This Year, I'm Thinking Small

I used to be big on the five-year plan. Not so long ago, if you'd looked at a list of my hopes and dreams, you would have seen very big, easily measured goals: getting a promotion; winning a journalism award. Then, the pandemic happened.

What followed was a two-plus-year period of uncertainty. Unable to make long-term plans with any assurance that they'd come to fruition, we were forced to think short-term, focusing on daily goals rather than five-year roadmaps. And along the way, I've learned to appreciate the beauty of dreaming small.

It's not that I've let go of my big-picture goals entirely. But I've become less rigid about them — what they are, when I might achieve them, what it will feel like when I do. And I've changed my definition of what success for me looks like. I'm no longer solely fixated on excelling in my career or striving for industry accolades that only mean something within my corporate echo chamber. I've learned to invest in myself and in the little things that will fulfill me, not only in five or 10 years, but right now.

If I entered 2020 with visions of raises and industrywide accolades in my head, for instance, by the middle of the year my only career goal was to build a consistent midday walk into my schedule. That got me out of the house and provided me with the mental health break I needed during those extra-long work-from-home days — something I never really afforded myself prepandemic.

I also made it a goal of mine to invest in my curly hair. Working from home gave me the freedom to try a bunch of different products to see which work best for my curls, without having to worry about a bad hair day in the office. Instead, I could throw on a hat or put my hair in a messy bun without anyone wondering what was going on underneath. (This goal was so worth it, by the way, because now my hair has some serious length.)

Another pandemic goal of mine was to call my friends more often. I realized that prepandemic, I'd let work and life — chasing all those bigger goals I'd always had — get in the way of my relationships. But after the loss of several relatives and friends, it became crystal clear to me that those are the relationships that matter most. And today, I'd say that my relationships with those people are the strongest they've ever been.

What I learned from all of these goals is that small achievements with a personal ROI are just as important as the larger, externally motivated ones. In fact, they even pushed me closer to some of the goals that often feel too overwhelming to tackle — like improving my mental health or mending old relationships. The lesson: small goals can result in a big payoff.

Experts agree with my hypothesis: wins from smaller goals can put you on the right path to accomplishing bigger achievements, says licensed psychotherapist Natalie Jones, PsyD, an advisory board member for POPSUGAR's Condition Center. "Micro goals are the ones that really sort of help us to feel good about ourselves," says Dr. Jones. Accomplishing these smaller, feel-good goals can not only set us up for success when it comes to bigger goals, but it can also "give us data to gauge about ourselves and what it's going to take in order for us to get the big stuff done," Dr. Jones says.

What I found on my journey away from dreaming big and toward thinking small was that it's important to surround yourself with people who will support you in your micro wins. If you or your friend group are only used to recognizing the bigger, flashier achievements (think: getting a promotion or buying a new house), try leading by example. Start cheering them on for small wins, like finally trying that TikTok recipe they've been talking about or getting over their fear and asking their crush out for drinks. It can also be helpful to just let them know how excited you are about small wins, to show them it's worth celebrating and you want their support.

"Curating your community" is key, says Dr. Jones. Worth noting, she says, is that not every friend can be a cheerleader in every goal category. Maybe you have a group of friends who are your workplace cheerleaders, another group you go to to share your fitness goals, and another person who you go to just for relationships. "It's OK to have different cheerleaders for different areas of your life," Dr. Jones says.

Equally important is being your own best cheerleader and tracking your achievements for yourself, she adds. According to research from Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile, people who tracked small achievements every day experienced enhanced motivation and creativity. Try journaling about the goal (what it is and what's required to achieve it). There are also habit-tracking apps that can help you log progress. Or, if it's possible, simply take a video or picture of the task being completed just for your record, Dr. Jones says. You'd be surprised how motivating it can be to scroll back through your own album.

Once you start thinking small, you'll find that it's habit-forming — maybe because it feels so good to accomplish those bite-size goals. One small goal that I'm particularly excited to keep track of this year is getting back into the classroom. I love learning new things, and it's something I miss, having been out of school for so long. Fortunately, I found local adult community classes (shout-out to Brooklyn Brainery) during the pandemic. I've already taken letter writing, but holiday chocolates and book binding are next on my list. To take Dr. Jones's advice and hold myself accountable, I plan on sharing that goal with my hobby enthusiast of a friend, Alysse. She recently signed up for adult ballet, so we can encourage each other.

What I love about these classes, and why I consider them "small" goals, is that they're just for me. There's no external motive driving my interest, no suspicion that they'll help further my career or provide a networking opportunity or tick off a box on my five-year plan. Talk about personal ROI!

The new year can often tempt us to think big, taking stock of our past year and assessing where we are and what we want to change. But don't forget to think small, too. What little, personal goals are you eager to attack in the new year? Whatever they may be, know that you have a least one person cheering you on along the way.