Achieve great things by thinking small

subbuteo goal

Instead of trying to create the perfect goal why not set goals you can actually achieve? Here’s a technique to set small goals – ones so trivial and insignificant they appear ridiculous – that can result in great achievements.

Contemplating the empty page

You’ve got a great idea for a novel, the character and plot are fully formed in your head, and you’re excited about getting it on the page. So why haven’t you started writing yet? Successful novelists face the same problem. Let’s hear from John Steinbeck:

“When I face the desolate impossibility of writing 500 pages, a sick sense of failure falls on me, and I know I can never do it. Then gradually, I write one page and then another. One day’s work is all I can permit myself to contemplate.”

Steinbeck’s tactic was to focus on writing one page at a time. This is a tried and tested approach to goal setting – break it down into smaller parts. But what if those parts were really small? Kaizen theory suggests we take tiny steps to build bigger habits. The first step in writing a novel might be to sit at your desk for one minute without turning on your computer, or setting a goal to write three words a day. That’s right, one minute here or three words there.

The science of small goals

The theory is that focussing on a large goal stimulates our body’s fight or flight mechanism. The more important that goal is to you, the more you have riding on the outcome, the greater the feeling of fear becomes. Fear overwhelms you, the goal feels unachievable and you take no action.

“A journey of a thousand miles must start with the first step.” Lao Tzu

The solution, according to Kaizen Theory, is to set goals so small, that you don’t engage these primitive survival responses. In short, you hoodwink your brain.

Robert Maurer explains “Small easily achievable goals let you tiptoe past your amygdala, keeping it asleep and unable to set off alarm bells. As your small steps continue and the cortex starts working, the brain begins to create ‘software’ for your desired change, actually laying down new nerve pathways and building new habits.”

I’ll never finish at this rate!

Let’s get back to those three words. Writing three words isn’t at all scary, it won’t take much time, and it would be pretty impossible to come up with an excuse to not do it. By writing a little every day you start to a build a habit and make progress towards writing your novel.

Unfortunately, at that rate it’s going to take you around 70 years to write a novel.

The first step is just that, the action that gets you across the starting line. It succeeds in breaking down your resistance and overcoming the fear of starting. Once you’ve mastered your first tiny step, you’ll be eager to take a larger one, writing a page or 500 words a day. Soon you’ve reprogrammed your habits and are motoring towards the once overwhelming finishing point.

“Start taking action, based on what have readily available: what you are, what you know and who you know.” Oliver Burkeman

Think small

To get started, ask yourself: what small step could I take each day to reach my goal? Keep asking the question until you find something that holds no fear for you, that you can easily accomplish each day. Set your goal and get started.

Here are other approaches to thinking small that you could try.

  • Identify a small task you can do now to help your writing, perhaps putting your note book next to your bed
  • Notice something small each day – a tiny observation that you could use in your writing
  • Find one thing in your writing session that went well, some pleasure in the process or activity of writing, perhaps how comfortable your chair is
  • Ask a small question of your character, maybe what colour shoes they’re wearing
  • Pick one thing you’re pleased with in your writing, a particular word or neat idea
  • Celebrate each small step with a little reward, a nice cup of tea, ten minutes on Candy Crush

“Accomplish the great task by a series of small acts.” Tao Te Ching

There are lots of books available on Kaizen Theory. I recommend One Small Step Can Change your Life: The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer.

I’d like to thank Liz Flanagan for suggesting Kaizen to me and opening up a whole new world of goal setting tactics.

Bec Evans About the author: Co-creator of Prolifiko, Bec has spent a lifetime reading, writing and working with writers. From her first job in a bookshop, to a career in publishing, and several years managing a writers’ centre, she’s obsessed with working out what helps writers write.