Setting Small Goals to Achieve Big Success

Setting Small Goals to Achieve Big Success

There’s a natural high and energy boost you get from accomplishing something. That’s why it feels so good when you simply cross an item off of your to-do list, and why it’s so easy to settle or give up on a goal before you’ve reached it. If you’re working day after day towards something and you don’t acknowledge any small “wins” you have along the way, you’re going to feel like you’re failing, even when you’re not.

The kind of energy you need to have for yourself when you’re working towards your own long-term goals is one where you have to rely on yourself to celebrate your small accomplishments for what they are: progress.

When you’re setting a long-term goal, identify some milestones you’re going to reach along the way. This will give you mini-goals to work towards, which then result in mini-celebrations to keep you motivated. 

“Progress principle”

After completing a study in 2007, researchers at the Harvard Business Review asked more than 200 employees who were working on various long-term projects to keep daily diaries where they logged information about their workday. After four months of this, the researchers analyzed all of the data and found that employees were more likely to label a day “the best” or “good” if they had made progress towards their project and more likely to label it “bad” or “the worst” when they experienced a setback of some kind.

This data wasn’t overly surprising, most of us would prefer progress over a setback in any aspect of life. However, what they did find interesting was the direct effect the perception of progress had on the employees’ motivations. When the employees were making progress of some kind, they became more motivated and showed more interest in their work, and when they were experiencing setbacks they were “not only less intrinsically motivated but also less extrinsically motivated” and that they seemed to “feel generally apathetic and disinclined to do the work at all.”

After finishing the study, the researchers wrote, “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run.” 

Identifying and celebrating progress

While the Harvard Business Review study focused specifically on employees at work, the principle applies outside of work, too. You’re more likely to accomplish a big and/or long-term goal, no matter what it is, if you acknowledge the progress you make along the way. 

You might already be doing this subconsciously, too. 

  • Feeling satisfied after crossing one thing off of your to-do list, even if there are still five more items to do
  • Getting a small sense of relief after you’ve finished running one of four laps around a track
  • Taking a minute to mentally celebrate after getting the kids off to school successfully, even though you still have a full day of work ahead of you
  • Smiling after you paid off your car even though you still have student loan debt to work towards

In all of these scenarios, you still have a good amount of work ahead of you, but you feel a little lighter because you made noticeable progress. You may still have to give yourself more pep talks as you continue to chip away at your goal, but each one of those will give you the energy to get closer and closer to accomplishing it.

How to do this in real life 

Putting money into your kid's college fund 

If you’re only thinking about reaching your goal of tens of thousands of dollars, you’ll miss out on the gratification of watching that number grow over time. Make the most of it by celebrating yourself for every smaller amount, say $1,000-$5,000, you save or review it annually to see what kind of growth is happening longer-term.

Searching for a new job 

Getting a new job can be a very long, tiring process. This is definitely a goal where it’s easy to settle or give up along the way because you’re not seeing any progress. It can be really frustrating, so finding little things to celebrate along the way is important to help you keep going. Milestones to consider include finishing your resume, updating your online work profile, applying to 10 jobs, getting a phone interview (even if you don’t make it to the next round), sending 15 cold reach-outs, declining an interview offer, making it through an in-person interview and applying to jobs that you may like but are outside of your comfort zone.

Improving your health and wellness 

This specific goal will look different for everyone, and it’s important that the mini-milestones you choose are healthy and are not celebrating behaviors that would be unhealthy long-term (like restricting food or saying “no” to every single social invitation). Some good celebrations include spending two hours throughout the week doing a hobby you enjoy, going on a 30-minute walk three times a week, and getting six + hours of sleep every night for two weeks.

Getting a promotion 

You may be working toward this goal for years, so little celebrations along the way will probably be key to staying motivated. Mini-milestones might look like completing five big projects, being asked to collaborate with a certain team/co-worker, creating and implementing a major process improvement, or getting X number of compliments from your supervisor. These little things add up and will help remind you what you’re working towards and reinforce your belief that you deserve the promotion.

Mini-milestones lead to big wins 

In an overview of the Harvard Business Review’s progress study, the author wrote, “When we think about progress, we often imagine how good it feels to achieve a long-term goal or experience a major breakthrough. These big wins are great, but they are relatively rare.” If you wait to celebrate until you’ve reached your goals you’re selling yourself short because you’re disregarding all of the work and effort you put in to get there. Remember, without the little wins, the big wins would not exist, so they (and you) deserve a little acknowledgment.

Give and get support throughout your career journey 

Search for family-friendly jobs, connect with like-minded professionals and access career development resources with The Mom Project. Sign up or log in




Recommended Articles

Subscribe to discover more resources, programs and events

Get on the list

New to The Mom Project? Sign up for our emails and discover more resources, programs and events!