Taking Steps toward Goals: What Does Research Tell Us?

By Senia Maymin

Over the last 5 years, I studied motivation and incremental steps toward goals for my Ph.D. research. During the same time period, I used incremental steps myself, publishing Profit from the Positive with Margaret Greenberg. Based on both experiences, here are my research-based suggestions for taking incremental steps to reach important goals.

1) Break big goals into smaller steps

If you have a 42-page document to write for work and you have seven days to do it, should you A) set a goal of completing all 42 pages within seven days or B) set a goal of completing six pages on the first day and keep resetting that six-page goal each day?

What happened? Smaller subgoals led to faster completion and more accurate answers than one large goal. This has been demonstrated so often that researchers now take it for granted.In 1981, researchers Albert Bandura and Dale Schunk tested something very similar to the above question. Bandura and Schunk worked with children ages 7 to 10. About half the children received the suggestion to set a goal of completing six pages of math problems per session, and the other half received the suggestion to set a goal of completing 42 pages of math problems over seven sessions.

The specific results of the original study were that children with the smaller subgoals completed each session in an average of 21 minutes while those with one large goal took 29 minutes per session.  Furthermore, children with the smaller subgoals performed better, getting about 80% of the math problems right compared to about 40% for the students with one large goal. Additionally, children that actively thought about the smaller subgoals had greater confidence in their abilities, greater perseverance, and (the best result of them all in my book) greater intrinsic motivation as measured by how much they voluntarily chose to solve math problems. This result about setting smaller subgoals has been replicated with young adults, government employees, and college students.

What does all this mean in practical terms?  If you want to accomplish something, break it down into smaller steps and go after them incrementally.  In Profit from the Positive, we give a nuanced recommendation related to this finding: we encourage readers to “just plan it” instead of “just do it.”  Plan out the smaller steps before jumping into the big project.

When you are planning out your smaller steps, you could create a ritual about when the event falls on your calendar. You could choose to work in your home office every morning at 8:30am for a half hour or in a conference room every Wednesday and Friday afternoon at 2pm. Why might it be helpful to ritualize the time and location of working on a task?

2) Turn working on the subgoals into a habit

People do not need to think about the action they are taking and can have other thoughts while taking the action.When you plan a time and a location for taking action, you are setting the seeds of a habit.  Researchers define a habit as an action performed almost daily in a stable environment.  In a diary study of daily behaviors, researcher Wendy Wood and colleagues found when people are doing something habitually, two positive results emerge:

  1. People feel less stressed and have a lower intensity of emotions when they are taking habitual actions.

Thus, habits allow us to free up our minds and feel less stress.

During the years when we were writing Profit from the Positive, Margaret and I had a one-hour meeting every Friday at 10am my time and 1pm her time.  That was routinely in our schedules and kept us honest about continuing to move the project forward even when Margaret had a full-time consulting and executive coaching practice and I was doing research full time.  Plus, having small tidbits of successful progress FELT good.

Why might that be?  In clinical-counseling literature, Terry Trepper and colleagues suggest that a therapy focused on the short-term and on process helps the patient by forming incremental behavioral success-patterns.  That makes sense: if you are focused on short-term processes, then each time the process works well, it reinforces behavioral success-patterns.

3) Focus on process, not outcome

This is the kicker.  Sometimes it feels energizing to say, “I’m going to write a book,” or “I’m going to make $X.”  Ok, so you’ve said it.  But does focusing on the outcome help you take steps to achieve it?

You’re probably not going to sit down and write a book.  You’re probably going to write a chapter or an outline.  To do that, you’re probably going to start by gathering some information or writing down a brain dump of your ideas relevant to that outline or chapter.  The “write a book” goal is likely long term and far away.  What could you focus on to enjoy the process?  You could focus on how you write, that is, the writing process.  You could focus on making sure to describe the benefits and key results of each chapter and making sure to highlight instances when the suggestions you’re making do not work. Thus you could have a process that you work on improving.

Researchers Lien Pham and Shelley Taylor studied which behavior is better for achieving a goal: focusing on the process or focusing on the outcome.   They found that students who simulate the process of studying for an exam and focus on good study habits get a better grade on the exam 5-7 days later than students who simulate the outcome of getting the good grade. The students who simulate the process also do better than the students who simulate both process and outcome.  What could be happening here?  The researchers found that focusing on the process and on good study habits decreases anxiety and increases planning, both of which help to achieve better grades.

What does this mean for you?  It’s easy to measure oneself by the outcome, but paying attention to the process may get you closer to where you want to be. As a preview of future articles, this is especially important where the project is not completely clear and if there are some things for you to learn along the way.Similarly researchers Barry Zimmerman and Anastasia Kitsantas ran a study on teaching girls to shoot darts. During practice sessions, the girls that focused on the process were told to focus on the final two movements in each throw: the vertical forearm motion and the finger extension towards the target.  The girls that focused on outcome were told to try to get the highest numeric score (between 0 and 7) during the practice session.  The girls focused on process consistently outperformed the ones focused on outcome in dart skill.

In a Nutshell

In summary, here are the three pieces of research you most need to know about incremental steps:

  • Choose smaller steps of a larger goal
  • Develop a habit
  • Focus more on process than on outcome

If you take these actions, you’ll likely find that it’s easier to work on an important project.

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