Organizing Theory & Artistry

Goal-Setting: Think Big and Think Small

A scene from yesterday's snowstorm, our first "real" snowstorm of the year.

In the last post, I gave some tips on generating ideas for personal and professional goals. Now that you have a basic idea of what you want to accomplish, it is time to refine these ideas.

Depending on what your basic idea is, you may need to either think big or think small. Thinking big will generate a more substantial goal that resonates with you at a deep level and that you will be more inclined to continue to pursue even when you have lost your initial energy and enthusiasm. Thinking small will help you to translate a vague idea into actionable, measurable tasks. Below are tips on how to approach this thinking exercise.

Think Big

Many goals may seem “big” in terms of the time and effort necessary to accomplish them but really are “small” in terms of their overall importance to broader goals or philosophies in your life. For example, if your goal is some variation of the ever-popular “lose ___ pounds,” to get to a deeper goal, you need to ask yourself one question:


. . . as in “Why do you want to lose ___ pounds?” Is it because your health depends on it? If yes, your broader goal might be, “Get stronger.” If instead, the reason you want to lose __ pounds is to look better, then your “real” goal might be “Get gorgeous.” or “Feel better about myself.”

"Snowflakes on the back of my pickup truck." Photo by Julian Colton. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

Think Small

Thinking too big has its downsides too. If you only have broad, overarching goals, it can be easy to get overwhelmed by the enormity of the task and not know where to start. This is where thinking small comes in. The exact details of what you plan to do to achieve the goal are critical. For example, if your initial goal is “Have more balance in my life,” you need to dig deeper into that by asking a different question:


As in “How will you get more balance in your life?” Possible answers could be: “Use my time more efficiently by setting up routines.” or “Reduce the amount of TV/blogs/Facebook I consume to spend more time ____.”

One of the best quotes I read recently on this subject came from browsing the alumni newsletter for the University of Utah.

“Instead of trying to achieve balance as I used to, my goal is to try to avoid imbalance, which has a higher probability of success than trying to find a single fulcrum point upon which my life can perch.”

Nalini Nadkarni, Professor of Environmental Studies and head of the Center for Science and Mathematics Education at the University of Utah.

When you have thought both large and small about your goals, you have a mental framework to not only motivate yourself but explain your change easily to others.

Example: “No, I won’t be watching ____ tonight. My New Year’s resolution is to spend more quality time with my kids so ____ had to go so we could spend more time reading/playing, etc.”

Who would fault you for this? If you are pursuing a broad goal we all want to achieve, we are interested to see how you go about it. The message is also personalized so it doesn’t pass judgment on anyone who makes different choices.

Example: “That brownie looks delicious but I’m afraid I have to pass. I am working to get stronger and need to get my weight under control. I find that the only way that works for me is to cut out all sugar.”

Weight loss is one of the touchiest subjects out there but stating your goal in both large and small terms may help people to better understand your actions. In the above example, hopefully the message that comes across to everyone else eating the brownies is not, “You’re so unhealthy.” but rather “Good for you! You must have some other system for controlling your weight.” (After all, some people prefer to exercise vigorously, eat everything but in moderation, cut back on other foods or benefit from “gifted” metabolisms.)

This exercise also works for professional goals. You might start with a vague goal like, “Prepare status report once a week.” Why? “To promote better communication with my manager.” or “To highlight my achievements so I can obtain a raise.” or “To prioritize key issues and matters for easy reference.” Once you know the “why,” you can structure the status report appropriately to address the “How” portion. For example, if you want your boss to know what you are doing, you might choose a format for the report that is easiest for your boss to read (even if that is not the easiest method for you to use).

Ruly Challenge: I encourage you to take just a few minutes to write down one area of your life that you would improve, whether or not you are ready to actually make that change right now. Ask yourself “Why?” and “How?” and write down your answers.

What questions do you ask yourself when trying to formulate goals or implement change? Please share in the comments.