Start Small, Think Big: Strength Begins With Small Changes

Athlete working out

From little things, big things grow. 

As cliché as it sounds, it is true – especially when it comes to health and fitness.

Which is exactly what this article aims to explain.

How to properly set workout goals

African American doing sprint drills on track

For the longest time it was thought that “SMART” goals were the best way to approach goal setting for health and fitness.

However, many people fail to release that SMART goals were not made with health-related behaviours in mind. In fact, they were developed to help managers help their employees hit KPIs in business settings.

Which is not a particularly good foundation for lifestyle change.

Instead, the idea should be to set up a hierarchy of goals (Höchli 2018).

At the top of the hierarchy, you should have your primary goal. This could be something like:

  • Improve health
  • Run a marathon
  • Get stronger

Next you want to have an intermediate goal. This is a moderate goal that we would consider an important step to achieving your overarching primary goal. Building upon the above examples, these might be:

  • Improve health
    • Eating better and exercising more often
  • Run a marathon
    • Running 30 miles per week and adhering to a strength training regime
  • Lose 20 pounds
    • Eating better and maintaining an exercise regime

Lastly, you want to establish a list of process orientated goals (also known as subordinate goals) that contribute to you overall goals. These can be thought of specific action items that you can implement daily that will help you maximise your success.

Again, building on the above examples:

  • Improve health
    • Eating better and exercising more often
      • Eating 120 grams of protein and three servings of vegetables per day. Going for a 30-minute walk three times per week.
  • Run a marathon
    • Running 30 miles per week and adhering to a strength training regime
      • Completing four 30-minute runs per week. Attending the gym once per week for lower body strength training.
  • Lose 20 pounds
    • Eating better and maintaining an exercise regime
      • Consuming three serves of vegetables per day, avoiding high sugar beverages, and going for a 15-minute walk four times per week.

Using this hierarchical structure, you can see how we identify the overarching goal that is most important to you, and then the habits that will help you achieve that goal.

Starting with small goals and then build up

woman running up the stairs

One thing that is extremely important when we are looking at this goal structure is to realise that if you are starting a new workout habit for the first time, you must start small (Gallagher 2017).

When it comes to habit formation, the idea is to build upon small goals to create real change.

If you want to run a marathon, start with three short runs per week. If you want to do 30 chin-ups in a row, start with one per day. If you want to maintain a healthier diet, focus on eating one more serving of vegetables per day.

With this in mind, your process-orientated subordinate goals should be perceived as extremely easy. They should be something that you can do without any real effort. Then, as they become an automatic part of your routine, you can gradually increaser them over time. 


Start small, think big.

Break your goals into phases

If you have a particularly large goal in mind, you can always break your intermediate goals into smaller goal phases – or chunks.

For example, if your goal is to do 30 chin-ups, but you have never done a chin up before, then we can comfortably assume that this goal is not going to be achieved for a large amount of time – and this knowledge can impact motivation negatively.

But if you break this up into smaller intermediate goals, then it can feel more manageable.

You might have a goal of five chin-ups, the ten, and then 15.

You get the picture. 

Setting manageable goals is important because they act like small stepping-stones of success that lead towards your large overarching goal. This keeps motivation high and offers a sense of achievement each time you reach a new step.

Which leads us to the next point quite nicely…

Related Article: Habit Stacking: How to Build Exercise Habits

How to reward yourself for achieving goals

Woman eating healthy food

Something that is rarely discussed is the action of rewarding yourself when you achieve a goal (Woolley 2017).

We live in a world that is fast paced. We are constantly moving forward, looking towards the next big thing. As a result, we rarely taking the time to look back and acknowledge how far we have come.

Which is why rewarding yourself can be so helpful.

When you acknowledge an accomplishment, you see an increase in dopamine secretion. This creates a surge of pleasure that can increase motivation, productivity, and effort – which will contribute to achieving your primary goal.

But how should you reward yourself?

Well, in all honesty, it doesn’t matter all that much. If you reward yourself with something you enjoy, and in a way that allows you to reflect upon your success, it is going to achieve the desired outcome.

