When you set a big goal, you're really assigning yourself thousands of small tasks. When people give up on these big goals, it's often because they haven't clarified what those thousands of small tasks are or planned for the time and work needed.

I was reminded of this when listening to a recent episode of "Another Mother Runner" podcast. Running Coach MK Fleming shared that she encourages her clients to focus on achievable goals versus big, radical-sounding accomplishments. "We get caught up in the type and the possibilities and set really big goals. By the end of January, most people have given up [on their New Year's resolutions] because they didn't anticipate what was really necessary to achieve that goal."

No one wants to talk you out of a big goal, me included. You should definitely pursue what you want most in life. However, you should be realistic about where you are today, where you want to go and what you can reasonably achieve in the timeframe and with the resources you've allocated. If, upon reflection, you don't really have the time or knowledge required to get where you want to go, it makes sense to set a more achievable goal.

Once you meet that first goal, you promise yourself to set another and another. The incremental approach is more effective because it guarantees at least some progress towards your big, ultimate goal. It doesn't have to be an "all or nothing" situation.

How can you tell if a goal is too big?

Sometimes we don't know enough to know when we've bitten off too much. This is when a coach or a knowledgeable, trusted friend can help. The question you ask them isn't, "Is this big goal possible for me?" The question is, "What is the most logical first step I should take? Here is the amount of time, energy, and possibly money I'm willing and able to commit." You don't have to take their advice completely, but it should be a consideration.

Once you've set a goal, you need to make achieving that goal part of your daily life. Any goal you work on once a week or once a month is destined to be forgotten or pushed down on your priority list. To combat this, a new "habit stack" is needed. A habit stack is a series of small actions you do in relatively the same order each day. Most of us have a habit stack when getting ready for bed that includes washing your face, brushing your teeth, and setting your alarm, for example. You never (or rarely) skip a step because the habit is set and you go from one activity to the next without even thinking about it. We can use habits to our advantage when setting goals. For example, if you want to run a 10K this year, you'll need to run every day (or nearly every day) to practice -- so set out your running clothes and confirm your mileage the night before.

This is just one example of a small change in your daily life aimed at helping you achieve a larger goal. Goals that are "right-sized" relative to the amount of time and work you're willing and able to invest are much more satisfying because, simply, you're more likely to achieve them. Achieving a goal is an immensely motivating experience, and one that will build confidence that you can work up to something remarkable over time. As you set goals this year, overcome the "all or nothing" mindset and enjoy more success in the long-term.

If you liked this column, subscribe to email alerts in the Work Life Lab and you'll never miss a post.

Published on: Jan 31, 2018