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To Achieve a Major Goal, First Tackle a Few Small Ones

One of the difficulties with achieving great things is knowing how to get there. Every book you read was written by someone who completed a book. Every concert you attend involves musicians who can play well enough to be onstage. You can see the final product, but you can’t see all of the steps required to get there.

A lot of discussions about how to achieve significant goals focus on grit, that combination of resilience and persistence that is required to stick with a big goal and see it to completion. But there are two aspects of achieving big goals that don’t get as much attention despite their importance for success.

First, it is hard to envision the specific tasks that actually need to get done to achieve a big goal. No matter how well you plan for a big task, there are certain details that are not obvious until you have completed it. For example, I know many people who are interested in publishing a book. Their initial assumption is that the big challenge here is writing the book. They think of “becoming a book author” as something that simply requires sustained writing effort. However, becoming a published author requires thinking about getting an agent and a publisher, writing a proposal, working with an editor, and developing a plan for promoting the book after it’s published. Even the challenge of writing the book also requires many more steps than people initially assume, including thinking much more carefully about the overall structure of a document than is generally required to write a shorter report or article.

Second, for very large tasks you often do not get feedback on your success until many of the pieces of that project are in place. Even if particular elements of the task appear to be going well, the success of the large-scale project requires integrating all of the specific tasks in a coordinated fashion. Returning to the book example, it can be difficult to know, from the chapters you’ve completed, whether the book as a whole is coherent. It is not until you have a complete draft that you can assess whether the project is working.

To achieve a large-scale goal for the first time, it is best to work your way up through more-manageable projects. The idea is to shorten the learning cycle by tackling a smaller project, so that you can get early feedback and hone your approach before taking on the complex tasks associated with the bigger project. The individual tasks that are part of any major project take practice. You can’t expect to perfect them for the first time when you are aiming at something significant.

Rather than writing a book, for example, start with short articles. They provide opportunities to write complete thoughts, get feedback, and discover that there is a tremendous amount of promotion that must be done after writing — or nobody will read what you have written. In this way, the short article becomes a microcosm of the larger process.

From there, you can proceed to larger projects, continuing to develop your expertise in the components. At this stage, it is valuable to get the help of experts who can shore up your weaknesses. For example, it may be useful to engage an editor for larger projects to help with your prose. Learning to work with an editor is a process as well, so practicing that on shorter pieces can be a benefit when working up to a book.

This isn’t just important for creating big products; it is also crucial for taking on significant new roles. Many people look to become leaders as a way of advancing in organizations. These positions involve a transition from technical work, which people typically have when they start in an organization, to organizing and motivating people.

Rather than starting with a career move, it is best to practice by taking the lead on particular projects. Often, the skills needed to get a group to work together effectively are not obvious at first, so you get a chance to see the value of elements that are often hidden, such as communicating, giving corrective feedback, delegating, and evaluating. You also have the opportunity to practice each of those steps on a project whose outcome is less significant than what people face when leadership is a significant part of their portfolio.

A classic finding in the psychology literature is the Dunning-Kruger effect (named after David Dunning and Justin Kruger, who first described it): Poor performers in a domain are more prone to overestimate their ability than good performers. Why? Poor performers are unaware of the many elements that go into expert performance, and thus they are overly confident in their ability to carry out all of the tasks necessary to succeed.

By starting out with smaller projects that encompass the range of tasks involved in larger projects, you help to deflate some of this overconfidence. You learn what is involved in expert performance, and you get plenty of chances to refine your abilities.

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