Helen O’Callaghan talks to one of its authors


One step at a time for reaching life goals

A new book on reaching important life goals advocates for small, attainable objectives. Helen O’Callaghan talks to one of its authors

One step at a time for reaching life goals

YES, dream big, reach far, aspire high — but think small.

This is the advice from government advisers Owain Service and Dr Rory Gallagher in their new book, Think Small: The surprisingly simple ways to reach big goals.

The book is aimed at the individual, at anybody wanting to improve their personal or work life. It rebuts the common assumption that only big, bold changes lead to large results. In fact, the authors say, small changes and clear plans — based on scientific understanding of human behaviour — have the potential to make big differences in our lives.

Service and Gallagher are MDs of the world’s first Nudge Unit — its formal name is the Behavioural Insights Team, set up by David Cameron soon after he came to 10 Downing Street in 2010. The idea was to apply findings from behavioural science research in the real world, in order to help people make better decisions for their lives.

Time and again, the Nudge Unit found that making small changes in the way public services worked — little tweaks in how things were done — could lead to sizeable impacts. They found adding one single line in letters to late taxpayers (saying the vast majority of people pay their tax on time) could bring forward payment of millions of pounds of tax debt. And prompting people with a simple text message, prior to sending bailiffs around to collect court fines, trebled the fine payment rate (the Nudge Unit found many people didn’t even know they had overdue fines).

“We’re not saying rein in your ambition. You absolutely should aspire to reaching big goals,” Service tells Feelgood. But the mistake people make is thinking they’ll achieve a goal simply by expressing a desire to do so.

“Just expressing a desire isn’t enough — and positive thinking doesn’t help much either. What does help is thinking about the small steps you need to take to get to your goal — those small details matter more than you think.”

There’s a big difference between saying ‘I’m going to do something’ and being specific about the where, when, and how of how you’re going to do it, says Service. He cites findings from a voting trial conducted during the 2008 US presidential campaign. When would-be voters got a phone call asking them questions deliberately designed to encourage plan-making, they were over 4% more likely to vote than people who weren’t asked such questions. Service says the research showed that asking plan-focused questions — like ‘what time will you vote?’, ‘Where will you be coming from at that stage?’, ‘What will you have been doing beforehand?’ — could potentially change election outcomes in quite a number of states.

Owain Service: ‘We’re not saying rein in your ambition. You absolutely should aspire to reaching big goals.’ Picture: Getty
Owain Service: ‘We’re not saying rein in your ambition. You absolutely should aspire to reaching big goals.’ Picture: Getty

The trick is to make mental connections — or as the authors call them, ‘cognitive links’ — between things in your daily routine and the actions you need to take.

“If you plan, ‘I’m going to have a run on Wednesday evening when I get home from work’, you’re much more likely to do it than if you say, ‘I’m going to get fit this summer’,” says Service.

The technique can also be used to stop yourself falling into negative habits that will hinder your progress. “If you’re going out to eat but you’re trying to lose weight and you know you’ll be tempted by the dessert menu, plan ahead to just have an espresso instead.”

Service says research shows using such ‘implementation intentions’ has been effective at helping people do such diverse things as eating more fruit, increasing public transport use, reducing discrimination, exercising more, quitting smoking, and recycling.

He cites a University of Pennsylvania study, where researchers teamed up with a big utility firm to see if they could prompt more of the company’s 3,300 employees most at risk of influenza-related complications to get vaccinated. All eligible employees got a reminder letter about upcoming times for vaccination clinics. Some were prompted to make a very simple plan — to fill in the date and time they’d go to the clinic. This little nudge led to a 13% increase in numbers who showed up for vaccination. It’s a tweak, says Service, which, if adopted across the West, would help save thousands of lives.

But before we set a plan in motion — and think about the series of small steps involved — we need to know our goal. Think Small suggests three simple rules to goal setting:

1. Choose the right goals: Ask yourself what goals you really want to achieve. Focus on those most likely to improve wellbeing. If your goal has some or any of the following ‘wellbeing factors’ — strengthens your social relationships, gets you healthy and active, causes you to learn something new or be more curious, or give to others — you’re on the right track, according to researchers.

2. Focus on a single ‘headline’ goal and set a clear target and deadline: ‘I will drop my weight by 10kg by the end of 10 weeks’ or ‘I’ll learn French well enough to read a French magazine without a dictionary’.

