Do You Prefer to Aim Big or Aim Small?

With any kind of happiness project or habits change, we need to figure out what kind of change at which to aim.

For instance, I think it’s important to be very concrete and specific about what you’re asking of yourself:  “Plan lunch with a friend once a week” instead of “Have more fun.”

Along the same lines, research suggests that some people have better success changing a habit when they start small. A series of small but real accomplishments gives people the energy and confidence to continue. For instance, a person who wants to write a novel might resolve to write one sentence each day. Or a person who wants to start running might resolve to run for one minute.

These little steps also help to shape the patterns of our days, to make room for the new activity. The habit of the habit is even more valuable than the habit itself; that is, being in the habit of going to the gym is more valuable than any one particular work-out (this is related to the tricky one-coin argument). Keeping a habit, in the smallest way, protects and strengthens it. I write every day, even if it’s just a sentence, to keep my habit of daily writing strong.

On the other hand, research suggests–and common experience confirms–that some people do better when they’re more ambitious. Sometimes, counter-intuitively, it’s easier to make a major change than a minor change. When a habit is changing very gradually, we may lose interest, give way under stress, or dismiss the change as insignificant. There’s an excitement and an energy that comes from a big transformation, and that helps to create a habit.

A person might be better off giving up sugar than giving up dessert at lunch. A person who wants to wake up earlier than the usual 8:00 a.m. time might find it easier to start waking up at 6:00 a.m. instead of 7:30 a.m.

In some situations, and for some people,  lowering the bar helps; sometimes raising the bar helps. What works better for you? To aim big or to aim small? To make a small change that’s easily within your grasp, or to aim at a bigger, more exciting challenge?

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  • Stephen Hester

    I agree that small, incremental changes are much easier to digest than a massive change. It’s more likely that we will stick with new habits, developed gradually, because they are often far less painful. When we set goals they also tend to be smaller because a Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal (BHAG) can also be an intimidating one. Like change, it’s easier to work toward a goal incrementally rather than in one or two massive steps. Sometimes we have to aim small in order to hit it big!

    • gretchenrubin

      Well, I don’t necessarily think that’s true for EVERYONE. I think some people, or in some situations, smaller works better. But in other cases, BHAG can be more effective.

      • Stephen Hester

        Of course it isn’t true for everyone. What would be the fun in that? : )

  • I tend to aim big because it motivates me much more than the small. When I aim small, I get cocky. Aiming higher scares me and forces me to get creative and very introspective.

  • Jenya

    I would love to be the sort of person who could make a small change and stick to it, but I’m far too impatient. A BHAG can work for me, but only if I use my early momentum to plot out a course. Otherwise, I tend to get overwhelmed, convinced I’m not using my time well enough.

  • Sarah Spitz

    I totally agree with Jenya!
    I’d love to be the ‘small changes’ kind of girl!

    Love from Germany and some big dreams:


  • Jill

    I like to save big dramatic changes for situations that are intentionally temporary. The two examples I can think of off the top of my head are Nanowrimo and Lent. I can commit to “big” short term and then step back and evaluate once the set time is over. For things I know I want to commit to long term, small is usually better. For example, about a year ago, I decided to start running. I did the Couch to 5K which has you run 3 times a week and for a long time afterwards, I still only ran 3 times a week. But after about six months, I decided to run every day and the switch was pretty easy and pleasant to make. The running was already a habit and doing it everyday made it actually easier to incorporate it into my routine and not put it off. 😉
    But I think if I had tried to instantly commit to running every day, I would have burnt out quickly.
    It’s different for different people.

  • Jenny

    It’s an interesting question, and I think for me, it depends on the change I want to make. About 2.5 years ago, I decided I needed to start exercising again. Using the advice from your blog, I thought it was better to do something, no matter how tiny, every day. So I started with some 10 minute runs – which felt pathetic. But I made myself do something, anything every day. Starting with a very short time made it possible for me to figure out how to make the time. Now I work out 1 hour a day during the week, and 1-2 each weekend day. So that was a super successful approach.

    This year, I decided to adjust my diet. I found this much easier to make a big change (which was no gluten, no grains, no sugar) that to just say “no bread at dinner”. Otherwise, it became too easy to justify the bread at one meal, or just one cookie, etc. It also really worked, although over the months, I’ve become a little bit more relaxed as I can’t imagine the rest of my life with no treats. But starting it extreme made it much quicker to see an impact, and I’ve been able to be reasonable about what I add back in.

    I think the difference was doing something new, which required extra time (exercising) versus not doing something (eating bad stuff.)

    • gretchenrubin

      Very interesting to see how you applied both approaches, in different contexts.
      That’s why I think it’s not possible to say that one way is the BETTER way – it depends on so many things, even for the same person.

