Why Setting Baby-Step Goals Is The Only Way To Achieve Enormous Wins

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Peter Shallard
CEO | Commit Action |

Ever felt ashamed to add tiny to-do items to your list?

Entrepreneur life is about big ambitions and bigger personal expectations. Putting together a to-do list or project plan means setting big, exciting objectives. Nothing feels better than a whiteboard session where you write down bold goals like:

—> Get the new website live!

… or…


Most business owners won’t even allow themselves to think about – let alone document – the ultra small steps of any project. Or if they do, it’s with a deep sense of shame after cycles of struggle and procrastination.

Willing yourself to simply register your new website’s domain name, or to just open and name the file in which you’ll begin to draft the homepage copy… as first steps… feels like the opposite of making big, bold entrepreneurial results happen.

If you’ve ever leveraged our Executive Effectiveness Aide service, you’ll have experienced the careful calibration the aides are trained to perform:

When a new entrepreneur joins our service, their aide has to figure out their ideal implementation granularity, which is behavioral-psychology-speak for the right goal size.

We start by deferring to the client. We let them tell us how big a bite of the elephant they want to take.

And without fail, everyone starts too big.

All entrepreneurs overestimate what they’re capable of in a week. And at a deeper level, almost everyone overestimates what size goal is psychologically optimal.

After going way too big, our aides reel their clients in: The next set of weekly objectives will be super specific, baby step goals. These commitments will feel like they’re far too easy to the client.

And that’s the point.

The neuroscience of small step accomplishment

Setting and accomplishing ultra tiny goals – even when they feel like they’re laughably easy – has a profound neurological effect: Research shows that articulating, documenting and then completing baby step goals releases dopamine in the brain.

The link between small goal accomplishment and dopamine is well documented. And to quote Dr Srini Pillay MD, Harvard Medical School faculty psychiatrist and CA Science advisor:

"Psychological and brain imaging studies show that there are two types if intentions: Goal intentions and implementation intentions. The former are broad and the latter specific. Across multiple studies it had been shown that the more specific our intentions are (implementation intentions) the more likely we are to reach our goals.”

Psychologically, this means that action begets action.

The self sabotage and hesitation that many entrepreneurs struggle with on their biggest, highest leverage (and thus scariest!) projects is counteracted by dopamine release. The brain starts to experience taking action on the project to be a pleasurable thing.

By trigger an early dopamine release via the first baby-step of an ambitious project, your neurological and psychological relationship to the whole project begins to shift. The release of dopamine makes continuing to work on your project a bit like the desire to continue gambling, or to eat donuts or any other addictive pleasure.

Big but distant goals – like finishing ambitious business projects – are intellectually and abstractly motivating in that we lust after the outcomes of the projects themselves. That feeling, of what it’d be like to have your new website finished for example, isn’t always enough to drive all the work required to actually get there.

Baby-step goals – and the neurochemistry their completion stimulates – serve to get you started. They condition you to experience working on your project as a innately rewarding process itself. Baby-step goals are a way to actively enjoy “the journey” as opposed to only hungering for “the destination”.

When a client at Commit Action is languishing in perpetual stuck-ness, their aide will clarify a way to commit to the simplest, smallest of actions that symbolically represent beginning.

Clients will wail and gnash their teeth, saying they need to do so much more than simply start a file or name the project or whatever that thirty second step is.

Ultimately though, the insanity of doing the same things and hoping for different results will be undeniable.

(In this case: Setting huge goals and hoping magical and massive motivation strikes hard enough such that everything gets done.)

Our members begin the baby step process and learn first hand that baby-steps themselves are the first (baby) steps of a grander process:

By training yourself to start all big, scary projects with dopamine-chaining small steps, you’re laying a neurological groundwork to ramp up and up… to allow small-step dopamine to inspire and push you to slightly bigger steps and continued execution.

Baby steps are a foundation building ritual that create a psychology of excellence. They prepare your brain for action like applying a rich fertilizer prepares a garden for crops to grow.

Before you know it, your baby first step has cultivated a cascade of follow-up action: Your big project itself is shipped, not through some monumental manic thrust of passionate mojo… but via steady, patient and relentless execution.

Ask any mega successful entrepreneur, any of the high leverage folks using Commit Action’s service: Baby goals are the way to start.

Achieve Your Goals Faster