A woman looking at a sunset from her car window

If you’re beginning to feel like the impending new year is just another opportunity to be reminded of how bad you are at sticking to your goals, you’re not alone.

That’s why so many New Year’s resolutions fail: because self-improvement is hard. Setting goals and sticking with them long-term takes a lot of time and discipline. People are busy. It’s easy for any changes we’re trying to make to fall to the wayside.

However, it doesn’t have to be that way. If you’re tired of resolving to make this year “your year” and having your plans fall apart by mid-January, you don’t have to give up making resolutions completely. You just have to rethink your strategy. This is where micro-goals come in.

What Are Micro-Goals?

“Picture yourself looking up a stairway. Your goal is to get to the top. A micro-goal is to get to the next landing,” said George Krueger, cocreator of the BIGGSuccess Financial Freedom Tool, a guide that teaches people be smarter with their finances.

Micro-goals take your big goals and break them into smaller, easy-to-accomplish pieces.

Let’s say you want to save money for a down payment on a house, so you make it your goal to save $20,000 within 5 years. Sounds great, but where do you start? Without micro-goals, this can feel like an overwhelming, impossible task; $20,000 is a lot of money, and without any specific plan, it’s very easy to put off saving.

“I don’t have the money to set aside this month, but I’ll make up for it by saving twice as much next month.”

“Five years is a long time. I don’t have to start saving right away; I can still treat myself every once in a while.”

“I’m never going to save that much anyway. I need $20,000, and I only have $500. It’s pointless to even try.”

In short order, you’ve talked yourself out of achieving your goals without even giving them an honest try.

Micro-goals allow you to be realistic about your path to achieving your bigger goals while giving you positive feedback that keeps you motivated to stick to it.

So, when you decide you want to save $20,000 in 5 years, you do the math and map out what it takes to get there. You commit to saving $350 each month. Each month that you successfully do so, you get to congratulate yourself on a job well done and enjoy a feeling of accomplishment.

You can apply this to any goals you have in your life. If you want to run a marathon, focus on little steps that will get you there. You won’t be able to run the 26 miles right away, but that doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate being able to jog for a full minute without getting tired. Then 2 minutes. Then 10, 15, and beyond.

Micro-goals are sort of a psychological trick. Because the goals you set for yourself are so small and specific, they’re easy to focus on and simple to achieve. When you achieve a goal, even a small one, it makes you feel like you accomplished something. This makes you want to keep going to achieve the next one. All these small successes build on each other until your big, impossible goals don’t seem so impossible anymore.

“You achieve bigger goals by achieving a series of micro-goals. You’re more likely to succeed if you focus on one small win, and then another, and another,” Krueger said.

Break it Down

If you want to be successful, it’s imperative you come up with a plan. So many people fail at their New Year’s resolutions because they set goals that are so big and vague, there’s no way to apply them to their everyday lives. You’re going to have more success doing things little by little than by taking on one big project all at once, and to make those little changes, you need a plan.

Think about a goal you have and what specific steps you can take to bring yourself closer to it. If you’re having trouble figuring out where to start or what your next step should be, it may help to reverse-engineer it.

First, define specifically what achieving your goal looks like. If it’s something vague, like “improve my work performance,” write down what you think will be different when you’ve reached that goal. For example, improving your work performance could mean that you want to be able to get three projects done per month.

Work backwards to figure out what steps you should take to reach that goal. If you want to get more work done, you’ll probably have to carve out more time in your day. To find that time, you have to evaluate your work habits. So maybe your first step is to start using a browser extension that tracks the amount of time you spend on certain sites. That can help you realize that you’re spending more time on social media than you realize, so you’re then able to set the micro-goal of avoiding social media when you’re at work.

1 Step at a Time

“I am a great believer in the principle of 1% gains. In other words, setting marginal gains which gather momentum over time,” said Ben Renshaw, a leadership coach and author of “Purpose: The Extraordinary Benefits of Focusing on What Matters Most.”

Renshaw uses the goal of physical fitness as an example.  Someone who doesn’t exercise can start by devoting 1 minute of the day to exercising, and then increasing the amount by 1 minute every day. While at first, it may seem silly or too easy to exercise for only a minute, if you keep this up for a month, you’ll be exercising for a full half hour – a perfectly respectable workout.

Every big goal is made up of a series of small steps. If you’re feeling stuck or overwhelmed, it helps to focus only on the task in front of you.

Staying on Track

Micro-goals are about using psychology to our advantage and creating a positive feedback loop that makes us want to keep going.

“Bigger goals are achieved with momentum. The achievement of micro-goals offers critical feedback to your brain that you’re on the right track to accomplish your bigger goal,” Krueger said.

Micro-goals will keep that momentum going, because you aren’t asking so much of yourself that you get burned out. You’re constantly hitting your targets.

So, what happens if you hit a roadblock? Remember that you don’t get sent back to the starting line if you encounter some setbacks, and you will be able to get back to where you were.

If you end up in a situation that undoes some of your progress, try to remind yourself that it didn’t happen because you’re incapable of actually achieving your goal or because the universe is conspiring to keep you from it. Life is unpredictable, and adversity is inevitable. Be ready for it, and don’t let it discourage you.

If you have a setback, write out a list of micro-goals that will help you get back on track. If you’re feeling really defeated, make them really small, easy things that you can accomplish in a few minutes. And take comfort in the knowledge that as long as you keep going, you’ll get to where you want to be.

What are your New Year’s resolutions? Share them in the comments below!

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