All You Need To Know About Micro-Goals & Why They Result In Macro Change

January 25, 2021

hand writing in journal

“Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny.” —Gandhi

It’s the start of the New Year, a new chapter of your life, or maybe even a new day.

Looking down at your list of neatly hand-lettered goals, you think to yourself, “This time it will be different” and plan to wake up a new person—fresh and ready for change.

And then it happens. You miss a day of exercise. Your friends drag you to this “hot new place” that pulls you off your sugar detox. You oversleep and miss your scheduled time for morning meditation. You tuck that list of goals into your drawer and forget about them, going back to doing the same thing you did yesterday and the day before that and blaming yourself for yet another goal-hitting failure.

But what if it’s not about you, your motivation, your commitment, or anything related to your power to set and achieve goals? What if it’s how those goals are made that determine whether or not you reach those goals?

Meet micro-goals: your new best friend to becoming the person you’ve always wanted to be. 

What Are Micro-Goals?

If goal-setting was a marathon, micro-goals would be the 5-minute sprints that get you to your ultimate goal. Micro-goal setting is all about chunking your goals into tiny, bite-sized bits that are attainable and easy to tackle. They serve as the everyday fuel that motivates you to keep going in pursuit of your larger hopes and dreams. 

While often mistaken for short-term goals, micro-goals are distinct in that they should be something you’re able to do today, right now, and in this moment. An example explaining the difference between is as follows:

If your long-term goal is to write a book, a short-term goal would be to write a first draft by the end of the month. A micro-goal would be to write 1,750 words today. By focusing on what you can do right now, you trick your brain to stay motivated with a definitive end in sight. 

The Psychology Behind Micro-Goals

Quite possibly the most famous proponent of micro-goals is Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit. While his book may never have referenced micro-goals specifically, The Power of Habit is all about how short-term habits lead to long-term results.

Duhigg writes, “Small wins are exactly what they sound like, and are part of how keystone habits create widespread changes. A huge body of research has shown that small wins have enormous power, an influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves.”

The reason these “small wins” are so effective is due to a pleasure-inducing chemical and neurotransmitter in your brain called dopamine, which gets triggered when goals are achieved. This rush of pleasure, or the accomplishment of a goal, encourages your brain to repeat that behavior—forming a pattern in the brain, or what psychologists call the reinforcement learning cycle. The more small wins you accomplish, the more likely you are to stay on track to meet those short and long-term goals. 

How To Set Micro-Goals

Setting micro-goals is all about working backwards. 

Whether you want to buy a house, lose weight, change your career, or learn a new skill, you have to take those long-term desires and break them down to SMART goals, a term coined in 1981 by George Doran

SMART goals stand for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound. What makes SMART goals so effective is that their specific and attainable nature make them easy for the brain to comprehend, while their measurable and time-bound aspects make them motivational for an easy to comprehend goal-setting framework. 

If your goal is to lose weight, you can turn that into a SMART goal by adding the following qualifiers:

I am going to lose 1lb (measurable) per week (realistic and attainable) for ten weeks (time-bound) for a net loss of ten pounds (specific and measurable). 

To break that SMART goal further into a micro-goal would mean to add:

I will eat a healthy breakfast this morning.

Repeating that micro-goal for lunch and dinner will help achieve the SMART goal to ultimately achieve the long term goal of losing weight and result in long term and sustainable habits, making it a powerhouse for positive change. 

How To Stay On Track

When setting micro-goals, it’s important to stay disciplined enough to set the next micro-goal and the micro-goal after that. To stay accountable, evaluate often and see how attainable your goals are and whether or not you need to adjust any of your expectations. Goal-evaluations tips include bullet journals with daily check-ins, devoting time once a week to evaluate whether or not you’re hitting your goals, or having an accountability partner to stay on track. My personal preference is to keep all my goals in a Trello board and check off whether I achieved them or not once a month, but it’s important you find the frequency and evaluation type that works most effectively for you. 

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Goal-setting and achieving is all about mindset, discipline, and a bit of psychological hacking. 

Next time you want to tackle that next challenge or set that next goal, sit down and chunk it up into timely, attainable micro-goals and look out for macro-change.

Also by Dana: How An Annual Life Audit Gives Me Clarity & Balance

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Photo: Pixabay

Dana Drosdick
Dana is a marketer living in Saratoga Springs, NY with a passion for all things related to stewardship, faith, wellness, and personal enrichment. Her work has been featured in various Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies, The Odyssey Online, and The Banner Magazine. Follow her at @danadrosdick on Instagram for foodie trends, her latest book recommendations, and far too many photos of clementines.

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