Setting Small Goals to Achieve Big Ones

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Have you ever found yourself with a goal or ambition that feels insurmountable? Maybe the thought of it is overwhelming, or you have no idea how you’re going to get from where you are now to where you want to be.

If so, don’t worry; you’re not alone! (And if not, then please email me – I want to know where you got your cyberbrain implant. For, ahem, science.)

The best way to overcome this is by breaking your large goal into smaller ones, and focusing on the process.

Here’s how (and I’ll tie everything together with a real-life example at the end):

Plan a Roadmap

Start by thinking of you goal as the destination at the end of a long roadtrip. Each stop along your route is a milestone towards reaching your goal.

For example, you can’t run a marathon until you can run a 5k, then a 10k, then a half marathon. You can’t write a novel without first selecting a mood, crafting a plot, penning the first chapter, and so on.

Break down your goal into as many milestones as you can. Then make sure each milestone meets the SMART Goals specifications. These are:

  • Specific: be as detailed as you can.
  • Measurable: how will you measure your progress?
  • Achievable: is it realistic for your situation?
  • Relevant: make sure it’s truly putting you closer to your goal.
  • Time-bound: set a deadline or time frame. It’s okay to be flexible.

Create an Actionable Plan & Identify Habits

Actions

Figure out what actions you’ll need to take to reach your milestones. This one might be obvious, but writing them all down will help make sure you don’t miss any crucial steps.

For example, if your goal is to run a marathon, an obvious action you’ll need to take is to go running, a lot. But you’ll also need to supplement your runs with strength workouts to build the muscles that will support you when you run (specific leg exercises, core workouts, etc.), eat a certain amount of protein, stay hydrated, stretch correctly, and so on.

List all the actions that are crucial to achieving each of your milestones, then create a plan or timeline on how you’ll implement them for each milestone.

In doing so, you’ll identify the daily or weekly habits that will facilitate your plan.

Habits

Habits are key in reaching a long-term goal. They’re the small actions taken every day that compound over time until they snowball into something great – your goal!

These habits are the backbone of your roadmap, and they’ll make up the majority of your process. Even if you take your eye off the prize, as long as you’re consistent in your habits, you’ll still reach your goal.

For example, if your goal is to learn a new language, you’ll want to create daily habits around studying or language immersion. Or if your goal is to save money to buy a house, you’ll want to build new habits around spending.

Track Your Progress

Tracking your progress keeps you accountable and prevents you from meandering from your goal.

First figure out exactly how you are going to measure your progress. If you’re writing a novel, you’ll measure the word count or chapter progression. If you’re aiming for a marathon, you might measure distance per run and time per mile.

Be as specific as possible when choosing your units of measurement, since this will better set you up for success.

Then decide how you will track the progress of your measurements.

You might use an app, a notebook, a spreadsheet, or something else. There is no one best way to track – it will depend on the complexity of the measurements you’re tracking, and simply what is easiest for you to use. Don’t over complicate it (unless you’re a data nerd – then go ham)!

A Real-Life Example

Here’s an example of how setting small goals to achieve a big one might look in real life.

Long-Term Goal

Our example goal is to learn to speak and write Japanese at a native level.

Roadmap Milestones

  1. Pass the JLPT N5 in 6 months.
  2. Pass the JLPT N4 one year after passing the N5.
  3. Pass the JLPT N3 one year after passing the N4.
  4. Have a passable conversation with my Japanese friend’s mom who doesn’t speak any English.
  5. Pass the JLPT N2 two years after passing the N3.
  6. Pass the JLPT N1 two years after passing the N2.
  7. Visit Japan within 6 months after passing the N1 and be able to express my thoughts fluidly and understand Japanese natives with minimal issue.

(Note: the JLPT is the Japanese Language Proficiency Test where N5 is the lowest level and N1 is the highest level. N5 is around elementary school level, and N1 is roughly on par with a Japanese person who just graduated high school in terms of grammar, kanji, etc.)

Notice that each milestone meets the SMART goals guidelines. Even though the last milestone is 7 years from our starting point and will probably change, setting it SMART can help us envision the end goal and provide motivation or direction through the process.

Actions & Habits

Here I’ve listed each milestone followed by the action plan and habits I’ll implement to reach them.

This list is long, but don’t be overwhelmed. The important things to takeaway are how detailed and SMART the list is – even if you don’t know anything about learning Japanese, by laying it out in an actionable and instructional way, each milestone is more approachable and less overwhelming.

