Why Small Goals Lead to Big Results

Why are some top-performers seemingly able to do the impossible, while others struggle to change their behaviors for the better? Is it because of willpower? Motivation? Something else?

While it’s tempting to “go big” when setting goals, doing so often puts you at a disadvantage from the start. Successful, long term behavior change comes down to setting small goals and reaching them consistently.

We notice this when users sign up for Gale. Those who tend to come out of the gate with what seems like a rather aggressive target, more often than not, have trouble achieving it in week 1.

So what is the key to reaching your goals? Start small. 

Why Behavior Change Experts Say Starting Small Is Key

Zen and The Science Behind Atomic Habits 

One of the leading experts on behavior and high-performance, James Clear, has written about habits and success for nearly a decade. He is perhaps best known for his New York Times Bestseller Atomic Habits (which we highly recommend you read.)

Clear has long been an advocate for taking a “small” approach to changing your behavior. 

As he notes in his book:

“It is so easy to overestimate the importance of one defining moment and underestimate the value of making small improvements on a daily basis. Too often, we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action.”

When he first began his blog that is now read by millions each month, he focused on publishing two articles each week, which at the time went against the advice to publish more often. 

Set goals that don't rely on motivation spikes.

As Clear further explains in his article The Paradox of Behavior Change

The myth of radical change and overnight success is pervasive in our culture. Experts say things like, “The biggest mistake most people make in life is not setting goals high enough.” Or they tell us, “If you want massive results, then you have to take massive action.” 

The problem with that advice, he argues, is that it just doesn’t map to reality and how humans actually succeed in changing their behavior. 

On the surface, these phrases sound inspiring. What we fail to realize, however, is that any quest for rapid growth contradicts every stabilizing force in our lives… If you step too far outside the bounds of your normal performance, then nearly all of the forces in your life will be screaming to get you back to equilibrium. If you take massive action, then you quickly run into a massive roadblock.”

Going to the gym every day for a few weeks might be motivating in the short term, but in the long term it’s you’re almost guaranteed to burn out and go back to square one. It’s tempting to think you’re different or that with just enough willpower, you can succeed, but time and time again, the science of behavior changes stands true. 

If you focus on small weekly goals, and string together many successful weeks, you'll soon achieve the larger results that you are after.

Leo Babauta, creator of ZenHabits, echoes a similar train of thought. In his article: The 5 Keys to Forming Any Habit he lists “starting small” as #1. 

“I’ve said this a million times on this blog, so you might gloss over this one — but don’t. It’s the most important thing. Do one habit at a time, and do it super small. How small? Just meditate for 2 minutes. Just write for 5 minutes. Just do 5 pushups or 5 sun salutations. Just eat one vegetable a day. If you start small, you remove the resistance to starting, which is the hardest part.”

Doing a few pushups a day consistently is infinitely more effective than doing 100 for a few days in a row and then burning out. In an age of instant gratification, starting small is often much easier said than done but can make all the difference in your success. 

How BJ Fogg Created A Tiny Habits Revolution

BJ Fogg, Ph.D., author of Tiny Habits, and behavior scientist at Stanford University, devotes an entire chapter in his book to the importance of choosing small wins over going for the home run. Ultimately concluding, “easy does it” is the most effective behavior change approach. 

“While small might not be sexy, it is successful and sustainable. When it comes to most life changes that people want to make, big, bold moves actually don’t work as well as small, stealthy ones. Applying go big or go home to everything you do is a recipe for self-criticism and disappointment.”

His insight and work in the field of behavior change have transformed the way millions have viewed changing their habits and behavior and have helped lay the foundation for a behavior change framework that works. 

Whether you’re looking to improve your fitness or start meditating regularly, your behavior is ultimately what determines whether you succeed, and it almost always pays to start small.

Want to start meditating? Start with just a few minutes. Want to start reading more? Commit to reading a few pages each morning to start your day.

We all have the temptation to do more, to push harder. But the key to changing our behavior has never been more clear. 

Listen to the science; your future self will thank you.