self improvement tips

How Small Steps Add Up to Big Goals: Achieve Your Dreams with “Little and Often”

Do you find yourself setting the same goals year after year?

Perhaps you’ve been trying to lose 50lbs for the best part of a decade now, or you’ve spent years struggling with debt. You might have a big dream (perhaps writing a novel, getting a new qualification, or starting your own business) … but it never feels like the time is right.

It’s tempting to wait for a huge stretch of uninterrupted time so that you can work on your big goals. But be honest – how often in the last few years have you ever had that sort of time available?

For the vast majority of us, there’s simply no easy way to clear our schedules. Maybe you work full-time, or you have young children, or you’re caring for elderly relatives – whatever your exact circumstances, your life is busy, and things aren’t going to miraculously change overnight.

The good news is that you don’t need to wait for the perfect moment to start on your goals.

In fact, you’ll achieve far more with a “little and often” approach than by waiting in vain for an opportunity to take massive action.

Let’s run some numbers.

Example #1: Write a Novel in a Year

Say your goal is to write a novel, and you can find a spare 20 minutes, once a day (perhaps during your lunch break).

If you stay focused for 20 minutes, you can probably write 200 words – that’s about half a typed page.

It doesn’t sound like much. In fact, when you think about the length of a whole novel (70,000+ words), it might not seem worth doing at all.

But just look at how those 200 words add up:

  • After a week, you’ll have 1,400 words – a (shortish) chapter.
  • After a month, you’ll have 6,000 words.
  • After a year, you’ll have 73,000 words – a whole novel.

That’s a wonderful achievement – and with just a tiny investment of time on a daily basis.

Example #2: Learn to Cook in a Year

Perhaps you’re a terrible cook – you even burn beans on toast. You’ve been meaning to learn to cook for years, but the idea is just too daunting.

You’d like to take a class, but you can’t find the time to commit to it.

Let’s say that you commit to cooking a meal just twice a week, on Monday and Wednesday nights, and you choose recipes that will take at most an hour to prepare. You’re investing just a couple of hours each week – but after a year, you’ll have spent over a hundred hours cooking.

Don’t you think that, after a hundred hours’ practice, you’ll be a decent cook?


Almost any goal can be tackled in this way, whether it’s decluttering your house or launching a new business.

Even smallish goals can become much easier to achieve when you break them into tiny but regular steps.

One of my challenges as a busy parent is to find the time to make notes about what my daughter Kitty is doing at different stages of her life. I’d love to have a baby book for us to look back on in the future. (I’ve also got a second child on the way, and want to record special memories for him too.)

For over a year, I’ve been meaning to “get around to” creating a hand-crafted book full of photos and milestones for Kitty. And I still hope to get time one day soon! But in the meantime, I’ve also started a one-sentence-a-day journal for her, and a separate one for my unborn son.

It takes just a couple of minutes each day to jot down a quick memory, but in eighteen years, it’ll be an amazing record to look back on.


So little and often clearly works … yet it can be a huge challenge to stick with, or even to start. Why?

We Like the Idea of Quick Wins and Fast Progress

I don’t think I’m the only person who likes the adrenaline rush of pulling off a big challenge fast, or the satisfaction of getting a major project finished.

It’s very tempting to want to achieve things quickly. After all, a novel in a year probably doesn’t sound nearly as exciting as a novel in a month (check out National Novel Writing Month if that’s your kind of thing).

And it can be discouraging, especially in the early stages of working on a goal, to feel that you have a very long way still to go – or even to see friends or colleagues speeding ahead.

In my own experience, though – and perhaps this sounds familiar to you – it’s very easy to fall into the trap of going all-out on a goal for a few days or a few weeks, only to give up entirely because it’s just unsustainable. (I’ve certainly been on a fair few diets that didn’t make it more than a couple of days!)

Of course, there will be times in your life when it is possible to work hard and fast on a goal – and sometimes that might be necessary when a problem (e.g. debt) has become a crisis.

Most of the time, though, it’s much better to focus on taking small, daily or weekly, steps toward your chosen goal. You really will make faster progress that way.

How to Keep Taking Those Little Steps

It’s really important to have a “scaffold” of good habits to support you in your little steps. You might think that if you’re only going to do something for a few minutes each day, you won’t need much help to stay motivated – but it’s all too easy for procrastination and excuses to creep in.

One great way to stay on track is to build up a “chain” of successes. Some writers, for instance, mark a big X on their calendar every day that they write – and then they’re motivated to keep that chain of Xs going.

If you’re going for several goals, you might want to create a check-sheet for them, with a list of what you’re trying to achieve each day. (My current ones include “Exercise for 30 mins” and “Work on my novel for 30 mins”.)

You don’t necessarily have to do everything on your list daily. Right now, I have different aims for different goals: with my novel and exercising, for instance, my aim is to reach my target on five days each week, giving me a bit of leeway.

(This is especially important if you’re a bit of an “all or nothing” type – if you know you’ll be tempted to give up altogether if you miss a single day.)


Is there a particular goal in your life that you’d love to achieve, but just haven’t had time for?

How could a small effort, on a daily or near-daily basis, get you there?

Leave a comment below to tell us what you’ll be doing.



Bio: Ali Luke’s free seven-week course On Track is aimed at all writers (or would-be writers) who want to restart a stalled project. If your blog is never updated, your novel is languishing in a desk drawer, or your short story barely made it past the first paragraph, join the course and get moving again with plenty of encouragement and practical tips. You can find out all about the course (and the bonus ebook) here.




Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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