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Think Small: 7 Simple Steps to Help You Reach Your Goals

Posted on 17th May 2017 by Martha Greengrass

'Our message is that, by getting some of the smaller details right, you are much more likely to ultimately succeed. In short, in order to reach big, you need to start by thinking small.'

Have you ever set yourself a goal but found that, without quite knowing how, it falls by the wayside? Worry not, you're not alone. Authors Rory Gallagher and Owain Service have taken insights gleaned from their work inside the world's first Nudge Unit to produce Think Small, a book that shows that the solution is easier than we might think. Here, exclusively for Waterstones, they offer a 7-step guide to creating (and sticking to) your best laid plans.

Have you ever wanted to achieve a challenging goal at work or in your personal life, but found you never quite got around to it? You might have had every intention of training for a marathon, but it was always a bit more tempting to say that you’d get on it tomorrow rather than feel the pain today. Or you might have been trying to diet and lose weight, and it worked for a while, but gradually your old eating habits began to re-surface. You might even have been trying to change the way you manage your team at work, but when push came to shove, there was always something more urgent to do. 

These feelings are familiar to most of us. The plans we make today often fall by the wayside when life gets in the way. Behavioural scientists even have a name for it: ‘present bias’ – we prefer rewards today over bigger gains tomorrow, and we delay effortful decisions and actions, even when we know we probably shouldn’t. 

In our day jobs at the Behavioural Insights Team (or Nudge Unit as we’re more commonly known), Rory and I draw on insights like these and use them to support big government programmes. It might be to help people get back to work, to encourage them to pay their taxes on time, or to eat more healthily. In doing so, we draw on the latest findings from the behavioural science research, and then make changes to the design of public services. 

But over the years, we’ve become increasingly interested in how these same methods could be used by individuals to nudge themselves. And that’s what this book is about. The central premise of Think Small is that if you want to achieve a big, challenging goal in your life, there are some small changes you can make to how you go about reaching that goal that will make the difference between success and failure. 

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The book explains how, despite our knowledge of the behavioural science literature, we too are susceptible to exactly the same all-too-human frailties as everyone else. So, alongside the studies are stories from our own lives, of how we have used the very techniques we employ at work in our personal lives to get fit, reduce the amount we drink, and be better managers at work. The result is a framework, organized around seven simple steps, that any one of us can use to achieve our goals.

It starts with how you SET your goal in the first place. Many of us fail at this first step – by focusing on too many things and not stopping to think about whether any of these goals might ultimately make us happier. So, we encourage our readers to go with the evidence: focus on a goal that will improve your wellbeing, and set a single objective, which will make it much more likely you’ll ultimately be able to stick to it.

The next step is to PLAN. Not in the sense of creating a big spreadsheet. The key here is to create simple, clear rules that reduce the cognitive effort required to stick to your goal. When I wanted to reduce the amount of alcohol I drank, for example, I didn’t try to stick to the guidance of the Chief Medical Officer (no more than 3 to 4 units of alcohol on average per day). Instead I set myself a simple, easy-to-follow rule: no drinking during the week while at home. These ‘bright lines’ are much easier to follow than more complex rules: they don’t require any calculating, and make it easy to know when you’ve stepped over the line.

Step three is to COMMIT to achieving your goal. The evidence here is clear: if you make a public commitment, write it down, and then appoint someone to act as your ‘commitment referee’, you’re much more likely to achieve your goal. For example, when Rory wanted to exercise more, he commandeered the Nudge Unit whiteboard, wrote down a commitment to exercise three times a week for three months, and appointed me as his commitment referee.

Many of us recognise the benefit of a REWARD in motivating ourselves to achieve a goal. But few of us are aware of the potential pitfalls. Lots of studies show how financial incentives can backfire if they are poorly targeted and have the inadvertent effect of turning our intrinsic motivations into financial transactions. So, we recommend small rewards to help celebrate steps along the path to the ultimate goal, and a big, ideally non-financial reward to help celebrate your ultimate goal. You might even consider an ‘anti-incentive’, like a contribution to your least favourite politician or sports club if you fail to achieve your goal. You will likely find this much more motivating than an equivalent positive reward.

One mistake that most of us make when trying to achieve a long-term goal is to think about how we can SHARE our goal with others. But one of the simplest things you can do is to ask others to help you. When researchers in New York got people to go onto the streets of the city and ask total strangers if they could borrow their mobile phones, almost half of everyone asked agreed. Imagine then, how many people you actually know who would be willing to help you achieve your goal. And the good news is that countless studies show that if you work with others, you’re more likely to ultimately succeed.

Seeking out FEEDBACK is the focus of step six. It’s no good setting yourself a long-term goal if you don’t know where you stand in relation to it, and whether you’re making progress towards it. It is also incredibly powerful to understand how you are performing in relation to other people. When the Behavioural Insights Team wanted to get doctors to reduce their antibiotic prescriptions (over prescriptions are a big problem that encourages antimicrobial resistance), we informed the biggest offenders of how they prescription rates differed from everyone else. This resulted in huge reductions in antibiotics at close to no cost.

Finally, once you’ve put these steps into practice, we encourage you to employ a series of techniques that will enable you to STICK at your goal. One of the most important of these is to test new ideas, and to incorporate these learnings into your future routines. This is a core part of how the Behavioural Insights Team operates – we test changes to processes to understand what works and what doesn’t. And you can, in a more modest way, do the same. If you’re training to run a marathon, for example, you don’t just want to do the same run every day. You want to test variations in your routine, to see which seems to be having the strongest effect. And then, ultimately, do more of the stuff that works best, and less of the things that don’t make a difference.

But focusing on these small changes doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have big ambitions. Rather, our message is that, by getting some of the smaller details right, you are much more likely to ultimately succeed. In short, in order to reach big, you need to start by thinking small.


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