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7 Actionable Steps to Think Small [But Achieve Big Goals!]


Get the Basics…

  • Think in terms of small actionable steps you can take to achieve your goals
  • Science isn’t just for rocket ships and workouts — don’t be afraid to tap into science to build better goals
  • Weaved into several of the steps is the idea of involving others in your process — from your bright lines to public commitments to feedback to sharing

Our team is committed to “Start Small. Think Big. Go Deep,” so we love learning more about better goal setting for bigger returns. In a recent episode of Freakonomics “Big Returns from Thinking Small,” Owain Service and Rory Gallagher talk about thinking small for big returns.

They are proponents of taking your long-term goals and breaking them down into small achievable steps. As with many things, the devil is in the details, so if you think small in terms of these different achievable components then you can also achieve your big goals.

This approach to seeing big returns on goal achievement follows a seven-step path.

#1 – Set a goal

Our team meets for bi-weekly sprint planning where we determine what we want to achieve over the next two weeks. However you choose to set your goals, make sure they are actionable and realistic.

You aren’t likely to create a billion-dollar business in one year, so don’t make that your goal. However, you might be able to increase your clients by 25 percent.

#2 – Make a plan

We have several tools we use to codify our plans (like Asana). It doesn’t matter necessarily what you use. What is important is that there’s a bright line if you break your plan. 

In the interview, Service shares his goal of wanting to consume less alcohol during the week. His plan, therefore, was to not drink during the week at home. His “bright line” would be easy to spot: Was he pouring himself a glass of wine at home during the week?

Gallagher’s plan is to go to the gym and work out more, but he often finds himself tired after work. He wrote on the work board that he would go to the gym twice a week and recruited Service to hold him accountable.

#3 – Make a commitment

Your commitment must have a deadline. An example of a bad commitment would be “I want to increase my clients.” On the flip side, a good commitment would be “I want to increase my clients by 25 percent over the next six months.”

A bad commitment doesn’t give you a clear measure if you’ve succeeded or failed. It doesn’t provide you a way to take inventory and re-assess your methods.

Often commitments made public help motivate us, so make the commitment a team-wide effort and talk through how each member of the team can help the business achieve the goal.

#4 – Reward

Put something at stake with your reward, but be careful of blowback. Temptation Bundling is a major component of reward. For example, you might reward following through on your challenging goal with something you love.

If you hate doing the paperwork at the end of a quarter, maybe allow yourself to buy a new album to listen to while you do it. Or indulge in your favorite sweet treat on paperwork day.

The example Katie Milkman gives is fantastic (watch the video above to see her coin and define the term “temptation bundling”) — if you know you should visit a family member who’s difficult to deal with, maybe treat yourself to your favorite restaurant when you visit them.

On the other hand, you can also use punishment in a similar way. For example, let’s say you want to stay committed to keeping your schedule at work. You’re terrible at follow-through, so you make a public commitment and have a reliable member of your team hold you accountable that when you’re late to meetings or other commitments you’ll treat the entire office to lunch.

It’s important to note that everyone is motivated best in different ways. Financial motivation may be a terrible choice for you. Gallagher mentions a recent study which hit on this (see interview above for more info on how they applied this in government policy):

“There’s really interesting work going on at the minute to try to understand what motivates people, for example, to give blood. And the common hypothesis and some of the evidence seem to be that… you need to appeal to people’s sense of reciprocity and social good in order to encourage people to give blood, and actually putting any sort of financial reward or prize around that would actually squeeze out those intrinsic motivations.”

#5 – Share

Reach out to those who have expertise. Don’t be afraid to use the power of the group. You probably have several people in your social network who could help you, whether it be in small or big ways.

It might just be inviting someone with experience achieving a similar goal out to coffee and picking their brain. Don’t be shy, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

#6 – Feedback

Service says, “Feedback is about knowing where you stand in relation to your goal. … It’s no good to just say, ‘How am I doing?’ You need specific, actionable feedback that enables you to do something with that feedback.”

The key words here are specific and actionable. Part of that will depend on how well you made your plan. Did you have a clear bright line? Was your goal specific enough? The feedback will only be as specific and actionable as your original plan is.

#7 – Stick

Stick requires focused practice with maximum effort. And it also requires an element of learning. You should constantly be testing what you’ve learned from previous commitment/plans against new ideas.

I love the example they give with Angela Duckworth. We’ve talked about her theory of grit previously (see video above for in-depth analysis). She preaches grit through sustained effort and resiliency through challenges and failures.

Bottom line: Stick to your plan but willing to adapt as you learn.


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