Tiny Goals for Maximum Performance

Quick Summary: Define and focus on very short, easily attainable goals, following the adage of one step at a time.


Yearly slips happen one day at a time.  When goals are too far off in the distance, it is hard to focus energy on them when daily tactical issues seem to interrupt our best intentions.  A simple method to avoid this issue is to establish small, short-term goals and review them often.

I used to smoke three packs of cigarettes every day.  I enjoyed them all.  In fact, if I woke up in the middle of the night and was awake enough to know that I was awake, I put my feet on the floor and had a cigarette.  One day, my five-year-old son after watching a cartoon show, asked me when I was going to quit smoking.  I told him: “Soon” and went back to reading the newspaper with a cigarette in hand.  A few minutes later, he ripped the newspaper out of my hand and said” “That’s not a good answer.”  I swore at him.  Really, I swore at myself quickly realizing that my five-year-old son was smarter than I was!  That simple question raised my guilt level to the point that I had to quit.

Five days later, on Thursday, February 23, 1978 at 5:35 PM EST, while driving southbound on Interstate 71 in Ohio at Exit 65, the Washington Court House exit, I opened a fresh pack of cigarettes and put one in my mouth.  Before I lit it, I thought about my son’s comment.  I put the cigarette back in the pack and placed in on the dashboard.  I quit smoking.  I did not quit for one year, or one month, or one week, or even one day.  I quit for five minutes.  I knew I could make it that long.  I even set the stopwatch feature on my watch to time it!  Sometime within those five minutes, the urge past.  After that, whenever I felt the urge for a cigarette, I started the stopwatch and watched the seconds tick away.  Within those five minutes, the urge passed. I repeated this process with every urge that I had for the next three weeks.  It worked; slowly the urges became less and less frequent.  I have not smoked since then.  It was a long time ago in fact, this year on February 23, 2018, I will have had 4,207,968 five-minute victories and no losses over the thirty-year period.  I knew I could never quit for one year; that goal was too far away.  But for five minutes?  I knew I could do it.

Not only do all of us face similar challenges in our personal lives, but companies face challenges every day.  Lofty goals are set and agreements are reached, but few people think about what they can do every day to meet those goals.  Managers typically pull out their action plans from last month’s operations review meeting to prepare for this month’s meeting that will be held the next day.  They then quickly develop plausible reasons why they didn’t meet last month’s objectives as they vow that next month will be different.  Entrepreneurs are not immune to the same routine. In their case, they are so busy with today’s activities that next week, let alone next month, is so far away that they decide those issues can wait until tomorrow.  Just like their corporate counterparts, they do not forecast failure usually until the deadline is quickly approaching and recovery time is not sufficient.  If you think this does not apply to you, think about the past New Year’s resolutions that were made and their success rate.  It happens to all of us and every organization; big or small, new or old.

A simple method of minimizing this situation is to break larger goals into small tasks that are easily attainable and measurable along the way.  For example, dividing an annual revenue target into monthly targets can start the process.   Then, identify the tasks necessary to meet the monthly targets, and then review the task list weekly or perhaps even daily.  Following this plan, tasks do get done and roadblocks are quickly identified.  The same process works for development, manufacturing, order processing, finance, and virtually every other task in the company.

There is scientific justification that supports this approach.  It is referred to as the Goal-Gradient Hypothesis.  Essentially, it describes that the energy expended to reach a goal increases as the goal becomes closer. Laser vision and single-minded focus seem to block out all distractions.   Examples of this phenomenon occur in athletic events such as the infamous two-minute drill in football and track athletes bursting for the finish line.  Virtually all of us respond the same way.  Harnessing this capability with short, precise incremental goals can yield remarkable results.

This highly tactical approach is not in conflict with the “big picture”.  In fact, remember that the big picture is painted one brush stroke or one pixel at a time involving careful planning and execution at each step.  Take a close look at an oil painting and the individual brush strokes that resulted in the work-of-art.  It worked for the Masters; it can work for you.

By the way, in February 1978, Jimmy Carter was President, gas was sixty-two cents per gallon, inflation was at 9.02%, and especially applicable to my quitting smoking, The Bee Gees had the number one pop song “Stayin Alive.”

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