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Op/ed: The Secret to Accomplishing Big Goals: Break Them Into Bite-Size Chunks

New Research Led by UMD Professor Confirms Positive Effect of Subgoals

By Aneesh Rai, Marissa Sharif, Katy Milkman, Angela Duckworth and Edward Chang

chocolate bar broken into pieces

A study by a UMD assistant professor published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that breaking down goals into smaller chunks had a meaningful and sustained impact on volunteering.

Photo by Adobe Stock

How many of us have shelved our New Year’s resolutions to learn a new language because it seemed too daunting? Companies like Rosetta Stone and Babbel try to overcome that by promising it takes no more than six or seven minutes a day.

While some 1970s research suggested the benefits of slicing a goal into “subgoals,” Aneesh Rai, assistant professor of management and organization at the University of Maryland; Marissa Sharif, Katy Milkman and Angela Duckworth of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania; and Edward Chang at Harvard Business School ran a new study to confirm it. They shared their findings in an opinion piece Monday in Scientific American.

At first glance, breaking down a bigger goal into smaller pieces might seem like a superficial “reframing trick.” In actuality, it is a versatile goal-setting strategy that you can apply to almost any ambitious target—whether it’s learning a second language, picking up a new skill at work, starting an exercise regimen or saving for retirement. But how certain are scientists that this trick is effective?

For our study, we partnered with Crisis Text Line (CTL), a nonprofit organization that provides free crisis counseling via text message. All CTL volunteers are asked to commit to completing 200 hours of crisis counseling within a year of finishing a lengthy training program for crisis counselors. This target is fairly ambitious, given that Americans who formally volunteer with organizations clock less than 70 hours a year, on average. We were curious if breaking down this big, 200-hour goal could make it more approachable and increase actual hours worked.

Read the rest in Scientific American.



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