It’s not often that our problem is our goals aren’t “big enough.”

I realize it’s the “in” thing in the personal development field to encourage people to set big, audacious goals. A good friend recently told me he thinks people should set “goals that scare them.” I see in my social media feeds every day posts from personal development and self-help teachers encouraging people to shoot for the moon, telling them nothing is impossible, telling them to think and live BIG!

“Thinking big” is great in theory.

But it’s my experience that most of the time, in the real world, people who are struggling with their goals have usually thought too big, too fast.

I understand the idea behind “setting goals that scare you” is that the breathtaking audaciousness of those goals is supposed to inspire people, get them back in touch with what they REALLY want, goose them into action by posing a motivating challenge.

But, in the real world, do you know what more often happens when we’re scared of something?

That’s right— we avoid it.

For example: a lot of people are scared by the idea of quitting smoking.

Mind you, quitting smoking is a huge, audacious, inspiring goal for a lot of people. There are few behavior patterns that cause as much pain for as many people as smoking.

But the goal of quitting smoking scares a lot of people, because they’re very aware of how dependent they are on the habit of smoking. They’re aware of the physiological unpleasantness of nicotine withdrawal. They’re aware of how smoking provides a behavioral crutch in social situations. They’re aware of all the reinforcing feelings and experiences they associate with smoking, and a lot of the time they’re also aware of how unpleasant it’s often been when they’ve tried to quit smoking in the past.

True fear rarely inspires people.

More often it paralyzes them.

That’s why I’m not so hot on “goals that scare us.” I’m far fonder of “goals that seem too easy.”

For example: instead of the grandiose goal of “GIVING UP SMOKING FOR GOOD,” I prefer the goal of “smoke a third fewer cigarettes today than you did yesterday.”

Instead of the grandiose goal of “RESTRICTING MY CALORIES DRAMATICALLY AND LOSING TWENTY POUNDS OF BODY FAT,” I prefer the goal of, “just this week, eat one hundred fewer calories a day than you have been eating.”

Instead of the grandiose goal of “NEVER DRINKING ALCOHOL AGAIN,” I prefer the starting point of “Just this week, pick three days when you won’t drink at all, come hell or high water. And if you can’t do that? Pick ONE day this week when you won’t drink at all, come hell or high water.”

Of course, all of these example goals are starting points. But that’s the point: someone who manages to successfully achieve these “starting point” goals will start to build confidence. They will have real-world, impossible-to-deny, first hand experience with ACTUALLY achieving goals…which not only provides them with a squirt of the reward neurotransmitter serotonin in their brains, but also gives them the confidence to adjust their goals just little bit upward.

Which is more motivating for a beginning runner: the goal to run a marathon, or the goal to run three minutes without stopping?

Which is more motivating for someone who is trying like hell to quit a habit: NEVER DO THE HABIT AGAIN, or figure out a way to keep from doing the habit for the next hour?

Which is more motivating for someone who is trying to clean their house and feels overwhelmed by it: CLEAN THE WHOLE HOUSE, or spend ten minutes doing the dishes?

I understand that some people ONLY want to think about moonshots. Moonshots are sexier. They’re more interesting to think about. They’re the stuff of movies and TV dramas. Self-help gurus routinely make money hand over fist encouraging people to shoot for the moon instead of setting small, incremental, doable goals.

But I want you to make actual change in your actual, everyday life.

I want you to build confidence in your ability to set goals and achieve them.

I want you to build your habit-changing muscles.

I want to help people AVOID getting freaked out by their goals, not encourage them to set goals that will make them feel inadequate and silly when they struggle with achieving their grandiose vision.

If you really want to realistically reach for the stars…keep your feet on the ground.


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2 thoughts on “Reaching for the stars…with our feet on the earth.

  1. I have a big dream. My daily goal is much smaller: take one step toward that dream every day. At first, that was pretty scary and I didn’t always manage to do it. The next day, I would have the same goal: one step toward my dream. Some days that step is bigger than other days, some days it’s really tiny. I’m living a piece of my great big dream every day, and that feels great! What never worked before for me was thinking of those steps as working toward my dream. Now I think of each step as living my dream for the time it takes me to do those steps. It isn’t always what you do that matters; it’s how you think of it. Just like you say!


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