Self-help literature encourages people to set Big Hairy Audacious Goals, commonly known as BHAG’s. But for many, these goals are more pipe dreams than possibilities. Unless you’ve already become the next Steve Jobs, Oprah, or Beyoncé, a better alternative would be a small meaningful attainable goal (SMAG).
The Problem with the Big Hairy Audacious Goals
Big hairy audacious goals are uplifting and inspiring. Yet 96% of personal development efforts fail. New Year’s resolutions become an afterthought. Why does this happen?
1. They lead to false Sense of Accomplishment
A few years ago I met a writer with no audience whose goal was to sell a million copies of her book.
People make public declarations like these all day on social media. As the flood of validation in the form of hearts, likes, and comments rolls in, they begin to confuse attention with accomplishment. They’ve been congratulated for something they haven’t done.
Contrast that with Ryan Holiday, who never talks about his next book until it’s finished. The only mention of his latest book that you’ll ever see on social media is when he submits the finished manuscript to his publisher. As a result, he has written 8 books in 8 years.
People don’t realize that nobody gives a shit about what you’re going to start. All that counts is what you’ve finished. You’re more likely to finish when you set a small meaningful attainable goal.
2. They decrease motivation
When people set big hairy audacious goals, the gap between who they are and who they want to be is so big, it paradoxically decreases their motivation. There are two reasons for this:
- Success accelerants: The brain makes progress towards a goal based on the perceived distance to that goal. The shorter that distance, the faster you’ll accomplish the goal. BHAGS make the perceived distance longer and small meaningful attainable goals make it shorter.
- The Progress Principle: Visible progress is one of our greatest sources of motivation. With big hairy audacious goals, the outcome is so far in the future, it can feel like we’re not making any progress.
Take the example of the writer who wanted to sell a million copies of a book within a year. The probability of accomplishing this goal is low. The perceived distance is massive and she would feel like a failure because she’s measuring her progress against that outcome.
3. They Aren’t Always Meaningful
Because media has such a profound impact on culture, we measure our lives with other people’s yardsticks instead of coming up with our own definition of success. We overlook the essence of a goal without any understanding of why we want it.
Many entrepreneurs have set a goal to become either a millionaire or a billionaire. There’s nothing wrong with those goals. But unless you know why you want to achieve them, they won’t lead to the fulfillment you think they will.
When you know why you want to achieve a monetary goal, you’ll be able to optimize your life for enough.
Why Small Meaningful Attainable Goals are More Effective
We underestimate the power of starting small. But every best-selling book, Grammy-winning album, Oscar-winning film, and billion-dollar enterprise is the results of small, repetitive, consistent actions.
1. There is a higher probability we’ll achieve small goals
The personal development world is notorious for encouraging delusional optimism and new age bullshit. It encourages people to set goals they have little probability of achieving. This was one of the most invaluable insights I learned from my old mentor Greg.
Using outliers as our role models causes us to set improbable goals that we won’t ever accomplish. We’re far more likely to achieve our small meaningful goals and they increase our sense of possibility.
2. It’s easier to stay motivated
The beauty of small meaningful goals is that they are often within our control. Contrast the goal of writing 1000 words daily for 30 days with selling a million copies of a book. With the first goal, it’s easy to experience visible progress and leverage the power of creative momentum.
3. They are more meaningful
We often set our big hairy audacious goals in search of external validation. We let gatekeepers determine our fate and sit around waiting for permission and waiting to be picked.
But with a small meaningful goal, we can take matters into our own hands. We can find joy in the process and do work that we’re proud to put our signature on.
I’ve been guilty of forgetting this since my last book was published. There doesn’t seem to be any interest from publishers in the book I want to write. But I remembered the people I’m writing my books for are my readers, not my publishers. And they ARE interested in the book.
How to Set Small Meaningful Attainable Goals
You’ll get far more out of an article like this if you remember and take action on the ideas in it. So I’ve created a list of steps below.
1. Make Sure It has Meaningful Parameters (aka Why)
You want to set ambitious goals with meaningful parameters. An easy way to do this is with the following framework Ryder Caroll offers in The Bullet Journal Method.
I want x so that y
When I did this, I figured out the exact dollar amount that would allow me to have enough money to start a family, keep doing work that I love, take two surf trips a year, and maintain my current lifestyle. You might stumble on a really powerful realization; You don’t need a million dollars to get everything you want.
2. Start Small
You might be thinking: how small? Start so small that you feel zero resistance. This is what I defined as a minimum viable action.
Instead of writing 1000 words, crack open a notebook.
Write a sentence instead of a paragraph.
Eat a brussel sprout instead of a donut.
Minimum viable actions are the key to BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits framework. By taking minimum viable actions, you start developing the identity of the person you want to become.
Do one small thing which that type of person does. A writer opens a notebook every day. If you honor that commitment for multiple days in a row, you’ll gain momentum. As you stack minimum viable actions, you’ll start to break bad habits and build good ones.
3. Track Your Progress
This is one of the most important steps because progress fuels motivation. Just make your progress visible in some way. Whether you’re crossing items off a to-do list or using a ‘don’t break the chain’ calendar, you need to be able to see progress.
In 2013, I set a small meaningful attainable goal to sell 1000 copies of a self-published book. It felt both possible and probable.
The first book I wrote was The Small Army Strategy. Thanks to some kind words from Chris Brogan, it sold 1000 copies. The second book was The Art of Being Unmistakable which became a Wall-Street Journal Best-Seller and eventually led to my book deal.
What started as a small, meaningful, and attainable goal turned into a big hairy audacious one. Try this for 30 days and let me know how it works out.
Want Help with Starting Your Small Meaningful Goals
I’ve put together a free workbook to help you set 5 small goals each month, achieve 5 milestones a week and take 5 actions a day. Click here to get it.