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The Stupidly Simple Way To Avoid Bombing On Your Biggest Goals

You have more leeway to adjust the timeline or scope of your goals than you probably think–and still ultimately get them done.

The Stupidly Simple Way To Avoid Bombing On Your Biggest Goals
[Photo: 33ft/iStock]

When I was a freshman in college, I wanted to try out for the football team. Given my 5 ‘7″ soft frame, this makes complete sense. You can’t keep a tiger out of the jungle. I decided to become a field-goal kicker. I bought a stand and a football at a sporting goods store. Late at night, I’d sneak into the stadium in Birmingham, Alabama, and practice my kicks. Had I ever kicked a field goal? No. So then why did I think I could walk on as a field-goal kicker for a Division-I college team that occasionally played schools like Auburn? Because I am crazy.

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You’re not as foolhardy as me, but you probably tend to overreach a bit with your goals, too, especially at the beginning. That can cause all manner of mayhem and lead to disappointments–or worse. So the next time you set your eye on a big goal, try this before you take your first step toward it: Cut the goal in half.

No, I’m not telling you to do less–I’m actually helping you do more. Here’s how it works.

How To Halve Your Goals Without Doing Less

At the beginning, when our excitement is through the roof, we think our achievement must be as well. This is why people who have never run 100 yards will tell me they are going to run a marathon. This is understandable. After all, our brains are hardwired to be overconfident about our abilities and chances for success.


Related: How To Train Your Brain To Push Past Perfectionism


And to counter that, all it takes is a little thought experiment right from the get-go: Let’s say for example that you have to pay down $50,000 in credit card debt, but the thought of cutting that number in half and only paying $25,000 still makes you want to throw up a little. Defaulting on the remaining half (or all) of your debt isn’t a great option, but it’s one potential outcome. So if that ultimate $50,000 target has got to stay fixed, what’s one variable you can change? Give yourself more time.

If you doubled the amount of time you gave yourself to pay off the debt, what’s the worst thing that would happen? You’d pay a little (or perhaps significantly) more in interest, but you’d still pay off the whole debt. And chances are this would still be way better than just making minimum payments, which is exactly what your credit card company wants you to do. Remember, we’re up against quitting completely, which in this example might even mean declaring bankruptcy. The options we’re talking about right now aren’t: 1. Finish perfectly, or 2. Cut the goal in half. The options are: 1. Quit the goal because it was too big, or 2. Cut it in half and finish it. And if that means extending your timeline, then you should.

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You Can Cut Goals Down To Size More Than You Think

In all likelihood, these two approaches, cutting the goal in half or doubling the timeline, can be applied to more goals than you suspect.

Of course, it’s unrealistic to think that you have the power to just cut all your goals in half. If your goal is to take medicine or something life-saving, by all means do not cut that in half. But even for some of the work-related goals you don’t have control over (because your boss sets them for you, for example), you may still have some leeway to reduce the stakes, scope, or timeline so you can perform better over the long run. The key is just making sure they’re the right size from the beginning. To do that, ask yourself this simple question: “What’s the worst that could happen?”


Related: How To Give Yourself A Push When Your Progress Stalls 


Let’s pretend for a minute that you cut your goal in half and instead of cleaning your entire house, you cleaned just two rooms. For years, you’ve hated how cluttered your house is, and the idea of doing only two rooms doesn’t seem like enough, so you’ve put it off completely. But by giving yourself permission to just accomplish half your goal, you’ll be able to see that you can actually clean those two rooms quickly. If a perfectionist (an “all or none at all”) mind-set prevented you from getting started on the original goal, that same type of thinking can motivate you to knock out a goal you’ve cut down by 50% (“I can definitely clean those two rooms perfectly right away.”).

Alternatively, what if you doubled the timeline instead of cutting the goal in half? If you’ve had a messy house for five whole years, why is giving yourself an extra month to clean it so terrifying? You’ve waited 60 months to do anything, and now it has to be done this month?

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Perfectionism will tell you it’s now or never–that if you don’t finish it now, you never will. But by asking what’s the worst that would happen if you cut your goal in half or gave yourself more time, you’d improve your odds of success dramatically. And the world wouldn’t fall apart if you did less or it took longer.

Take a look at your long-term work projects; chances are there are plenty of opportunities to do something similar, and still achieve great results without incurring your boss’s ire. Sure, this idea may go against conventional goal-setting wisdom, but it might help you do the one thing that matters, no matter what your goal actually consists of: Finish it.


This article is adapted from Finish: Give Yourself The Gift Of Done by Jon Acuff. It is reprinted with permission from Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Random House.