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Are You a Big-Goal Person or a Small-Goal Person?

Want to make a life change? The best approach to take will depend on the answer to this simple but powerful question.
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Ask anyone who studies or writes about personal improvement and they’ll tell you there are hundreds of tips out there on how to set goals, execute change, and keep up your motivation despite setbacks and the vagaries of human willpower.

Think of what you want to avoid more than what you want, advises one expert.

Aim small and concrete, suggests another study.

Beware the lull in motivation when you’re halfway to your endpoint, warns another.

All of these bits of wisdom can no doubt be helpful, but let’s face it, they can also be totally confusing. Which approach should you try first? Which is important and which can you discard? Sorting through all the advice out there on goal setting and personal change can be daunting, but author Gretchen Rubin recently offered a handy place to start via her LinkedIn Influencer columns.

People have different inherent preferences, she points out. The same way some of us prefer to get fit with solitary long-distance runs while others approach the same goal by socializing while shaking their bodies at Zumba class, what strikes one person as inherently motivating can strike another as totally miserable. And what’s true of exercise, Rubin notes, is also true of our differing approaches to personal improvement.

"There's no one-size-fits-all solution for how best to approach habit change," she writes, before providing a helpful divide that can give people a better sense of which goal-setting advice truly applies to them. Ask yourself: Are you an aim-big or an aim-small person?

Which Side of the Divide Are You On?

What’s the difference? It’s not that aim-big people have ambitious dreams and high standards, while the aim-small camp contents itself with mediocrity and moderate improvements. The distinction lies not in the endpoint but in how you approach beginnings.

Some of us like to ease into change like swimmers into cold water. For those in this camp, "a series of small but real accomplishments gives people the energy and confidence to continue," Rubin notes.

Advice to start cultivating habits with little changes is commonplace, but it’s not for everyone. Others are more of the dive-straight-in type. Fans of this approach included Steve Jobs, according to Rubin, who quotes the late Apple boss as saying: "I have a great respect for incremental improvement, and I’ve done that sort of thing in my life, but I’ve always been attracted to the more revolutionary changes. I don’t know why." (Rubin’s college roommate and my husband are also apparently in this camp.)

But it’s not just anecdotal evidence that indicates some of us do better by leaping in with both feet. Studies confirm the notion that some people require the excitement of big goals to spur them to change. "Sometimes, counterintuitively, it’s easier to make a major change than a minor change," Rubin explains, citing research. "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."

So next time you read some of the many posts and articles out there on how to change habits and reach goals, it might benefit you to take a moment to ponder whether the suggestion is targeted at big- or small-goal people.

Which group do you belong to?  

Last updated: May 21, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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