Think Big, Start Small

You know how to eat an elephant, right? One bite at a time.

When it comes to elephants, we get it – there’s no way we can eat one all at once. When it comes to our own goals, however, we tend toward an all-or-nothing approach.

This explains Blue Monday – a theory by psychologist Dr. Cliff Arnall, who came up with a mathematical formula determining that the third Monday of the New Year is statistically the saddest day of the year. Makes sense. It’s about the three-week point that the zeal for your life-changing “this year will be different” new year’s resolutions starts to fade and the realization of what it’s going to take sinks in.

Set Yourself Up For Success

For sure, big goals are more exciting. As 4-Hour Workweek author Tim Ferriss says, they give us “an adrenaline infusion that provides the endurance to overcome the inevitable trials and tribulations that go along with any goal.”

The best way to get the big win, however, is to start small. Modest but consistent progress will always trump all-out, dramatic efforts. Starting small sets you up for success (and there’s nothing that says you can’t scale up as you acclimate).

Here are three ways to start small: The thing with all-or-nothing thinking – which, by definition, means going from 0 to 100 – is it creates inertia. Breaking a big goal down into micro-goals may mean less bragging rights (sorry, Ego!) but it busts through the wall of inertia. Once you start taking small steps, momentum kicks in and it actually becomes easier to keep moving forward than to stop.

At BUD/s training, Navy SEAL candidates are taught to “segment” —  rather than thinking about how they’re going to get through the next five days of Hell Week, to focus on the micro-goal of getting to the next meal, the next evolution.

Former SEAL Commander Mark Divine says: “When we set our sights on micro-goals, we achieve micro-wins, which quickly stack up and develop a sense of momentum and “can-do” instead of “can’t-won’t.”

Consider this for the ever popular goal of running a first marathon. Instead of making it a big all-or-nothing goal, break it up with multiple 5k and 10k events in between. These micro-wins will get you feeling more confident and excited about the big marathon.


If you’re intent on mastering a skill, like a new language or musical instrument, you may think there’s no value in practicing minutes. But Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code, says: “When you practice a little each day, skills don’t erode. In fact, they consolidate. It’s like a bank account earning compound interest: a virtuous spiral where skill accrues quickly.”

This is exactly what my violinist sister found as she was counting down the months before returning to her post at the Paris Opera after five years focused on raising her children. By practicing every day – even if only for 15 or 20 minutes – she showed up at the first rehearsal feeling confident and in control.

If you have a hobby you’ve been meaning to pick back up, you can do the same and start with micro-practice sessions of 15 minutes. Remember, the first 15 minutes you spend may just be on getting organized so don’t get discouraged.


And, finally, for everyone who says they don’t have time to exercise, former Navy SEAL Phil Black and founder of FitDeck, is on a mission to change that with micro-cising. “Basically”, he says, “whenever I found myself waiting for someone or something, I started micro-cising. It didn’t matter what I was wearing. There was no sweating involved and no exercise took more than 10-20 seconds at a time.” As a result, he finds hidden pockets of time to exercise while the eggs are boiling, during a TV commercial, on hold with Home Depot, and while his kids are putting on their soccer cleats.

The next time you find yourself strapped for exercise time, remember all the ways you can micro-size with just 10 seconds: 10 squats, 5 pushups, 10 alternating kneetucks, or even standing pikes (reaching your arms from ceiling to your toes).

For more ideas on motivation and mental training, check out the three-day free trial of my “21 Days to a Mental Six-Pack” course, with short — less than five minute —  daily mental training exercises.

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