To make anything happen, start small

For some reason this is one of the hardest concepts for us to nail as human beings: big, important, and impressive achievements take time. They don’t happen overnight. It wouldn’t make sense if they did. They wouldn’t even be big and impressive and important if they did.

Things like that take more than just time. They take effort, and growth, and failure.

Now of course, these are platitudes; things we all know. Things we’re taught in primary school. Something you’d expect to read at the bottom of one of those old motivational posters with a mountain climber or a kitten on it.

So why do we consistently act like it’s not true? Why do we expect results—exciting, world-changing results at that—to happen at the first instance of effort? As soon as we pick up the pen and start writing, we expect sonnets and symphonies to flow onto the page. In reality, realistically speaking, you’d be lucky to get chicken scratch. Anything beyond that is an act of divine intervention.

You’d think it would be easier for us to absorb that information. To deeply understand it. And, you would hope, take some pressure off ourselves.

But, as you also know, we’re simple creatures. And we sometimes underestimate the extent to which our simplistic nature can affect our lives, and make us forget about our simple nature in the process, reminding ourselves of our delusions of grandeur and ensuring we forget our limitations—it’s all very powerful and very deceptive.

Today, we set the record straight—again. The way to make anything happen is to start small.

And while we’re at it, there are some actionable strategies you can use to change the emphasis of your work. Less sweeping gestures and high expectations. More baby steps.

Big vs. Small


When it comes to goal setting, there are generally two camps: those who aim for the stars with big, ambitious goals, and those who take smaller, incremental steps towards improvement. Take Elon Musk aiming for Mars versus James Clear, author and good habit guru, beginning with just a few pushups daily.

Now, the burning question: which approach to goal setting reigns supreme?

The quick answer? It’s not so straightforward.

Folks setting lofty goals may be reaching for the stars, yet they could also be setting themselves up for potential setbacks. On the flip side, those focusing on smaller goals might seem to aim low, but they might be tapping into the remarkable power of consistent progress, like achieving a 1% improvement every day.

The right strategy for goal-setting ultimately hinges on your individual traits, inclinations, and, naturally, your habits and routines.

So, how do you figure out whether you’re better off chasing big dreams or making incremental gains? Let’s dive in and find out.

The problem with setting large goals from the start


Distinguishing between setting a grand and modest goal involves more than choosing different planning techniques; it requires recognizing the mental and emotional stamina needed to sustain such ambitions.

It’s a breeze to envision ambitious objectives, but the real challenge lies in staying committed to them. Many of us spend years chasing monumental goals, aiming for the stars with the fallback plan of landing on the moon. But despite lofty aspirations, you might often find yourself grounded at the launchpad, unable to even begin the journey.

For many, the issue with grand goals isn’t their initial setting—they’re undoubtedly thrilling and motivating. Rather, the stumbling block arises during the execution phase.

Grand, audacious goals are often so daunting that a single setback can derail progress entirely, or we hype them up so much that taking the first step seems insurmountable.

Sonia Thompson, the founder of TRY Business School, aptly points out that lofty goals can backfire:

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

While chasing blindly after big dreams might be tantalizing, soon it becomes clear that, while smaller goals may lack the wow factor, they’re far easier to sustain and yield tangible results.

The secret power of baby steps

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There’s real magic in the art of achieving those little victories consistently. Think about it: smaller goals are like bite-sized triumphs that we can revel in more frequently. And each time we hit one, it’s like stacking building blocks for progress, constantly leveling up.

(Science backs this up too! According to “The Progress Principle,” witnessing steady advancement is the ultimate fuel for motivation and inspiration!)

But what does this look like in action? Fitness is a great example.

You could dive headfirst into a hardcore gym routine or sign up for daily kickboxing sessions. But instead, maybe you opt for something simpler: 50 kettlebell swings a day, maybe.

Start with the ten-pound bell. In the realm of strength training, ten pounds is light. It’s like starting with the appetizer when most would recommend diving straight into the main course. But starting small is the name of our game now.

By setting this modest goal, you could,

  • Steer clear of burning out by avoiding excessive strain
  • Learn proper form before falling victim to “ego lifting” (lifting heavy with bad form)
  • Bask in a sense of achievement with each set of 50 swings
  • Cultivate the confidence to embrace more intense strength workouts down the road

Sure, it might not be as flashy as 100 swings with a hefty 75-pound kettlebell. But by kicking off with a manageable challenge, you can give yourself the runway to rack up small victories and gather momentum. And as that momentum propels you forward, what was once a tiny goal will naturally evolve into something much grander.

