Achieve Big Goals by Building Small Habits

May 17 / Michelle Arseneault
I’ve set goals for myself as far back as I can remember.

My 5-year-old self had a goal of becoming a ballet dancer. My 8-year-old self had a goal of building a dollhouse to rival the one my cousin had, and my 16-year-old self had a goal of running a business as successful as Google.

These goals all had a few things in common:
  • They were grandiose.
  • They were intended to impress other people, and
  • I didn’t attain any of them.
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What are the steps to reaching goals through building habits?

How many times have you thought to yourself, “I’m going to fit into these jeans by the end of spring,” or “I’m going to write a novel,” or some other fleeting wish?

It’s human nature to set goals for ourselves. And we usually mean to reach them. At least, we mean it until the next shiny goal comes along.

Step forward to now. I’ve reached some pretty big goals in my life. I’m an accomplished professional in my field, I have a beautiful family and home, I fit into my jeans, and I’m going to show you the method I use to turn my big wishes into realistic goals and actually attain them.

The steps are:
  1. Set a goal.
  2. Promise yourself a reward.
  3. Create daily habits that move you toward your goal.
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Step 1: Set a goal

If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there? The first step is to set a goal. What do you want to accomplish?
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“People with goals succeed because they know where they’re going.”
— Earl Nightingale
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Goals should be attainable

If you set a goal that you can’t possibly achieve or that is so challenging that the chance of achieving it is one in a million, you’re likely to get frustrated and quit.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t dream big. You absolutely should! I’m saying that if your dream is to be as famous a singer as Justin Bieber, you’ll need to break your dream into smaller goals first.

Maybe start with a goal of learning how to sing.

Here’s an example:
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Goal: I want to be a famous singer.
Sub goal 1: I want to learn how to sing.
Sub goal 2: I want to sing in a band.
Sub goal 3: I want a recording deal.
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The sub goals are smaller and more defined, but they all lead to the ultimate goal.
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Goals should be measurable

If your goal is to fit into the jeans you wore in high school, it’s easy to know when you’ve achieved it. You just need to keep trying them on until you can button them without turning blue.

It’s important to set goals that you can measure so when you achieve them, you can set new ones. Otherwise, you may get stuck trying to reach the same goal your whole life and never feel satisfied.

Here's an example.
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Vague: I want to build my muscles.

Measurable: I want to be able to bench press 100 lbs. for 8 reps.
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The measurable goal makes it easy to know when you’ve achieved it.
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Goals should be challenging

If your goal isn’t challenging, is it really a goal?

According to the study, Attainment versus maintenance goals: Perceived difficulty and impact on goal choice by Antonios Stamatogiannakis, Amitava Chattopadhyay, and Dipankar Chakravarti, participants overwhelmingly rated goals that required incremental gains as being easier to achieve than goals that they perceived as non-challenging or status-quo.

Think about the amount of satisfaction you would feel after running a 10-mile marathon, compared to running around your block. Of course, this is relative. If you’ve been in a wheelchair for the past few months, running around your yard is going to feel pretty great!

So, make sure your goal is going to take some work to achieve, but not so much work that it feels overwhelming.
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Goals should have a target date

You should have an idea of when you intend to accomplish your goal. Setting a target date helps to add a sense of urgency, and this can motivate you to make time for it. It’s so easy to procrastinate and put things off if there’s no deadline looming.

Make sure your target date is realistic, though. A target date that’s hard to achieve will have the opposite effect. You’ll likely get stressed and start to wonder if it’s worth the effort.

Here’s an example of a goal with a target date:
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Goal: I want to be able to bench press 100 lbs. for 8 reps by August 1st.
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Setting a target date can really help you break down the tasks you have to do to meet your goal and to work backwards to figure out when you need to complete those tasks. Doing this can be really motivating and can keep you on track. I suggest making it visual and putting it up on your wall where you will see it often.
Bench press target dates diagram

Goals should be meaningful to you

If you pick a goal for the wrong reason, like to impress someone you have a crush on, or to please your parents, you won’t be as invested as you would be if the goal is important to you.

Let’s say you want to attract that cute girl in your study group, and you’ve heard her gush about football players. Should you set a goal to join your school’s football team?

Well, do you like football? Do you think you could stay motivated for long enough to actually make the team? Would you keep at it once she starts to date the captain of the chess team a few weeks later?

It’s so much easier to stay motivated when you are trying to achieve a goal that's meaningful to you personally.
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Write your goals down

There’s something about putting your goals in writing that make them tangible. The act of writing them down helps you to focus on defining them to make sure they are realistic and specific. It also helps you start to visualize what your life will be like once you achieve them.

You can also put a written goal somewhere visible as a reminder that you should be working on it. In fact, the more reminders sprinkled around your house and where you work, the better.
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Goals list

Tell someone about your goals

Just like the act of writing your goals down makes them more tangible, telling someone that you’re going to do something makes it much likelier that you’ll keep at it until you achieve it. This is a form of social proof.

You’re more likely to hold yourself accountable when you think other people are paying attention.
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Step 2: Promise Yourself a Reward

Person looking at a hanging carrot
It’s widely accepted that it takes 21 days of repetition to form a habit. That’s why you should make a promise to yourself that you’ll give yourself a reward after 21 straight days of working toward fulfilling the goal you set. I suggest making it a specific reward and something juicy.

This works on the honour system, though. Choose something that costs a bit more than you would normally spend or is difficult to find. That way you’re less likely to reward yourself if you haven’t actually earned it.

Sometimes I ask my friends to reward me with a special night out once I meet my 21 days. I know for a fact they’ll require proof.
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Step 3: Create daily habits

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”
— Antoine De Saint Exupery
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You already know that it takes about 21 days to establish a habit. Figure out what tasks you need to do to achieve your goal and turn those tasks into habits. If the goal you set requires you to perform several one-time tasks, make it a habit to perform one task each day, or to work on a task for 15 minutes each day.
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Stack your habits

Here’s a trick that works well for me. Attach your new task to another habit you already have. You’ll be more likely to do it.

For example, let’s say your goal is to completely declutter your house by July 1st. You’ve set a task of spending 10 minutes every day going through your stuff. That’s the habit you want to form, right? It will lead to you accomplishing your goal.

So, stack that task with another habit you already have. Why not do your 10-minute declutter while your coffee is brewing? Or while you are talking on the phone to your mother (if you do that every day. You should do that every day!)? Or add it to your bedtime ritual if that works better.
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Just start! Commit to 1 minute

We all have days that we just don’t feel motivated to do anything. And that’s ok. The sky isn’t going to fall if you miss a day here and there but if you miss too many in a row, it can be harder to pick it back up.

On those days, give yourself permission to commit to just one. Spend one minute. Declutter one item. Call one person. Whatever your task is, just start. Do a tiny piece, then see how you feel.

If you still aren’t motivated, walk away, but you might find that by accomplishing that tiny piece, you’ll want to do more.

Remember, even tiny movements toward your goal are still movements toward your goal.
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Track your progress

It’s important to track your progress. The closer you get to the 21 days and your reward, the less likely you’ll be to break the momentum. You’re more likely to skip day three than day 14. You’d have to start over again from the beginning.

So, track it. And make it visual. Give yourself every chance you can, to create those habits that will carry you to the finish line.
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Download a free printable goal tracker template to start achieving goals right now.
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