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Why “Go Big or Go Home” Doesn’t Work

b2ap3_thumbnail_Go-Big-Or-Go-Home.jpgThe pressure to “See the Big Picture”, “Go Big or Go Home”, and to “Think Bigger” is prevalent across both pop culture and business culture. No wonder it is difficult for us to feel okay about taking any kind of small action or step toward our BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal). Anything small isn’t good enough.

Don’t get me wrong - I’m all for big goals and big thinking. But when it comes to changing peoples’ behavior, big steps take too much energy. That stops big cold.

Read any psychology book, site or blog and they consistently prove motivation takes energy. Motivation is emotional, not rational, and we spend a lot of time (at least in the United States) pushing all of those emotions out of our mainstream actions. No wonder change seems hard. We are using logic and reason to tap into unexplainable instinctive and emotional places we are wary to go ourselves.

The Elephant and The Rider
Jonathan Haidt, a University of Virginia psychologist and author of The Happiness Hypothesis, provides a great analogy explained further by Switchauthors Chip and Dan Heath. It goes like this: imagine an elephant and his rider. Our emotional side is represented by the elephant and our rational side by the rider. While the rider may like to think he or she is in charge, let’s be realistic about the struggle between a puny human and a six-ton elephant over which direction to go.  The rider doesn’t have a chance.

Switch goes on to say that when our efforts to change fail, it is typically our emotions (the elephant) that fail us as we look for short-term instant gratification versus long-term gain. Think about it. When we ask people to change, we are asking for immediate ‘sacrifice’ for long term gain. If our inner elephant is not properly motivated for near-term, immediate success, it ain’t budging.

Start Small
b2ap3_thumbnail_start-small.jpgSo how do you appeal to the emotional, short-term side of human behavior? Start small. “Go big or go home” may rally initial emotional support, but when the reality of action hits, it is too overwhelming. Our fear of failure kicks in. The hurdle feels too big so we do nothing. Fortunately, motivation is like a muscle that becomes stronger with use. Motivation requires confidence and that comes through small wins that steadily progress toward to the larger goal. Small wins feed the emotional ego, and urge it forward to do the next step, and the next step, until before you know it you’ve ‘Gone Big’.

How Small Can You Go? – A Personal Change Challenge
I’m joining an experiment conducted by BJ Fogg who heads up the Stanford Persuasive Tech Lab. Dr. Fogg studies behavior change and specifically habit building through “Tiny Habits” a weeklong guided experiment to take on three tiny habits in your own life.

The behaviors he asks you to create for yourself are so tiny they are challenging even my idea of small. Can tiny, nearly unnoticeable habits have long term staying power and lead to big, productive habits? How long will it take? I am my own test subject for this one, and I’m setting out to answer these questions for myself. I invite you to join me the week of December 24th or join another week BJ Fogg is sure to offer in 2013.


  • Dale
    Dale Thursday, 17 January 2013

    Dream Big

    I am a what. Each day I am faced with the problems of my students. If I don't encourage them to dream we might all be lost very soon.;)

  • CindyJennings
    CindyJennings Thursday, 17 January 2013

    Dale RE: Dream Big

    Thanks for your comment, but the article is not about squashing big dreams it's about taking small steps to get there. We often try to bite off more than we can undertake and thus fail to achieve our big dream. So I would encourage your students to dream big and then coach them on all the steps they need to take to get there. Good luck!

  • GreenDog
    GreenDog Monday, 21 January 2013

    Starting Small is GOOD

    Years ago I came across a little booklet, 1,000 Things You Can Do to Protect the Earth. Sounded good to me and so I started. Now I can count many ways I do things smarter and more environmentally sustainable in my daily life. Like right now, off I go to an appointment but have planned the trip so I can drive less miles, combine it with several stops. Its such a sensible thing and easy, save time, save money and save the environment. :)

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