First Published: January 14, 2024 | Last Updated:

The gist: we're usually told to "think big" when it comes to goal setting. But here's why that doesn't always work, why you should set smaller goals, and 4 ways to break down big goals into smaller ones.

I’ve been thinking about all the talk about how most people don’t meet their goals or stick to their resolutions.

It’s usually cited as proof that the entire concept doesn’t work, and that you shouldn’t bother setting them in the first place.

But what if that’s not true?

What if we’re the problem, and most of us are just setting the wrong goals and resolutions in the first place?

What if we set ourselves up for failure, and then blame the tactic for our mistake, like in the saying “it’s a poor craftsman who blames his tools?”

The more I’ve experimented with how I think about and set my own goals, the more I think that’s the case.

I’m starting to think that most people who set goals but don’t meet them probably set unmeetable goals for themselves in the first place.

Recently, I’ve written about the mindset side of removing Hustle Culture from your goal-setting. Today, we’re talking about what to do instead, how to set anti-Hustle Culture goals.

And it’s all about breaking things down.

The problem with most people’s goals & resolutions

So, what do I mean when I say most of us are probably setting the wrong goals and resolutions in the first place?

I think most problems can be lumped into one (or more) of 3 categories:

  • Too big: the goal requires too much time, energy, or another kind of resource compared to what you have available in the time frame you’re looking at (for example, writing a full-length novel when you’ve never written fiction before).
  • Too vague: the goal isn’t clearly defined enough for you to know exactly what your desired end destination, or the effort required to get there, looks like (for example, “improve my finances”…what does that mean in your financial situation?).
  • Too impersonal: the goal isn’t something you care about enough to put in the effort required. Usually, this is is because it’s something society, our family, or our peers think we should care about. And we may want to care about it, maybe even do care about it a little. But the balance between the effort required and motivation to put in said effort is just off. (For example, a lot of us are told—either implicitly or explicitly—that we should want to be married with kids by a certain age.)

Personally, the problem I fall into the most is setting goals that are too big, like to crochet a blanket before I’d ever crocheted a granny square.

It felt the most complex problem to figure out:

When I realized I didn’t actually care about a goal, I just “dropped it.”

And making a vague goal more specific isn’t that difficult either.

But at first, I wasn’t sure what to do about too big goals.

“Set smaller goals” felt weird.

After all, productivity and self-help experts had always said that setting small goals was “thinking small” and that big goals were more ambitious, something I still identified as at the time.

But eventually, I realized that setting smaller goals didn’t mean anything “bad” or “unproductive.”

It was actually smarter than setting big goals I wouldn’t meet anyway.

What happens when goals are too big

So what’s the problem with setting big goals?

Well, kudos to you if “shoot for the moon, and even if you miss you’ll land among the stars,” makes sense to you…

But it’s not always that simple.

Sometimes, a big goal can…

  • Feel so overwhelming and intimidating that you can’t even get yourself to start.
  • Be too big to be realistic for the assigned time frame, so you’re guaranteed to fail, and over time not meeting your goals makes you lose confidence in both goal-setting and yourself.
  • Make it even harder to find motivation, because your finish line is so far away that any progress you make on a day-to-day or short-term basis feels insignificant. It doesn’t feel like the goal is getting any closer.

People often reject the idea of smaller goals because they’re less “ambitious” or “inspiring.”

But for many of us, especially those of us who are neurodivergent and need to hack our brains a bit, need the dopamine and motivation that comes from meeting goals regularly, even if they’re smaller goals.

The smaller goals can always lead to bigger ones, after all.

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Ways to make a goal smaller

Hopefully, by now I’ve sold you on the idea of setting smaller goals. But like I mentioned before, what that actually means can be confusing.

To me, at least, it doesn’t mean being less ambitious or having smaller overall dreams.

It just means taking bigger desires and ambitions and breaking them down into smaller parts.

And in my experience with this, I’ve identified four main ways to do it:

  1. Shrink the scope
  2. Pick a rest stop
  3. Lower the frequency
  4. Lower the intensity

Approach #1: shrink the scope

The first approach is to narrow the scope of your goal.

It’s best used with goals that feel too vague, but can be used to troubleshoot any of the 3 problems identified earlier.

Usually, you can do this by making your goal more specific.

For example, here are a few transformations we could make by shrinking the scope:

  • “Declutter the house” → “Declutter the living room”
  • “Get healthy” → “Prevent dehydration headeaches”
  • “Get healthy → “Lower blood pressure to below the ‘elevated’ range”
  • “Create a successful business” → “Launch 1 product that meets launch revenue goals”

Don’t the second goals for each bullet point above feel more manageable, with a clearer picture of what achievement looks like?

