Big goals are exciting. The problem is that we often set the bar too high and ask too much of ourselves. And when we have trouble keeping up with the level of activity required to meet the new high standard we’ve set for ourselves, our confidence takes a big hit.
So here’s our alternative approach: small, tangible goals, more often. Research has shown that our ability to make progress can increase or decrease our confidence. 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 we achieve lots of small wins? Small goals, of course!
Small goals can be easier to achieve, help boost our confidence when we reach them, and help us build good habits all at the same time. Setting smaller goals for shorter time periods allows you to be more flexible and 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. It also doesn’t give you leeway for when things in life happen to get in the way.
The power of getting goal gradient
Small goals 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!
For example, people often buy coffee from the same place and participate in loyalty programs that give you one free coffee after buying 10. As we get closer to that free coffee, studies have shown that we’ll buy coffee more often to achieve the goal of getting a free one just because we’re “one step closer”. The same principle can be applied to a myriad of scenarios.
While you probably don’t want to trick yourself into buying more coffee, you can use the benefits of the goal gradient on yourself by setting smaller goals more often. Make your goals more tangible and faster and easier to achieve and you’ll be able to chain a lot of small wins together to make more progress overall.
Let’s end with a tangible goal example:
Big goal: I want to be in the best shape of my life by the end of 2020.
Problems with this goal: What does “best shape” mean? How do you know when you’ve achieved “it”? What happens if after a year you’re actually in really good shape but it’s still not “the best” or “enough”?
Small tangible goal with big picture: I want to be in better shape and here are a few things I think are keeping me back
- A few extra pounds from over the years has me feeling a little slower and more sluggish. I would like to lose a few pounds consistently over the next few months. What does a few pounds look like?
- Weight loss comes from cleaning up my eating habits and being more consistent with my nutrition. A few pounds of weight loss to me looks like 1) cutting out sugar 3x a week, 2) adding vegetables to one meal per day, 3) no alcohol for the next two weeks. Whatever weight loss comes from these few small changes I will accept as a win and then reassess!
- Fitness goals: For the next two weeks, I want to consistently make it to the gym 3x a week. Once I achieve this, I will shoot for 4x a week if it makes sense for my lifestyle. I want to find myself enjoying working out and it isn’t interfering with my ability to be social or work.