  • Pass the JLPT N5
    • Study 1 chapter of the Genki I textbook and workbook each week.
    • Use the Japanese Kanji Study app or WaniKani for at least 15 minutes daily to practice kanji stroke order, pronunciations, or writing sentences.
    • Use flashcards to study vocabulary 3-4 days every week.
    • Spend Sundays reviewing grammar points, vocab, and kanji learned that week.
  • Pass the JLPT N4
    • Study 1 chapter of the Genki II textbook and workbook every 2 weeks.
    • Use the Japanese Kanji Study app or WaniKani for at least 15 minutes daily to practice kanji stroke order, pronunciations, or writing sentences.
    • Use flashcards to study vocabulary 3-4 days every week.
    • Set aside a few hours every week for listening practice with subtitles (Terrace House on Netflix, anime on Crunchyroll, etc.).
    • Spend free time reading easy manga like Yotsuba, Detective Conan, Shirokuma Cafe, and Chi’s Sweet Home.
    • Spend Sundays reviewing grammar points, vocab, and kanji learned that week.
    • Spend the last 2-3 weeks before the JLPT reviewing everything and taking practice exams.
  • Pass the JLPT N3
    • Study 1 chapter of the Tobira textbook every 2 weeks.
    • Use the Japanese Kanji Study app or WaniKani for at least 15 minutes daily to practice kanji stroke order, pronunciations, or writing sentences.
    • Use flashcards to study vocabulary 3-4 days every week.
    • Set aside a few hours every week for listening practice without subtitles (Japanese live streamers, Japanese podcasts, etc.).
    • Spend free time reading middle-grade fiction like Harry Potter.
    • Spend Sundays reviewing grammar points, vocab, and kanji learned that week.
    • Spend the last 2-3 weeks before the JLPT reviewing everything and taking practice exams.
  • Have a passable conversation
    • Practice speaking Japanese out loud every day.
    • Call my Japanese friends every month to practice having conversations.
    • Study pitch-accent lessons from Dogen every week.
    • If possible, visit my friend’s family living in Japan.
  • Pass the JLPT N2
    • Study the Kanzen Master and/or Nihongo Sou Matome textbooks.
    • Use the Japanese Kanji Study app or WaniKani for at least 20 minutes daily to practice kanji stroke order, pronunciations, or writing sentences.
    • Use flashcards to study vocabulary 4-5 days every week.
    • Set aside a few hours every week for advanced listening practice (Japanese news, television, podcasts, live streamers, etc.).
    • Spend free time reading YA fiction and regular manga.
    • Spend Sundays reviewing grammar points, vocab, and kanji learned that week.
    • If possible, visit Japan several times for an immersive language experience.
    • Spend the last 4-8 weeks before the JLPT reviewing everything and taking practice exams.
  • Pass the JLPT N1
    • Study the Kanzen Master and/or Nihongo Sou Matome textbooks.
    • Use the Japanese Kanji Study app or WaniKani for at least 20 minutes daily to practice kanji stroke order, pronunciations, or writing sentences.
    • Use flashcards to study vocabulary 4-5 days every week.
    • Set aside a few hours every week for advanced listening practice (Japanese news, television, podcasts, live streamers, etc.).
    • Spend free time reading the news, regular fiction, non-fiction, and manga.
    • Spend Sundays reviewing grammar points, vocab, and kanji learned that week.
    • If possible, visit Japan several times for an immersive language experience.
    • Spend the last 6-8 weeks before the JLPT reviewing everything and taking practice exams.
  • Express thoughts fluidly and understand with minimal issue
    • Continue having conversations with my Japanese friends every month.
    • Practice talking with strangers in VR Chat every week.
    • Continue consuming Japanese audio every week.
    • Continue studying pitch-accent every week.
    • If possible, take several extended trips to Japan for an immersive language experience.

By breaking down a seemingly insurmountable, long-term goal into the smallest, most actionable steps possible, the goal becomes much more achievable (and excitingly so!).

Tracking Progress

  • Track overall JLPT level progression by taking practice exams every 4-6 months and tracking score improvements in a spreadsheet or document.
  • Track Kanji proficiency through the WaniKani level progression and scoring.
  • Track vocabulary proficiency through spaced repetition flashcard practice.

Language learners are lucky in that a lot of the study tools available naturally track your progress as you move through the study materials.

But whatever your goal, take the time to find the correct tools and define the metrics that will set you up for success.

A Final Note

Remember to stay flexible. It’s okay if you take longer than planned to achieve a milestone, or even decide to completely throw out or redefine several milestones halfway through.

As long as your milestones point you towards your end destination, focus on enjoying the ride and let the process work its own magic.

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