The Brilliance Of Small Goals: Why ‘Dreaming Big’ Is Holding You Back

What if this obsession with thinking big is the exact thing holding us back from accomplishing our dreams?

If you’ve ever had something like ‘renovate the house’ or ‘finish writing book’ on your to-do list, you’ve probably experienced something called ‘the Zeigarnik Effect’.

Named after the psychologist who first investigated it – Bluma Zeigarnik – it is essentially the tendency for your scumbag brain to nag you about all the unfinished business you have.

You’re going to the beach with your mates? Let me remind you about that assignment you have to hand in on Monday.

You may have never previously thought of these somewhat ‘random rememberings’ in this way before. However, once you understand this unconscious system, you’ll be on your way to a happier life.

Procrastination is pretty normal

For small tasks and odd jobs, this background brain nagging isn’t so bad. However, your brain doesn’t know the difference between your intention to ‘finish writing your book’ and your intention to ‘take the bins out’. All it knows is that you said that you wanted to do it. Once you’ve set the intention, the thought processes continue until it’s done. No-take-backsies, as they say.

Where this becomes problematic is when you have big, hairy, audacious goals on your to-do list. But even moderately sized goals, such as organising for your car to be serviced, can create stress – it depends on the level of complexity and amount of moving parts.

Anything sufficiently complex (involving multiple processes), or complicated (requiring you to really think about it and prepare yourself) can throw a spanner in the works when it comes to crossing things off your list.

Don’t have time to finish painting the house this weekend? You’re probably going to put it off – fairly legitimately. We don’t procrastinate because we are bad people or because we’re lazy (lazy days are totally allowed); we often procrastinate because we think about the ‘job to be done’ and then evaluate our capability to do it. We decide we’re not ready/don’t have everything we need/don’t have the time, and decide to do it later.

What we don’t realise is that we’re thinking about our goals the wrong way, to start with.

Small goals = great success

Size really does matter. Stop thinking so big. Sure; have dreams, dream big, change the damn world! Just break that down into bite-sized pieces so you actually have a chance of doing it.

Most of the anxiety in our lives comes from the gap between what we want our life to be like and what it’s like today. But success is not an outcome, it’s a habit.

Make a habit of getting shit-done – small goals, quick wins – and in a year you’ll be crushing it at life.

In other words: smaller goal = lower risk = higher chance of accomplishment = motivation for the next step.

Re-program your thinking

Think about every little step involved in getting your task done. Even the simple things are often more complicated and complex than we realise. Break it down; flow chart that thing if you want to, as visual thinking helps a lot.


These are your new goals. Stuff that looks like the following:

–Drive to Bunnings, buy paint.
Hells yeah! I can totally do that! In fact, I’m driving past a Bunnings right now, woah – achievement and efficiency. I didn’t even plan that and I’m already winning at life.

–Read three articles, write down what they are about and how they are different
Only three? Pfft. I could probs read ten tonight, but sure – I’ll knock three out and then grab a beer with the lads.

You, my friend, are already on your way to having finished painting the house and finishing your assignment. No stress here.

How to break down your goals

The core concept here is that you want to break your goals down into smaller bite sized pieces. So how can you do it?

#1 How many ‘steps’ are involved in getting to your goal?
Hint: if its more than one, split it up

#2 Now that you have each of your small – achievable – goals down, think about how smart they are.

SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-bound
(NB. You’ve already completed the ‘A’ by breaking your goals down into smaller ones. #winning)

#3 Schedule some goal-kicking
You don’t have time to get stuff done, you make time to get stuff done. Once your goals are realistic and achievable, you should be able to schedule in time to actually get them done. Think about it like this: are you managing stuff today, or are you making or doing stuff today?

#4 You even outsource your accountability
There are some good reasons to tell someone else about the goals you have, for one thing it might be helpful to have someone who can check in with you and help you along if you get stuck – particularly if your goal relates to work. If you’re particularly hard to motivate, you might even like to take a wager against yourself (in the name of charity, of course). Promise or Pay is a great example of this.

#5 Or keep it to yourself
On the other hand, there is some pretty legit science building up that suggests you should keep your goals to yourself – mainly because as soon as we tell someone about the goals we have, we get a little kick of self-satisfaction (think about that feeling you get when you get those unexpected likes on Insta: pretty nice; not going to change anything, though). The problem is that this little kick of satisfaction makes you less likely to actually chase down your goal, because hey, you’re already reaping the social rewards of sounding like a goal-oriented kinda person.

The moral of the story is, big goals and dreams usually stay that way – but if you break them down, schedule in time to action them, and hold yourself accountable in the best way for your personality type, then you’re sure to engage in a solid goal kicking session.

Hold me closer, tiny goals.

Ben works at the intersection of culture, technology, design and strategy. He is a Strategy Designer at Business Models Inc where he helps organisations better understand how they create, deliver and capture value through Business Models Generation & Value Proposition Design. Catch him on Twitter @benhamley.