      • Anita Davis

        the old saying “survey large fields, cultivate small”. That’s me. I look at the grand picture of maybe someday I could be a really good painter. Then I work at the smallest of goals: “get Alice’s sketch portrait transferrred to canvas”.

  • Kate

    This probably corresponds quite a bit to your abstainer/moderator dichotomy, yes? For instance, I’m mostly an abstainer (no office candy bowl, ever!) which means that bigger, more dramatic goals tend to motivate me more, as a general rule.
    Of course some changes HAVE to be small & constant, as in ones related to health. Alas, one big salad and one big workout one time don’t equal a healthy lifestyle!

  • Felicity

    If it’s something I allegedly *want* to do e.g. writing or reading, I find starting small helps. If it’s something that I know will be particularly difficult for me e.g. cutting back on junk food and overeating, then it helps me to start big 🙂

  • Natalie

    At the moment, I feel like I fail with both approaches. I probably burn out quicker with big changes though.

  • Christy King

    Small, definitely. I’m best with gradual changes, gradual projects, pretty much everything gradual. Small changes in diet, exercise, simplifying life….

  • Marabeth Duncan

    Ooh. Intriguing question. I think I tend to do better with bit sized goals with the aim of forming a habit. Mainly because, when I think about my to-do lists, I always do the easy to be done ones first.

  • VetChangesWorld

    When it comes to dreams, I tend to dream big. That’s why my blog is called “Vet Changes World” it’s a challenge to myself to think big about what I can accomplish. *But* when it comes to making those goals come true I break them down into smaller, more specific, time limited pieces.

  • vicky

    Setting smaller goals works best for me; then after a period of time I can add more to these goals and they become habits that stick with me. If I set too big of goals often times I fail the first time and then get discouraged.

  • Gezonder en Fitter (Martine)

    I do both: I big goal for the end of 2014 and a small step to accomplish within a week (every week ;-)) Like by the end of 2014 I want to have created a specific network. Each week I call one (scary/ impressive) person…… Thanks for your blog.

  • What’s a minor change for me might be a major for you… So, since research seems to suggest that both versions work it’s just a matter of finding what works best for you.

    But I think that your examples all suggest making one easily definable thing and keep doing it… That’s what my experince tells me works.

  • Therese

    BHAG – Big Hairy Audacious Goals, all the way. I resisted this for years, thinking that to shoot too high only meant I would fail. What I didn’t realize was that shooting high motivated me much, much more…and then it was OK to end up doing less, because it got me moving toward a goal much more successfully (and yes, you have to plan smaller incremental steps to make it actually happen). This was true when I decided to start back packing at the age of 50. Sure, I can join my friend who is through hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, for just 3 days, it’s OK that she will be hiking 15-20 miles per day! Well…that didn’t happen, but it did result in a training routine that was good for me, and great backpacking trips into the Sierras the last two years with other friends, including up to 9 miles a day. Not bad, and so beautiful, those high altitude lakes. Also the only way I’ve done what I needed for my health – no sugar, no gluten, no dairy. As soon as I tell myself a little is OK, I’m off on a series of little cheats that aren’t good for me, and have to get myself back on track again. I agree, this may be an Abstainer/Moderator issue.

  • AKproject

    I have to start small. I created a category called “small steps” in my journal app. That way, when I am overwhelmed with all the big stuff, I can look there and see that I HAVE made progress.

  • rlepkan

    I’m definitely better at small steps than big ones. I finally got those two boxes stuffed with assorted paper cleaned out by setting aside 15 minutes a day to take care of it. I’ve always wanted to get up earlier maybe I should apply the same method to that.

  • Amelia

    I find larger steps work for a while, like getting up at 5am to go for a 5 mile run, but then one day, I’ll miss it for some reason such as working late into the night, and I will struggle to restart. However, Running 3 miles at night is much easier as if one day it isn’t possible, 3 miles at 7pm sounds a lot less daunting to get back into. Then it goes up to 4, and then 5 and then mornings once, twice, three times a week.

  • I prefer to “aim big” because of the inspiration of a bigger outcome.

    That said, I think it’s important to appreciate the journey, not just the destination, so I find it useful to sort of trick myself by breaking my bigger goal into smaller milestones so I can appreciate the little wins too.

  • chrisallencoach

    I like the acknowledgement here that one size does not fit all when it comes to making changes; it depends on the person, their personality, the particular goal or habit that one is trying to change, and the time in our lives. Sometimes we can even do both: set the big goal and take baby steps that we are 100% committed to, like someone might if they were going to do a triathalon or a marathon.