When Smaller Is Better

No matter what goal you’ve set your sights on, mastering little tasks along the way is the key to unlocking success.

 

Ever notice how some of our biggest goals are the ones that fill us with the most dread? Think about it: Nailing a big project at work could fast-track you for a raise, but it also means logging extra hours; increasing your savings puts you closer to your dream home, but it also means more date nights in front of the TV. We all know that the finish line is worth it, but man does it hurt to get there.

Not so fast. Psychologists and other researchers tell us that hitting our goals can be much less stressful (dare we say enjoyable) if we reassess our approach. Here’s how: Start small. That’s it. Think small, as in set aside that larger objective for the time being and turn all the little steps that are necessary to reach the final prize into their own stand-alone milestones. The beauty here is that these mini-goals can be checked off fairly quickly—so you’ll be celebrating lots of successes, instead of dreading the long haul. Are you with us? Great! Now follow these quick pointers and get ready to chop up your big dreams into much more manageable bites.

Pick a well-defined goal. Your first tiny task may sound obvious, but a lot of us have targets that are too vague to achieve success. So it’s really important to know exactly what you want to accomplish. And don’t be afraid to set the bar high; some research has found that establishing higher ambitions leads to greater effort than with lower ambitions. But most important, be specific so you can mark your progress along the way. Saying you want to walk more, for example, is hard to measure. But setting your sights on entering a 5K lets you cycle through several mini-goals as you build your fitness. Psychologists often suggest putting pen to paper as a motivating way to document your progress, plot out your week-to-week strategy, and chart your progress.

Break it down. Large goals are both inspiring and daunting. “I hate it when I do something that actually took a lot of time only to realize that the actual final task isn’t completed,” says Oka Tai-Lee, a website developer in New York City. Tai-Lee now dissects all of her jobs into smaller ones to create a greater sense of accomplishment. She even carries this method home with her, breaking a complex dinner or her house cleaning chores into individual parts that she can literally cross off her list. “I rely on to-do lists to ensure every item is done,” she says. Give her method a try for your own daily, weekly, and monthly goals. These smaller achievements keep your motivation up as you work toward your final objective.

Face failure before it happens. One of the surest ways to give up is to feel the impact of a setback. If you’re striving for a goal you haven’t been able to complete before—maybe it’s losing 20 pounds or saving $500—look at roadblocks you may hit before you get started. This way you can come up with some strategies for how to address them. This won’t just help you avoid a letdown; it’ll give you a sense of accomplishment along the way.

Share your success—no matter how small. As you’re hitting those mini-goals, don’t be shy about bragging. We all need a little pat on the back sometimes! And research has shown that positive feedback makes it more likely you’ll reach your target. Supporters can be close family or friends, or you can tap into social networks or online communities like Mindful’s Forums for a confidence boost. The best part? When you finally do reach your big goal, you’ll have a group of supporters who are excited to congratulate you on a job well done.

Reward yourself along the way. As satisfying as it can be to cross items off your to-do list or hit a benchmark, there’s nothing quite like a reward to keep you on track. When you hit different milestones look for small ways to celebrate your successes. Some ideas? Set out your own tip jar, where you drop in a buck every time you advance. (Make sure you place it somewhere visible like near your keys so you can watch the money pile up.) Or treat yourself to a fancy coffee drink, a movie marathon, a personal training session, or even a new purchase. Just save something you’d consider a big splurge for when (that’s right, when!) you reach the final prize.

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