Why I Prefer Small, Easy Goals Over Big, Hairy Ones

As I work on my current book, I’ve discovered something about me: I prefer smaller, fish-in-a-barrel sorts of goals over big, audacious, daring goals. I know the typical Live a Good Story sort of advice says to shoot for hairy goals that force you out of your comfort zone, but when it comes to almost every area of my life, it seems like small, do-able goals end up much more effective.

When I first started working on this book, I made daily goals of 5,000 words. I cleared out my work day, and for whatever reason, I figured it’d be a piece of cake. My posts here average 800-1,000 words, so that writing goal amounts to only five to six blog posts per day. No big deal. I’m a fast writer.

But then I remembered: my writing is crap after 2 p.m., no matter how looming the deadline. Even when I’m totally in the Zone, I really only have about 3,000 words per day, max, percolating inside me. After that, and I’m tapped.

Know what I did? I shifted my daily goals to 2,000 words per day (special circumstances notwithstanding). Once I did that, I easily hit 3,000 words, and occasionally a bit more. When I aimed for twice that, I’d only get about a thousand words in before discouragement would tell me to toss in the towel.

It’s more encouraging for me to blow an easy goal out of the water rather than almost meet an audacious one.

I think this has to do with my preference for small. A big, hairy goal feels like asking me to reach beyond what I’m capable of doing with what I have in front of me—and that’s the very ethos of small, slow, simple living: to do what you’re called to do with what you have.

Reaching for the stars feels like fruitlessly trying to grab at more than what I’m meant to have.

Small goals acknowledge my humanity, and I like living in full awareness of my humanity. Write a book? That’s big. But write 2,000 words a day? I can do that, plus get enough sleep and hang out with my kids when they get home.

It’s why I like the kaizen approach to setting goals. Waking up earlier, two minutes earlier a day? No problem. But this time next month, I’m up a full hour earlier than I was, and I barely felt the pain.

As you pursue that thing in your life right now (you know what it is), maybe consider a smaller approach, not a bigger one. That whole slow-and-steady thing turns out to be pretty true: small, do-able goals, a bit at a time, add up to a finish line with your humanity fully intact.

Sounds good to me.

p.s. – This is why I talk about quarterly goals instead of annual ones in Like Your Life.

Reading Time:

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16 Comments

  1. Chris Muller

    Hey Tsh – just came across your blog and I gotta say, I love this idea. I think we get so wrapped up in setting huge goals that we’re really only setting ourselves up for failure… or just boredom. It’s like when we clean our house… The entire house is a mess and looking at cleaning all of it makes me want to puke. Instead, we try to break it up into really small goals just so we can make SOME progress. For example, maybe just wipe down the bathroom or pick up all the stuff off the floor in the living room. I mean REALLY small goals. We both work 40-50 hours a week and have a baby on the way, so our time is only going to get more limited. Thanks for the inspiration 🙂

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Absolutely. I have to remind myself about this with my kids ALL THE TIME—”clean your room,” and it almost never happens. But when I give them a checklist – ‘pick up the trash,’ ‘make your bed,’ ‘put away your books,’ and it’s done with almost zero complaints. Wouldn’t it be the same for us?

      Thanks for popping by, Chris.

  2. Audra

    I totally agree and made this same change in my own life recently… I bought a fitbit several months ago and the default step goal was 10,000 steps a day. I left it at this goal because I know that is an amout recommended by health professionals. But I found it almost impossible to reach that goal and eventually stopped trying and settled on the 2,500 steps I usually hit during the course of a “regular” day. I recently decided to change my goal to 5,000 steps and now hit it almost every day!!

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Yes! Know exactly what you mean when it comes to fitness goals…. I’m much better with easily surpassing a mile than not getting halfway towards 3 miles. I know it’s all psychological, but it really does help.

  3. Carrie Willard

    I so agree, and my husband and I often use the reminder “kaizen” in conversations. Small goals don’t create the internal resistance, sabotage and pain that big ones do. They’re sustainable over time as you learn to seamlessly integrate them.

    Some goals do work best with big, fast, hard approaches: getting out of debt comes to mind.

    • Tsh Oxenreider

      Internal resistance is exactly right, Carrie. And yes, getting out of debt is a big goal, but I’d argue it works better to break that down into smaller ones: pay off the first one, and then the next, and then the next (a la debt snowball, etc.). So even with big goals, I think it psychologically helps to make smaller ones within that big picture goal.

  4. julie

    I love this reminder and affirmation. I run a home business with my husband, have a couple of old dogs (my buds) + a small garden and chickens. The kids are all grown and on their own, so this is the day I was waiting for when I thought I would “get it all done”. Instead I realize that time has slowed me down some. It takes me twice as long to get 1/2 as much accomplished. Looking forward to keeping my Humanity in tact. Thanks.

  5. Kaitlin Curtice

    I REALLY loved reading this today. Isn’t it funny how we go our whole lives and then all of the sudden, we realize something about ourselves? And I am totally with you, because I was just thinking today about how I never reach my goals, because I make the jumps so ridiculously high for myself.
    Thanks for reminding me that I’m not the only one, and giving me some hope for tomorrow’s goals. 🙂

  6. Caroline Starr Rose

    5,000 words?? I’m having a heart attack over here!!!

  7. Linda Sand

    I think that’s why the Whole 30 didn’t work for me. Too many changes all at the same time. I could give up bread or pasta or sweets but not all at once. I could increase the amount of vegetables I ate but not all the way to two cups at every meal on day one. My body rebelled quite ferociously.

  8. Elisa

    I do little goals too. I limit my to do list to only three items each day. I find it much less frustrating, especially since sometime I don’t even manage to do that. Once I started doing that, my level of crazy got much more manageable.

  9. Suzie

    Tsh, this is so right on. Loved the post. This is absolutely true for me as well. I do better at making small changes, working toward small goals, piggy-backing new habits on already established ones. Slow down, keep it simple, add a good habit before trying to get rid of a bad one. (Boy just one cliche after another there!) I had the unfortunate experience of sharing a small win (that had led to a big win) with some former co-workers, who actually laughed in my face, telling me boy is that stupid. I considered the source (one was fired shortly after). I wasn’t hurt just surprised at the unprofessional and quite frankly childish behavior. So good to know I am not the only one who feels this way. THANKS for being so honest and sharing.

  10. Krista

    I so appreciate this post this morning. I am definitely a lover of slow & simple but as I start a small business I feel internal pressure to push myself, grow quickly, etc. But ultimately, I don’t want to do this work if it causes me to live inauthentically- or out of alignment with my primary values and desires.

  11. Hannah@SeeingtheLovely

    What a great observation, Tsh! It is so easy to set ourselves up to fail with giant goals looming over our heads. I wonder if some of the problem is not that the goals are too big, but that we expect them too soon. For instance, you have a goal of writing a book, which is a HUGE goal, but you aren’t writing it in a week! Just 2000 words a day. By breaking it up into tiny steps that you can actually take, and giving yourself TIME to do it, you will accomplish your goal.
    Most goals take time and patience, we can’t have everything now. But I like how you motivate yourself to continue by finding that ideal place where you are able to complete the small goal and give yourself a sense of accomplishment and ability to actually do it.
    Thanks for such a good post!

  12. Linda

    Love this! This is definitely more me. I find it more satisfying knowing I will hit my smaller goals than aiming for that big one. And even more reasons to celebrate 🙂

  13. Lori

    Love this perspective. Thanks, Tsh.

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