, happiness and overall satisfaction with my life.

Where in your career do you make progress in fits and starts but wish you could get consistent traction? 

Where do you need to install a trim tab?

Updated April 18, 2023

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