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In a climb-every-mountain, live-your-best-life language of self-improvement, it can appear as if people setting the most ambitious goals turn out as the most successful.
But if you set goals, such as signing up for a marathon in order to force yourself to run more, or starting a book to force yourself to write, it’s very easy to become overwhelmed by a big goal turning into too much, too soon. In the long term, it may well cause you to think of the action — running, writing, etc. — as far too daunting. These types of objectives rarely result in the outcomes which the ambitious person is seeking. Even if in the short term they appear to make changes, the scale of the goal is often a thing which allows your efforts to gradually peter out.
This is what a series of studies by researchers at the University of Chicago and the Korea Business School established. Focusing heavily on goals – in wide range of activities as varied as exercising on a treadmill, creating origami, flossing, and practicing yoga — was correlated with dropping out earlier.
In one of the experiments, researchers compared a group of students who were told to think of their workout as a means to lose weight to another group who were told to think about the workout experience. Each group was then asked to state their intention for the workout. The students with the weight loss goal planned to run on the treadmill longer than those who were told to focus on the experience, but what actually happened was the reverse: the students who focused on the goal actually ran small and distances or less time than those who focused on the workout experience for its own sake – 34 minutes, compared to 43 minutes.
To achieve sustainable productivity habits, it’s far better to start as small as possible and very gradually build up with easily achievable tasks.
“Staying focused on our goals detracts from the inherent pleasures of the activities we need to pursue to achieve those goals,” – from the research study abstract.
Instead: Start with “ludicrously small”, consistent habits.
“Many of us quickly lose steam, get discouraged, and quit on our goals prematurely because we bite off more than [we] can chew,” says psychologist Nick Wignall.
He recommends “start[ing] ludicrously small.” Come up with what seems like a manageable, regular routine, and then downgrade several steps even from that. For example, if your goal is writing a novel, start by committing to writing one hour every morning, then scale down to 500 words every day, then 500 words every week day, then settle on 300 words every week day.
Basically, the more bite-sized the tasks are, the easier it is to create a routine that you stick to. Eventually, these small chunks of accomplishment will amount to something big – like that novel.