Some great examples include:

  • Taking an hour away from work to go for a walk
  • Getting a massage
  • Having time to yourself to read a book
  • Going out for brunch

The reward isn’t really that important – what’s important is the act of the reward.

So, do something that makes you feel good.

Tips to build motivation and stay the course of the goal

partner exercise tips

As we have already alluded to throughout this article, most people don’t have an issue when they first start working towards their goal – but after a week or two, it becomes more challenging.

And this is because motivation is fleeting.

There is a sense of excitement that comes with starting new health behaviour. But as you face resistance and it becomes more challenging, motivation wanes, and the new behaviour falls by the wayside.

But there are a few tips that can stop this from happening:

  • Set intermediate goals: as we have already outlined, setting intermediate goals are a great way to create sensations of success and build momentum towards your overarching primary goal.
  • Reward yourself: again, as outlined in the above section, rewarding yourself when you achieve those smaller goals is integral to building momentum and motivation.
  • Regularly look back on your progress: sometimes we have a hard time seeing how far we have come unless we take a second to look back at where we started. This realisation of progress improves self-belief and boosts motivation.
  • Get an accountability partner: a great way to improve motivation is to share your goals publicly and get a friend or family member onboard to remind you of your goal and keep you accountable of your behaviours.
  • Imagine your success: self-imagery and visualisation are two powerful ways to stay motivated. Create a mental image of you succeeding your goals and acknowledge how good it will feel. Motivation incoming.

As simple as each of these tips are, when combined, they can cause a huge boost to your motivation – which can have a profound impact on your success.

How to make your goals a lifetime habit


Lastly, I wanted to touch on goal achievement and building lifetime habits – because that should really be the aim.

Once you successfully achieve your goal, you don’t want to stop. You want it to become something that is completely automatic. Something that is part of your lifestyle.

It is for this reason that focusing on the processes that lead to your goals is extremely important.

Your ability to achieve your goal doesn’t come from the goal itself – it comes from the processes that lead to the goal (Kaftan 2018). 

It comes from behaviours.

If your goal is to lose a certain amount of weight, then your habits should focus on changing your diet or starting an exercise regime. If your goal is getting stronger, your habit should focus on attending the gym twice per week.

The focus should be on the process, and not the outcome.

Take some time and think about your goals, and then identify the process-related habits that are going to help you achieve them.

These should be your focus.

We know that it can take between 18 and 254 for a habit to become completely automatic, with the average duration being about 60 days (Lally 2010). 

However, once you have maintained a process for more than this time, it should become an automatic part of daily life. In this manner, it becomes something that you do without effort, and without thought.

Once these habits are in place, they will stay in place even once you achieved your goals – making those goals permanent.

So, if you want help building lifelong habits, focus on your process-oriented goals.

These are the secret to success.

Related Article: Best Time to Work Out Based on Sleep Animal

Take Home Message

If you have exercise goals that you want to achieve, there is nothing wrong with thinking big. This is what gives you direction, drive, and motivation.

However, to achieve this, you need to start small.

Identify the processes and habits that will help you achieve your goal, and then embed them into your routine in the manner with the least amount of resistance. Once these are easy, build up over time, moving towards your goal all the while.

This is how you build self-discipline and make lifelong change.


Höchli, Bettina, Adrian Brügger, and Claude Messner. “How focusing on superordinate goals motivates broad, long-term goal pursuit: a theoretical perspective.” Frontiers in psychology 9 (2018): 1879.

Gallagher, Rory. Think small: The surprisingly simple ways to reach big goals. Michael O’Mara Books, 2017.

Woolley, Kaitlin, and Ayelet Fishbach. “Immediate rewards predict adherence to long-term goals.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 43.2 (2017): 151-162. 

Kaftan, Oliver J., et al. “The way is the goal: The role of goal focus for successful goal pursuit and subjective well-being.” (2018): online.

Lally, Phillippa, et al. “How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world.” European journal of social psychology 40.6 (2010): 998-1009.

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