The power of tiny goals

maria bridge
Jan 3, 2017 · 6 min read

A fun, illustrated, and practical guide to hack your way to habit change.

If you set New Year’s resolutions, I have one question for you:

If you’re registering above a 3, I’m humbly going to suggest a different approach: make your goals a whole lot smaller.

This is the time of year that we’re all reflecting on where we are, and where we want to be — with our health, our careers, our relationships. It’s human to want to start clean and make audacious projects. But it’s a recipe for failure.

Where habit change goes wrong

Habit change on the surface is pretty straightforward. You pick a desired behavior, one that presumably will produce some favorable outcome. You decide, “Hey, I’m going to do that thing” and then you do it. Your brain releases dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter. This increases your mood, and makes you want to do it again. You repeat the behavior, and one day, you have a habit.

Simple in theory, but we know it rarely works that way. Why? There are 3 issues we run into.

1. We lack capability

Our intended behavior requires something — physical ability, time, money, resources, connections, training, equipment, etc. — we don’t currently have.

For example, if you want to run 10 miles a day when you’ve been clocking zero, you most likely lack the physical ability to run that far repeatedly without injury.

2. We lack motivation

We might feel intimidated, distracted, anxious, or simply bored. Or we could realize we don’t care all that much about what we’re trying to accomplish.

3. We lack awareness

Sometimes, we forget to do what we intended. The baseline motivation is there, and the capabilities are there, but it just slips our mind.

Don’t fall into the doom loop

What all this adds up to is that in order to follow through on a desired behavior, we need the right combination of capabilities, motivation, and awareness. If you think about it, that’s actually a kind of tall order. And that’s just to do it once! To make a habit stick, it takes a lot of repeated interactions in different circumstances.

Behavior = (right capability + right motivation + awareness) * (a lot of repeated interactions)

Because these 3 elements are constantly changing (e.g., you’re super short on time today so require more motivation than normal) and because coming off of autopilot is difficult, it’s inevitable that at some point you’re probably going to flub it.

When that happens, we have 2 choices: try again or say “screw it.”

Clearly, if we’re going to be successful, we need to pick Option A.

Unfortunately, even with that correct choice, the result of flubbing our behavior awakens our inner critic.

If it helps, you can imagine your inner critic as an ugly troll, because like any bored internet troll he’s just looking for an argument and negativity.

A tiny inner critic troll.

He’s not so bad when small, but as additional flubs occur, the little inner critic troll gets bigger and more annoying.

He’s also really good at squashing motivation over time, until one day, your motivation passes some threshold and you give up.

At which point you may have accidentally built an insidious habit: when you tell yourself you’re going to do something, you don’t do it. That’s the doom loop.

This poor potato now isn’t sure he can do anything right.

Painfully small goals are the hack

Fortunately, there’s a way out of all this doom and gloom: set uncomfortably small goals.

As a reminder, painfully small goals are just that — painfully small. On our scale of 0 to 10, they rate at a 3 or lower. Of course, what’s painfully small to you could be hugely ambitious to someone else. It’s all relative.

Sample Tiny Goal swap for someone who wants to meditate more.

Painfully small goals might seem silly because their immediate impact is so small. Of course you can beef them up over time (e.g., sit in a meditation spot for 1 minute, then 3 minutes, etc.), but that’s not their real benefit. The real benefit to tiny goals is that they help you to avoid the doom loop.

Why painfully small goals avoid the doom loop

1. They’re more doable. It’s more likely you have the capability, the motivation, and even the awareness to do something small even on a “bad day” than it is to do something grander. That sets you up for repeated success. And repeated, successful interactions is what builds a habit.

2. They release the same feel-good chemicals as a more grandiose goal. Except you’re more likely to get them because you’re more likely to follow through. Bonus: you get an extra boost any time you exceed your tiny goals.

3. They’re less stress-inducing when you do inevitably flub it up. Tiny goals don’t incite the same intensity of inner criticism as a big goal. If you’re repeatedly not doing an uncomfortably small goal, it’s simply a signal that the desired behavior isn’t actually that important to you. And that’s okay.

4. Finally, achieving small goals builds baseline willpower. Not only does this make intuitive sense, but recent neuroscience research is backing it up, indicating that you can reshape your dopamine receptors (which are believed to affect motivation) with slight but persistent behavioral changes.

What that means in plain English, is that you can retrain your brain to believe you can do the things you want to do.

A more positive potato.

Conclusion, tools, and tips

Hopefully, this has been a fun read on habit formation. I love this stuff and have found small goals helpful in my own life, so it’s nice to share.

A few parting tips for making your tiny goals even more likely to succeed:

  1. Tie your desired behavior to an existing behavior (e.g., “I will sit in a meditation spot for 30 seconds immediately after brushing my teeth”). This helps in not forgetting!
  2. Figure out your intrinsic motivation. Ask yourself “why” a few times to uncover what’s really driving your goal. (e.g., “Why do I want to meditate? Because I want to be more present in life.” “Why do I want to be more present? Because I want appreciate small moments with my kids.”)
  3. Create a visual cue. Post-it note memos on bathroom mirrors work great. Write down a) what you’re doing, and b) your “why” from above.
  4. Enlist support! Even if your goal is small, it helps to tell a friend, partner, or coach to make it real.

That’s it! Thanks for reading, and best of luck in your own small steps towards lasting habit change.

You can find more from me here at RadicalLivingProject.org or my newsletter here. High fives!

Inspiration sources: Charles Duhigg, “The Power of Habit”; BJ Fogg’s Behavior Model; Rick Hanson, “Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom”; Teddy Daiell; Stephen Hayes’ ACT Model; Segal, Teasdale & Williams’ MBCT Model; potato character based on GIF by Carpet Shark?

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maria bridge

Written by

Writing on meditation, behavioral psychology, and applied ethics. Stanford MBA, Bain alum, certified Koru Mindfulness teacher.

The Beta Mode

Beta is a phase where we are incomplete, with errors and mistakes being made. It is also a phase where there is rapid learning and experimentation. Being in beta mode is focusing on progress, and not perfection. Here, we embrace beta.