Approach #2: pick a rest stop

The second approach is about identifying a rest stop that’s already on the way to your final destination.

There are two ways to do this.

First, you can pick a milestone that will naturally need to be passed and recognized on the way to your larger goal. Something that’s already in between where you are now, and where you want to be, and is a noticeable milestone.

This works best with easily measurable goals.

For example, I’m working up to drinking 50 oz. of water per day. But my actual, “written in my planner” goals for it currently are:

  • Averaging 30 oz. per day for 3 months
  • Averaging 40 oz. per day for 3 months

I was going to be passing these milestones on the way to 50 oz. anyway, so why not intentionally recognize and celebrate passing them?

The other approach is to create your own milestones that can help you measure progress to your final destination.

This works with measurable goals as well.

For example, I want to be able to go to (hour-long) dance classes again.

But that’s too big a goal for my cardio health right now.

(Side note: HOW did I used to take 5-6 hours of dance class in a row?! Six days a week?!)

The milestones I’ve laid out to get myself there are:

  • Be able to walk for 30 minutes straight
  • Be able to walk for 60 minutes straight
  • Be able to dance for 15 minutes straight
  • Be able to dance for 30 minutes straight
  • Be able to dance for 45 minutes straight

But where this approach really comes in handy is with goals that are less easily trackable and measurable.

For example, I want to write a romance novel one day.

But when I finally “committed” to the idea last year (after thinking about it for a decade), I’d never written fiction that wasn’t an assigned school project.

I didn’t even know what writing a romance would involve, so it was far too soon to just start a first draft and start tracking word counts.

Learning and practice need to come first, but how could I measure that?

I brainstormed smaller goals or projects that I could use to measure how much I was learning and to “practice” for a full-length novel.

Some of them include:

  • Understand the genre’s common story structure and tropes
  • Annotate 5 of my favorite novels and analyze my notes to better understand what things I personally love most in the genre
  • Write a mashup or fanfic scene (remixing others’ work is a great starter step to creating your own)
  • Write an original short story or novella

These don't all necessarily contribute directly to my goal of writing a novel (although they can, for example if it's a continuation on the novella), but they'll all make me better equipped to take that project on.

For years, the idea of writing a romance novel felt too big and unfamiliar for me to even know where to begin. But once I figured out, “okay, I need to understand structure first,” I could figure out what next step to take.

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Productivity isn't black and white, it's personal as hell. And there's no single lifehack or framework to solve your problems. 

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Approach #3: lower the frequency

The third approach is great for goals based around frequency, like building new habits…especially daily ones.

So many of us think we can go from, say, never meditating at all, straight to meditating 10 minutes per day, all within one goal “cycle.”

It’s possible, but it’s unlikely.

Even if you eventually want to do something daily, you need to build up to that instead of expecting to go from 0 to 60 in a second.

So you can set a goal to do the habit at a lower frequency first, and increase it as the habit becomes more of, well, a habit.

For example:

  • “Read every day” becomes “read 3 times per week”
  • “Go to the park once a week” becomes “go to the park once a month”
  • “Reply to emails every day” turns into “reply to emails every other day”

This helps you build the practice of “showing up” for the habit, which makes increasing the frequency later even easier.

Approach #4: lower the intensity

Finally, in addition to lowering a habit’s frequency, you can also lower its intensity.

For example, here’s how some habit goals can be made less intense:

  • “Read for 30 minutes every day” → “read for 10 minutes every day”
  • “Meditate for 5 minutes every day” → “meditate for 1 minute every day”
  • “Exercise for 60 minutes 3 times per week” → “Exercise for 30 minutes 3 times per week”
  • “Write 750 words per workday” → “write 350 words per workday”

Like the other approaches, this one can help you manage your expectations in the short-term and build up to a bigger goal in the long-term.

But this one also has an extra bonus: once you get started, it can be easy to keep going.

At least once a week, I say I only need to walk for 20 minutes to get the exercise I need, but once I’m on the treadmill, it feels totally doable to go for 30 instead.

So you may even meet your bigger goal more often in the short-term as well.

Apply these approaches

Almost every way I’ve been able to come up with to “make a goal smaller” or “break down a big goal” can fall into one of these 4 categories.

And applying one approach to a big goal is good, but using a combination of approaches is better.

For example, you can create a rest stop goal and still lower the intensity or frequency on those rest stop goals if you find they’re not working for you.

The whole point of setting goals should be to HELP you do the things you want to do.

If they’re not doing that, your goals aren’t working for you.

Breaking them down can change that.

Try breaking one of your goals down now: either pick one of your current goals, or one you set but didn’t meet in the past.

Does applying these tactics make them feel more doable or motivating?