The small steps matter, too

Beau Bilinovich, Development Editor

We’re about a month into the new year. Classes have started, and we’re all preparing to find a routine again after the break. A new year and a new semester means a fresh start—and for many, a fresh start is much needed. Life does not always work out exactly the way we hope; sometimes, events are entirely out of our control and we lose our direction. That is why fresh starts can feel so enticing—we have an opportunity to at least pick ourselves up and reevaluate our bearings. That can mean setting goals, focusing on our health, practicing communication strategies and forming stronger connections with the people we care about.


But achievement does not always come easily.


Figuring out how to accomplish goals is always a roadblock on the path to improvement. There is a reason New Year’s resolutions are infamous for failing almost as soon as they are pledged. Known as the intention-behavior gap, there is a divide between the goals we set for ourselves—our intentions—and the actions we take towards meeting those goals—our behavior. Bridging this gap is the key to successful goal setting.


First, let’s start by thinking smaller.


While we might have lofty, ambitious goals planned for the future, there is a real possibility that such goals might seem unattainable or out of reach. Improving oneself requires commitment and effort, but when improvement feels too out of reach, we end up feeling stuck. Thus, we aren’t happy with ourselves when we inevitably don’t reach the finish line.


Instead, splitting a larger goal into smaller, more manageable ones facilitates this process. These small goals (or sub-goals) should be easily and consistently achievable. Eventually, each new action builds onto the previous one, and you gain momentum. Now, the path forward looks more clear and certain.


As behavioral scientist Ayelet Fishbach suggests, we should make sure to focus on the intermediate actions we take. The steps we take in between matter just as much as our intentions at the start and the (hopeful) outcome in the end. Work on building momentum with each tiny step. Progress will seem slow, and you might have to rethink some of your plans, but you will avoid overwhelming yourself.


Moreover, small goals can be a great source of motivation. Cooking a new meal for yourself or finally hanging a picture that you neglected for a couple of months is rewarding. Such accomplishments might seem insignificant; however, they are proof that progress is possible, even in basic forms. We should take pride in these small successes so we can let them push us forward.


Of course, we all encounter setbacks at some point in our lives. Whether a family tragedy or a personal health complication, making progress may seem more overwhelming. In those moments, small actions are even more important. If you can only move forward just a little bit, that’s okay. You still moved. Any progress, no matter how seemingly trivial, is still progress. Most importantly though, is to not overextend yourself. Everyone has a limited amount of energy. Remember: resting is as worthy of a goal as any.


When setting goals, imagine yourself as a kid building a Lego set: the final end result seems daunting to you. How can you possibly build what’s on the box with those tiny pieces? You then open up the instruction booklet, see that the set is divided into smaller chunks, and those chunks are then divided into even smaller chunks. You slowly work your way up—piece by piece, brick by brick. The process will take time. You might forget a piece here or there, but again, that’s okay; you can go back and work your way up again, paying careful attention to each brick you lay down. Every piece, no matter how small, matters. Eventually, you’ll complete the model of NASA’s Saturn V rocket or the Titanic. You’ll feel accomplished.


That’s the attitude we should all take going forward into the new year. There are oftentimes societal pressures to “think big” or to “shoot for the moon” or even ”think beyond the possible.” But sometimes, it’s better to slow down, take a breath and focus on the small steps. Go forward one day at a time. With enough steps, you’ll end up in a new place. No matter where you are in your improvement journey, allow yourself that patience. Your future self will be thankful.