Maryland Smith Research / June 11, 2024

The Secret to Accomplishing Big Goals

Smith research suggests breaking goals into bite-sized chunks

Breaking large goals into bite-sized chunks boosts commitment and performance, suggests research by Aneesh Rai, assistant professor at the Smith School.

It can be difficult to figure out exactly how to achieve your ultimate career goal. Whether it's running your own business or becoming CEO of the company you work for, the steps you need to take to make it happen can seem insurmountable. However, the findings in a study co-authored by Aneesh Rai, assistant professor of management and organization, may provide a useful strategy.

Rai’s study, “A Field Experiment on Subgoal Framing to Boost Volunteering: The Trade-off Between Goal Granularity and Flexibility,” finds that breaking large goals into bite-sized chunks helps increase the time spent working on the long-term goal. This was borne out in a group of crisis line volunteers who committed to 200 hours of counseling a year, aiming for four hours a week or eight hours every two weeks.

Rai says as you navigate your career, “striving to achieve high levels of performance can be daunting.” To help motivate yourself, the idea is to break a huge goal into smaller pieces so you can experience small wins along the way, he says. If you dream of becoming a CEO, there are ways to separate that goal into easier-to-accomplish parts. The research suggests identifying smaller subgoals that contribute to achieving the overarching one.

Be strategic:

You may need to be promoted several times to rise to the C-suite, so pin down the things that are going to help you do that.

  • Make sure your performance is consistently at a high level.
  • Don’t let avoidable pitfalls like tardiness or absence get you off your path. Show up to work on time every day to demonstrate how reliable you are.
  • Build a sound network. Develop a mentoring relationship with colleagues or managers who can give you advice on how to rise through the ranks.
  • If you know how many years from now you’d like to be CEO, benchmarks may be helpful. For example, set up the subgoal of becoming a team leader in two years, then moving to middle management in four, and so on.

Build in some flexibility:

More rigid deadlines can be motivating but less flexible. The risk with having a very rigid, granular goal is that when you miss that subgoal you may end up feeling like you’re falling behind. Flexibility can reduce feelings of goal failure.

  • Build in extra time to reach subgoals like getting that next promotion on your way to meeting your ultimate career goal. You won’t feel so bad about not getting the promotion a year from now if you give yourself another year and a half to get it done.
  • Don’t follow what has worked for someone else. Find your level of flexibility. If you build in too much extra time to reach subgoals, you may lose motivation and stop making progress toward the large goal. Find your sweet spot.

Read the research referenced in this article in the Journal of Applied Psychology

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