How to Conquer Any Big Challenge

CBT principles can break down impossible goals into achievable tasks.

Posted Feb 26, 2019

Giant challenges in our lives can easily become overwhelming. We have an instant tendency to look at the entirety of a project or goal, instead of breaking it down into tolerable steps. Accordingly we may quickly dismiss or avoid opportunities or experiences that ultimately may help us grow or derive benefit or pleasure. Frustration and distress tolerance are skills that come with slowly tackling such challenges, and not giving in to quick fixes and instant gratification that may have short-term rewards, but minimal ultimate value.

That being said, it is also important to balance stress with goal-setting and avoid Pyrrhic victories, where the goals to be achieved are at a toxic cost, or are excessively anxiety-provoking or burdensome. Each person must find the right balance for themselves as to the appropriate level of stress tolerance and risk.

Reading or watching classic narrative quest stories, such as The Odyssey or The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit stories, you can appreciate the highs and lows of a given protagonist’s life experiences as they grow and change into the hero/heroine of a story. Each episode they face is a puzzle to be encountered, thoughtfully processed, and solved with what talents they possess. By the end, you feel respect and admiration for the protagonist and their survival.

Likewise, when faced with a large challenge or goal, one helpful approach is found in cognitive-behavioral therapy: reality-testing a given situation and breaking it down thoughtfully into achievable goals. It’s a simple metaphor of taking a large piece of food and slowly and methodically chewing and eating it in small bites until before you know it, the food is gone and digested. If you swallowed it whole, it would have been impossible to eat. Every masterful painting does not happen in one or two broad strokes . . . it takes numerous small strokes to achieve the total effect. But creating an overall plan with realistic tasks and check-in points in advance can help quell anxiety before you initially face what seems like climbing Mount Everest.

Accordingly, breaking down a large project or situation into small, reasonable tasks that bit by bit add up to a brilliant whole is a key strategy. Some of those tasks can give short-term bursts of hope and energy that propel one’s momentum towards the end goal. Other times there are bits of drudgery and tedium that feel pointless, but also ultimately help you move forward towards the end goal. At each time point, it is important to check in with yourself and ask how you are doing, and whether you feel it is worth it to continue. If you feel overwhelmed at a given point, seek help as needed to get you past the hurdle. You should always feel like you are not trapped — that you have the power to actively reassess a situation and come up with different paths and strategies as needed, even if it means stopping altogether and choosing a different goal.

You should also consider whether a given task is too much for one individual; bringing in and delegating resources to others is an important strategy and option to consider. When you witness giant cathedrals or historical temples and architectural sites, these are a testament to the power of multiple people putting their efforts together and the need for collaboration. But there is also the dark side of people being forced into a project against their will or at unnecessary risk to themselves; again, it is important to assess the greater good of a given task versus the costs and sacrifices being made, and to have the freedom to choose when to cut your losses.

And when you are able to reach the goal, after all the bits of hard work and effort have gotten you to the end, you should be sure to treat yourself to a hearty reward and celebrate.