Want to achieve your dreams? Try subdividing your goals

Breaking down big work goals into smaller components can enhance long-term success significantly, Wharton research shows.

Have a massive, daring goal in mind? Breaking it into smaller steps can help you achieve your dreams.

A research paper led by Wharton Ph.D. alumni Aneesh Rai and Edward Chang and co-authored by Wharton professors Marissa Sharif, Katy Milkman, and Angela Duckworth finds that breaking down a commitment to volunteer 200 hours per year for a nonprofit into smaller subgoals (volunteering 4 hours weekly or 8 hours biweekly) increased the amount of time volunteers spent helping by 7-8% over several months.

A person planning a big project with a board.
Image: iStock/HAKINMHAN

When applied across a large organization like Crisis Text Line (CTL), which partnered with Wharton faculty and doctoral program alumni on the study, the 8% increase in volunteering becomes quite meaningful.

If CTL implemented the researchers’ most effective approach across all volunteers for a year, it could result in an estimated 19,900 additional hours of volunteering—at virtually no extra cost, the paper reports.

These findings suggest that subgoal framing can be a cost-effective and potent strategy for individuals, managers, and organizations hoping to make long-term progress on their goals.

Breaking down a big goal into smaller ones means there are more immediate objectives to meet (or miss). This means there are more frequent and immediate deadlines, which previous studies along with Milkman’s research show can reduce procrastination.

“We believe that setting more detailed subgoals can help people stick to their goals because these smaller steps require less time commitment compared to tackling the whole goal at once,” Milkman said. This aspect makes commitment to the goal more appealing, similar to the “pennies-a-day” effect. For example, in a 2020 study, participants were more willing to sign up for a savings program when it was framed as deducting smaller amounts more frequently from their bank account compared to a larger sum deducted less often.

Another significant risk in suggesting people strive to achieve micro-goals on short time scales is that it offers them less flexibility in how they’ll achieve their long-term objectives. For instance, if your goal is to visit the gym 120 times a year, there are many ways you could accomplish that. But if you break it down into a monthly goal of 10 gym visits, your options for achieving that goal become more limited.

“The smaller the goals, the less wiggle room you have to change your plans. This lack of flexibility can lead to a higher chance of failing or facing setbacks, which might make you give up on the goal altogether,” said Milkman. Research on what’s called the “what-the-hell effect” has shown that when people don’t meet their goals, it increases the likelihood of them giving up on their goals entirely.

Read more at Knowledge at Wharton.