3. Break your goal down into manageable steps: Rather than ‘I’ll try to find a job’, identify the tasks that will increase chances of achieving your aim — improve your CV, ensure you have appropriate interview clothes, apply for sufficient number of jobs, talk to people doing the kind of work you want.

Early on in the book, the authors give a lesson on the two different ways the human brain takes decisions and processes information. Ask someone what’s one plus one and the answer pops into their head whether they like it or not. This is the brain’s fast system — it operates automatically with no sense of effort or voluntary control. “It’s the one you use when you drive the same route automatically to work,” says Service. But if someone asks you to multiply 12 by 19, your brain uses the slow system, which requires your active attention. You’ll also use it if you’re asked to maintain a faster walking pace than you’re used to.

One of the aims, he says, of breaking a goal into a series of small steps — ‘I’ll walk for an hour every evening after work’ — is to engage the brain’s fast or automatic system.

“If you regularly repeat an action in a similar context, that’s how you build habits. And the good thing about habits is they don’t require as much of your mental processing power. What felt like a chore at one point starts to become a habit — you just do it automatically.” Which is obviously great if the habit is vital to reaching your goal.

When Service started sliding into having a few glasses of wine every evening after work, he knew setting an objective like ‘ cut back the amount I drink’ would be way too vague. Nor did he think restricting alcohol to x amounts of daily units would work. “I’d have had to do arithmetic to see if I’d transgressed — much more difficult after a glass of Rioja!”

Instead, he kept things simple. He cut down the mental effort of staying on course towards his goal by giving himself a ‘bright line’ — no drinking at home during the week. “A bright line makes it really clear when you cross the line — you know you’ve broken the rule.”

Think Small consistently encourages using behavioural insights to achieve goals. For example, human beings have a ‘present bias’ — we prefer rewards today over bigger gains tomorrow. We delay decisions/actions requiring effort, despite knowing we shouldn’t.

“We prefer cake and relaxation today, and brown rice and exercise tomorrow,” say the book’s authors.

How to combat this bias? Make a commitment — either to your ultimate objective or to the most troublesome steps along the way. Do it publicly — and write it down. Service says writing it turbo-charges your commitment.

“As human beings, we have a desire to maintain consistency with the pledges we make,” he says, citing comparative statistics on divorce rates among people who elope — and have fewer people witness their wedding — versus those who make their vows in a marriage ceremony in front of 200 people. The couples who eloped were 12 times more likely to divorce.

It seems that, to avoid the common roadblocks that stand between us and our bid for the stars, we’ve got to hone in on the small details. Service quotes the words of one psychologist: “You need to be able to connect your ‘distant dreams and the drudgery of daily life’.”

Putting thinking small to work

You’ve got a demanding job and want to spend more time with your young children. Here’s how to reach your goal in seven steps.

Step 1: Choose the right goal — strengthen social relationships, in this case with your young children. Set specific target and deadline — help read, bathe, and get kids to bed at least three work nights per week for rest of this year.

Step 2: Plan — keep it simple. Leave work by 5pm on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Saturdays. Create actionable plan — get to work by 8.30am; schedule meetings to finish by 4pm; set daily reminder/alarm on phone for 4.45pm. If reminder goes off and you’re still working, shut down computer and finish any urgent work after you’ve put kids to bed.

Step 3: Commit — make a promise to your kids on Sunday evening of what you will read with them that week and email list of books to designated work colleague.

Step 4: Backfire effects — when you don’t meet your weekly target, you must buy your colleague lunch and your children choose your clothes for the weekend.

Step 5: Share — ask your office manager to help manage your diary to reduce late meetings and overnight travel.

Step 6: Feedback — know where you stand in relation to your goal. Keep track of progress on kitchen calendar and send photo of this weekly to your colleague.

Step 7: Stick — try singing songs as well as reading different types of stories to your children and see what they enjoy most. Reflect and celebrate — every month ask your kids what books they liked most and share these with friends.



• Choose the right goal

• Focus on a single goal and set a clear target and deadline

• Break your goal down into manageable steps


• Keep it simple

• Create an actionable plan

• Turn the plan into habits


• Make a commitment

• Write it down and make it public

• Appoint a commitment referee


• Put something meaningful at stake

• Use small rewards to build good habits

• Beware of backfire effects


• Ask for help

• Tap into your social networks

• Use group power


• Know where you stand in relation to your goal

• Make it timely, specific, actionable, and focused on effort

• Compare your performance with others


• Practice with focus and effort

• Test and learn

• Reflect and celebrate success

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