How to Achieve Big Goals…One Small Step at a Time

Only 2% of New Year’s resolutions are kept. This means that 98% of all resolutions that people make fall by the wayside.


Is it because the goals weren’t important? Is it because people don’t really want to keep them?

The reason is actually “neither.”

One of the most common reasons that a lot of people get stuck and fail when trying to make a change in their lives or initiate a new behavior is because they bite off a lot more than they can chew, particularly at the beginning.

Success is not something that can achieved overnight, nor does change happen by epiphany, at least not usually.

Everyone, from experts to Monday morning quarterbacks, says that one secret to success is to start small.

That sounds completely reasonable…until you start to ask about how small is small and what does “start” really mean. Here are a few examples of behaviors lots of people would like to initiate or do better on:

  • Run a half- or full marathon
  • Meditate for 30 minutes every day
  • Cook healthy food at home
  • Clean out the clutter in their garage
  • Improve their relationships with family members
  • Cut back on spending

With goals as varied as these, what does “start small” really mean?

Just saying “start small” isn’t enough direction to help someone do all the things it takes to succeed because the things we want to do are often very different.

So what?

The important point to appreciate is that different goals also call for different strategies.

For example, cleaning out your garage requires you to take a series of different steps, while running a marathon is a doing lot of the same; that is, putting one foot in front of the other. The common factor in these two examples is that you’re in control. But what if your goal is to keep your cool when you’re in the car in traffic and people cut you off? In that case, you can’t control the environment or other people, but you can control your reaction.

Looking at these examples, you can see that “start small” may not be enough to guide someone to success. You need to know what small is and how to manage it.

Luckily, there are four strategies you can use to achieve your different kinds of goals. 

  1. Tiny Habits

Tiny Habits is a behavior change method developed by BJ Fogg, a professor at Stanford University. If want to create a habit, a behavior you do routinely and automatically, then Tiny Habits is for you.

Tiny Habits follows the formula, “After I [trigger behavior], then I will [new desired behavior]. Tiny Habits reduces the need to have great motivation, self-control, or will power by making the desired behavior so tiny that it takes almost no effort to do. Tiny Habits also triggers your new, desired behavior with a behavior you already do.

The quintessential example of Tiny Habits is flossing your teeth. If you already brush your teeth everyday (and I sure hope you do!), then your Tiny Habits formula can be: “After I brush my teeth, I will floss one tooth.” How hard could it be to floss just one tooth? Remember: The secret to positive, sustainable behavior change is to reduce the cost in terms of effort, money, time, or social deviance, and link it to something you do already.

Tiny Habits are meant to help you develop habits; that is, behavior that is automatic and that you build into your daily life.

  1. Starter Steps

Likewise, taking small steps allows a person to make progress toward a goal by breaking down the required sequence of behaviors into very tiny increments. For example, if cleaning out the clutter in the garage is what you want to do but have been too overwhelmed to do more than just think about it, or dread it, starter steps could do the trick to propel you forward, as long as you keep those steps super small so they’re easy to do.

Goal: Clean out the garage

Starter step 1: Get 1 bag that you can throw trash into.

Starter step 2: Get 1 box for stuff you want to collect to give away.

Starter step 3: Get 1 box or designate 1 area for stuff you want to keep.

Starter step 4: Choose one small area to “attack” initially.

Starter step 5: Commit to a start date.

Starter step 6: Attack! Choose the easiest 3 items to make a decision about a put each where they belong: give away, trash, or keep.

Starter step 7: Reward yourself with a high five, happy dance, pat on the back, or any other way that will help you recognize that you got a good start on a hard task.

  1. Tiny Version

Tiny versions are exactly that: tiny versions of the desired behavior. Instead of running a full marathon, it means doing a little tiny bit of the “real” thing, such as running to the end of the block. Tiny versions of the desired behavior are great to reach a big goal as long as you start really tiny and keep it tiny.

Unfortunately, too many people don’t appreciate how tiny can be to catapult you to success. How many times have you read that although US federal guidelines recommend 30 minutes of exercise a day for at least 5 days a week, you can begin with just 10 minutes?

For people who are stressed to the max, scheduled up the wazoo, and don’t feel they have a minute to breathe, 10 minutes is a whopping lot of time. Or what about the truly dedicated couch potato? If schlepping between the kitchen, the remote, the car, and the grocery store are about as much exercise as they get, “just” 10 minutes of brisk walking could be way too much.

It’s fine to set a goal of exercising 30 minutes per day, but a tiny version of simply walking back and forth to the mailbox a few times per day may be a great start, particularly if they include a “celebration” and reward themselves with a verbal (Great job!) or physical gesture (fist pump) every time they do it.

Doing something tiny and capitalizing on the brain’s love of reward can be a great start. A few times to the mailbox can expand to a walk to the end of the block and back, which can expand to a walk around the block. Keeping it small and positive can lead to amazing results!

  1. If-Then

If-then is a formula that helps people increase their chances of reaching their goals. If-then was first described by Professor Peter Gollwitzer at New York University and works in many different situations, including those for which you don’t have control.

An example of an if-then statement is “If someone cuts in front of me in traffic, then I’ll remember to take a big breath and relax my shoulders.” You can use “if-then” formulas to increase the deliberate actions you take to reach your goals, such as the example above of staying calm. You can also use “if-then” formulas to overcome obstacles. An example is if I want to stick with my diet and I go to a party over the weekend. I can use if-then in many different ways,

  • “If I have a drink, then I’ll stick with salads and the main course and pass up dessert.”
  • “If I eat everything I want at the party, then I’ll eat veggie soup and salad for dinner tomorrow.”
  • “If they have a choice of steamed broccoli or brussel sprouts in cream sauce, I’ll take the steamed broccoli.”

By using these four strategies to start small and match your strategy to your goal, you’ll boost your chance for successful change. Go tiny!

This article was originally published on


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