Why you should be setting smaller goals

Big goals are exciting. At the start of each year I love setting a few big, audacious goals to aim for over the following 12 months.

But big goals have downsides, too. They can set us up for failure if we set goals that are too big to achieve, or if we don’t break them down and work towards them systematically.

Sign up for our newsletter to get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.


Sonia Thompson, founder of TRY Business School, says big goals and high standards are a recipe for failure:

Setting the bar too high can serve to de-motivate and discourage you from ever getting started.

Lots of us set exciting goals, says Thompson, but struggle to reach them because they’re too big to be achievable. She says the way people set goals is the problem:

They set their standards too high. And when they have trouble keeping up with the level of activity required to meet their standard, their confidence takes a hit.

 

So let’s look at an alternative: small goals.

Small goals, more often

Small goals tend to be easier to achieve than big goals. Saving for a new computer, for instance, is easier than saving for a house deposit. Giving talks at 3 conferences is easier than earning half your income from speaking engagements.

Because small goals are easier to achieve, we can also set them more often.

Author and professional speaker Dorie Clark says setting smaller goals for shorter time periods makes you more flexible and quicker to adapt to new information or changing circumstances. Setting a year-long goal, for instance, can leave you doing something that doesn’t make sense six months later, after your circumstances or priorities have changed. Or you might give up on your year-long goal when it stops making sense, but be left goal-less until the new year rolls around.

Clark, for example, set a goal to get fit by playing racquetball with a friend, but soon found the early-morning games left her sleep-deprived and unproductive. If that was a year-long goal, Clark might have been left without any fitness plan for the rest of her year when she gave up the morning racquetball games.

Clark’s current approach is to set goals every six months, rather than annually, and to limit herself to just two goals. “The point of goals,” she says, “isn’t to successfully complete tasks we blindly set ourselves to years ago.”

… what counts is our ability to master the right kind of big goals—the ones that can change your life… You can only accomplish those kinds of goals when you’re willing to question assumptions regularly and re-evaluate as necessary.

stairs

Small wins beget confidence

Researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer have found that “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”

The great thing about this research is that it shows regular small wins can boost our motivation and happiness at work. So we don’t necessarily need to set and achieve big goals to enjoy our work.

Consultant and author John Brubaker says this comes back to self-efficacy, or our confidence in our own abilities. Our confidence increases or decreases, says Brubaker, based on our ability to make progress.

So each small win gives us a feeling of progress, which makes us more confident in our own abilities, and thus more happy and motivated.

So how can you achieve lots of small wins? Small goals, of course!

Or, as Brubaker puts it, “baby steps”:

The one primary motivation that leads us to persevere is baby steps.

Lots of small goals that lead to overall progress will keep us motivated and happy along the way. They also play into something called “goal gradient,” which essentially means that the closer you get to achieving something, the harder you’re willing to work to make it happen.

With small goals, you get close to your aim more often, so you’re more likely to work hard to achieve those goals. Big goals take longer, and you won’t feel that goal gradient as often.

A great example of how the goal gradient works with baby steps was borne out in a study using coffee reward cards. Participants were given cards that entitled them to one free coffee after they bought 10. When participants got closer to earning the free coffee, researchers noticed they bought coffees more often to get to their goal faster.

Another group of participants was given a card that offered one free coffee after they bought 12. These participants were given cards that already had two coffee purchases counted, so they had 10 to buy before earning a free coffee—the same as participants with the “buy 10, get 1 free” cards. But the group with 12-coffee cards actually filled up their cards faster, because a card with two coffees already counted gave them a feeling of progress that brought the goal gradient into play. Even though they needed to buy the same number of coffees as the first group, this group felt they had already made progress and their goal was close, so they bought coffees faster in order to achieve their goal.

You probably don’t want to trick yourself into buying more coffee, but you can use the benefits of the goal gradient on yourself by setting smaller goals more often. Make your goals faster and easier to achieve and you’ll be able to chain a lot of small wins together to make more progress overall.

Start tiny. Really tiny

If you’re not sure how small your small goals should be, Sonia Thompson has a useful suggestion: try setting tiny goals. Embarrassingly tiny, in fact.

Thompson says tiny goals help us build the momentum we need to chase slightly bigger goals later. An embarrassingly small goal is so small it feels silly not to do it. But even a goal that small can still feel good when you achieve it. You’ll still feel like you’re making progress.

quote-tinygoals

Embarrassingly small goals give you a solid way to start making progress and achieving small wins immediately. They’re not six-month or even quarterly goals. They’re tiny, five-minute, one-hour, one-day goals. And they’ll give you the momentum and confidence to work up to quarterly or bi-annual goals, says Thompson.

It may sound counterintuitive, but the key to getting extraordinary results is to go small rather than big. Take the pressure off of yourself to accomplish heroic feats each day.


Whether you already like to set big, annual goals and struggle to reach them, or you don’t yet have a regular goal-setting approach, try starting small. Set one embarrassingly tiny goal and start working towards it. Take notice of how your motivation increases as you get closer to your goal.

Then, use that momentum to set a slightly bigger goal. Each goal you achieve will reinforce your self-efficacy, so your belief in your ability to reach your goals will increase as the size of your goals does. Just remember not to go too big—small goals more often and lots of small wins along the way are key.

Sign Up for the Newsletter

Want to learn more about spending your time well and doing more meaningful work? Get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

Belle B. Cooper

Belle is an iOS developer, writer, and co-founder of Melbourne-based software company Hello Code. She writes about productivity, lifehacks, and finding ways to do more meaningful work.