No matter the goal, aim big but start small

Dr. Melissa Shepard Smiling in white lab coat

By Dr. Melissa Shepard

Achieving your goals and making progress can be challenging. Especially if what you want is radically different from what you’ve got. It doesn’t matter whether your goal is to improve your physical health, start your own business, make more money, or become a writer. In all of these instances, you’ll face the same challenge: to stay consistent, motivated, and driven no matter how long it takes or how many obstacles arise along the way.


In going after my own goals, I’ve found that aiming big but starting small can help. Aiming big means you shoot for something incredible, life-changing, and totally out of reach (for the moment). Don’t be afraid to conjure up your wildest dreams: I promise you won’t jinx them. In fact, by allowing yourself to think about it, you start to believe that it is possible. That’s exciting, and excitement is kindling for motivation.


So what does this look like? Well, if you want to become an actor, don’t make your ultimate goal to book your first gig as an extra. Make your ultimate goal to become an Oscar-winning actress who schmoozes with the big wigs on the daily. Even if seems out of range right now, which is more exciting to think about: a one-time stint as an extra or making it big as a superstar? Which makes you want to spring out of bed in the morning and declare “Roll out the red carpet!” to your dog?


Daydreaming about these massive goals also keeps you from getting complacent. If you want to exercise more, setting a goal to run a mile is great. But, like most people, we put off discomfort (i.e., getting off the couch to train) as long as we can. With a mile goal in mind, you might think, “I don’t need to train that often. Heck, I could probably run a mile now if I really wanted. I’ll start tomorrow, and that will give me plenty of time to reach my goal.”


Instead, imagine your goal is to go from sitting at the computer all day to running a marathon in six months. You have to get serious about that, and fast. And once you do it? The goal post shifts again. You start looking to run more marathons or set goals for speed. Humans thrive on the excitement of a challenge, so constantly keep your ultimate goals *just this far* from reach.


When thinking about your ultimate goal, don’t just half-heartedly consider your end-game. Breathe it in. Describe it in detail. Imagine what life will be like when you’ve reached your goal. Imagine the dress you’ll wear to the Oscars and the speech you’ll give to your adoring fans as you accept your award. Make a vision board of the things you’ll buy when you finally have some spare change. Envision the look on your kids’ faces when you cross that finish line after all your training. Let yourself feel a bit of the fulfillment that will come with holding a copy of your first book.


It’s great to dream up all of these exciting things, but, as you can imagine, being far from your goal could become discouraging and overwhelming. That’s where starting small comes in. So, you decide you’re going to be a writer. You daydream about becoming a New York Times Bestselling author. Maybe you make a vision board or put up quotes from other New York Times Bestselling authors (your “peers” as we will now refer to them). Now you need to set about breaking that goal up into smaller and more manageable goals.


You want to make these goals as small as possible to give yourself the best chance at successfully making the habit changes you will need to succeed. Maybe your first goal is to write a blog post every week. Or to complete a writing class at your local community college. Of course, you’ll need quite a few of these mini-goals to get you closer to your ultimate goal. But they provide a crucial road map that will keep you moving forward. If you find yourself falling short on these mini-goals, it’s a sign that you need to shrink them even more. Keep shrinking and adjusting until you find yourself steadily chipping away at your goals. With each mini-goal you meet, you’ll get a little burst of energy that will push you closer to your ultimate goal.


Start small but dream big, and you’ll get there faster than you think. We will talk more about reaching your goals and changing your habits in future posts!

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