Why small goals are the secret to big success (and how to set smaller goals)

When it comes to goal setting, there are two types of people–those that set large goals and those that set small goals. (Think Elon Musk going to Mars versus author and bodybuilder James Clear doing a few pushups a day.

The question is: Which goal-setting tactic is better? 

The short answer is: It depends. 

The large goal-setters are chasing their biggest dreams, but could also easily be setting themselves up for failure. While the small goal-setters could be selling themselves short but also might see the incredible compounding benefits of getting 1% better every day. 

The right goal-setting tactic will depend on your personality, preferences, and, of course, habits and routines. 

So how do you know if you should be setting large or small goals? Let’s find out. 

This is a guest post by Corey Fradin–the Founder of QuickBooost where he helps you do more with your time (productivity, goal setting, that kind of thing). His passion for goal setting has led to him helping countless individuals finally achieve their goals.

Inspiration vs. action: The problem with setting large goals from the start

Setting a large goal vs. a small goal requires different methods of planning, strategy, and implementation. But that’s not all. Like most things in life, our ability to stick with large goals requires mental and emotional energy as much as strategy and planning. 

It’s easy to set a large goal, but sticking with it? That’s a whole other story. 

Personally, I tried doing the massive-goal-setting thing for years. As cliche as it sounds, I wanted to shoot for the stars so that if I failed I would land on the moon.

But when I did set massive goals for myself, I wouldn’t get close to the moon… In fact, I wouldn’t even make it off the launchpad. 

For me, and many other people, the problem with setting large goals isn’t in setting them–they’re exciting and inspiring after all. The problem is in the followthrough. 

Large, massive, audacious goals are usually such a huge undertaking that only a few things need to go wrong before you completely get off the rails and give up. Or we build them up so much in our minds that we can’t even get started!

As Sonia Thompson, founder of TRY Business School, explains, large goals are often a recipe for failure:

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

I loved chasing my big dreams but quickly realized that, while small goals aren’t as impressive to talk about, they’re much easier to stick with and see real results from.

The power of incremental increases

There’s a special power in setting and consistently hitting small goals.

Small goals are easier to achieve on a regular basis, which means we can set them more often, build off them, and constantly see ourselves getting better. 

(This has all sorts of benefits in itself. According to The Progress Principle, seeing regular progress is the most motivating and inspiring thing you can do!)

So what does a small goal look like in practice?

Recently, I decided to focus on building my strength–something I’ve neglected for years (having preferred cardio over anything else).

I could’ve committed to going to the gym 5X a week or destroying myself with daily kickboxing classes. But instead, I set a goal of 50 kettlebell swings a day, four days a week. 

Now, you may be thinking: 50 swings seems like a lot, Corey. Are you sure that’s not a large goal? 

On the surface, it may seem that way… until I tell you how much weight I’m using.

I only use a ten-pound kettlebell for my workout.

If you’re not familiar with strength training or kettlebell swings, ten pounds is light. About two-to-three times lighter than most fitness experts recommend starting with. However, I don’t care. I’m starting small.

By setting a small, achievable goal, I:

  • Don’t hit burnout by pushing myself too hard
  • Feel accomplished each time I do my 50 swings
  • Build confidence to do more strength training in the future

It may not be as impressive as doing 100 swings a day with a 75-pound kettlebell. However, by starting small, I give myself the chance to gain small wins and build momentum. And as my momentum pushes me forward, my once small goal will naturally grow into a much larger one.

In other words, I like to build up to greatness. To start with something manageable and from there scale it up with time.

A case study for small goals: The billion-dollar videogame industry

One of the best places to see the power of small, incremental goals is to look at video games. 

Video games are a hundred billion-dollar industry. And it’s mostly thanks to what we’ve just been talking about. Here’s what I mean. 

I played a lot of Pokemon as a kid.

From the time I was around five, well into my teens, and even still to this day, I love Pokemon. I’m not as into it as I used to be, but I still enjoy pulling out my Game Boy Advance SP and throwing in some Pokemon Red when I’m back home visiting my parents.

*Stay with me, this is relevant.*

What I realized recently is one of the main reasons I’ve stuck with Pokemon for so long is that it’s all about incremental gains.

quote about setting small goals

You start small with just one weak Pokemon (shoutout to Charmander). From there, you fight other trainers, catch other pokemon, and level up your team. 

Each small goal builds your motivation and pushes you to keep playing until you defeat the Elite Four, catch a Mewtwo, and put your Game Boy back in the dusty bin under your bed.

In life and in Pokemon, you don’t start the game by challenging the toughest foes. 

Each small goal helps you get stronger, become more confident, and be able to try more challenging things. Even better, you know what needs to get done next to help you progress. 

Rather than getting overwhelmed staring off at the top of a mountain you want to climb, all you need to do is put one foot in front of the other. 

Each small goal stacks up. And before you know it, you’re steps away from the big, audacious goal you originally thought up.. 

Here’s another example: one of my current goals is to consistently read two books a month. 

Now for me, that is a large goal. However, I’m only able to achieve it because of the experience I’ve gained from years of setting smaller reading goals.

In years past I would read one, maybe two books a month tops.

Today, I far surpass my current monthly reading goal and clear about four books a month on average. I do a lot to make that happen, but that’s for another time. The argument I’m trying to make, though, is that I wouldn’t fare nearly as well had I started with something more ambitious.

In fact, starting with a larger goal would have likely resulted in me giving up after the first few weeks.

So while large goals do have a place, and you can certainly set some every once and awhile, you would be better served by starting with small goals and working your way up from there.

How to set small goals in your own life

So, you’re ready to set some small goals for yourself. I like it. 

The problem most people have is that it’s actually harder to think smaller. The small goals that will help you grow and compound often feel too easy. But pushing yourself too far, too quickly, is a quick way to burnout and lose motivation. 

Instead, you need to commit to regular, small goals and be okay with that. So what do those look like? 

Here are some great examples of goals that you could test out:

Running a marathon

  • NO: Run a marathon in six months.
  • YES (Small goal): Run one-mile a day, five days a week.

Travelling 

  • NO: Visit every state in the US within the year.
  • YES (Small goal): Visit one new state this month.

Growing plants

  • NO: Plant an entire vegetable garden within two weeks.
  • YES (Small goal): Buy one plant and keep it alive for three months before buying any others.

The key factors of a small goal are that they’re achievable and flexible. 

That last part is especially important, as our goals often change over time

If you want to visit every state in the US this year, you may hit eight of them and then get sick of traveling.

But what then? Give up? Or slog through the rest?

It’s not a great position to put yourself in.

On the other hand, setting a smaller goal like visiting just one state this month gives you a lot of flexibility. Because if you go to one state and enjoy it, you can either do that same goal the next month or adjust it or be done with it altogether.

As professional speaker Dorie Clark says, the point of goals isn’t to just complete tasks we blindly set 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.”

There’s nothing wrong with starting small

Whether you decide to go big or small with your goals, the fact that you’re taking any initiative is powerful and your future self will thank you for the hard work you put in today.

You can aim for the stars or you can aim for the troposphere (the first layer of the atmosphere). 

Wherever you decide to point yourself towards, you’ll end up further than had you not aimed at all. And remember, you don’t need to lock yourself into one approach over the other. Try out both. See which type yields the best results and then make that your go-to moving forward.

I’m all about small goals, but I never would have realized that had I not first tried out large ones. So create an experiment for yourself. Set a small goal and see if it motivates you to stick with it. If not, shoot for the moon. 

Test things out, try out new ideas, and enjoy your time in space.

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