In essence, it’s all about the gradual climb towards greatness. Starting small, and letting time and effort do the rest.

The case for small goals, and an unlikely example

Let’s take a glimpse into the world of video games for a case study on the effectiveness of setting small, achievable goals. The video game industry is massive, boasting revenues in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Much of its success can be attributed to the principle we’ve just discussed.

You might surprised to learn—especially if you’re not the video game type—that Pokémon (yes, Pokémon) is a wonderful example of small goal progression in the service of chasing a massive overarching goal.

You begin with a single, modest Pokémon and gradually build your strength by battling other trainers, capturing new Pokémon, and leveling up your team.

With each small achievement, your motivation grows, propelling you forward until you ultimately conquer formidable challenges like defeating the Elite Four, capturing elusive creatures like Mewtwo, and then stowing away your Game Boy once more, albeit temporarily.

Whether in the game or in life, success isn’t about diving headfirst into the most daunting trials from the get-go. It’s about embracing the journey of incremental growth.

Each little win adds up, making you stronger, more confident, and ready to tackle bigger challenges. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the daunting task ahead, just focus on taking one step at a time. Every small achievement builds momentum, bringing you closer to that lofty goal you dreamt of.

Starting with smaller goals paved the way for my success. So while ambitious goals certainly have their place, it’s best to begin with achievable milestones and gradually push yourself further.

How to set small goals in your life


One common challenge folks face is that thinking small can actually be quite tough. Those little goals that contribute to your growth and progress often seem too simple. Yet, trying to leap too far ahead too fast can lead to burnout and a loss of motivation.

The key is to commit to regular, bite-sized goals and be okay with that. But what exactly do these smaller goals look like?

Let’s take a look at some great examples:

Running a Marathon:

  • Not-so-helpful goal: Run a marathon in six months.
  • Better, smaller goal: Aim to run one mile every day, five days a week.


  • Not-so-helpful goal: Visit every state in the US within the year.
  • Better, smaller goal: Make it a goal to explore one new state each month.

Growing Plants:

  • Not-so-helpful goal: Plant an entire vegetable garden within two weeks.
  • Better, smaller goal: Start off by purchasing just one plant and focus on keeping it alive for three months before adding more to your collection.

By breaking things down into these manageable steps, you’ll find it much easier to stay motivated and make progress toward your larger aspirations.

When it comes to setting small goals, it’s crucial that they’re attainable and adaptable. This adaptability is key because our goals often evolve over time.

Imagine aiming to visit every state in the US within a year, only to find yourself exhausted after hitting just eight states. What do you do then? Do you give up entirely or force yourself to push through?

Neither option is ideal.

On the flip side, setting a smaller goal, like exploring just one state in a month, offers much-needed flexibility. If you enjoy your visit, you can decide whether to continue with the same goal next month, tweak it, or move on altogether.

As Dorie Clark, a respected professional speaker, points out, the essence of goal-setting isn’t merely about ticking off tasks we set ages ago. Instead, it’s about mastering the right kind of significant goals—ones that can truly transform our lives. Achieving such goals requires a willingness to regularly challenge assumptions and adjust course as needed.

Starting small isn’t a bad thing—in fact it’s everything

Starting small is totally fine. Whether you decide to aim for the stars or just a bit closer to home, the important thing is that you’re taking action. Your future self will definitely appreciate the effort you’re putting in right now.

Think of it this way: you can shoot for the stars, or you can aim for something a bit more within reach, like the troposphere (that’s the first layer of the atmosphere, by the way).

No matter where you set your sights, you’ll end up farther along than if you hadn’t aimed at all. And here’s the cool part: you don’t have to commit to just one approach. Try going big, try going small, and see which feels right for you. Then, stick with what works best.

Here’s a suggestion: experiment with yourself. Set a small goal and see if it keeps you motivated. If not, go ahead and aim for the moon.

Test things out, explore new ideas, and enjoy the journey. After all, it’s your time to shine—whether you’re reaching for outer space or just reaching a little higher than before.

Robin Copple

Robin Copple is a writer and editor from Los Angeles, California.

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