The prospect of learning a new language can be daunting, especially for an adult. Spending dozens of hours a year on lessons just to make slow progress on a new skill can seem out of reach—particularly when juggling work and family responsibilities as well. That was certainly how one of us (Milkman) felt about her decades’ long ambition to learn Spanish.
That all changed, however, when a popular language-learning app presented a more attractive approach: complete one lesson—just six or seven minutes long—every day in order to eventually become bilingual. This adds up to about 40 hours of study each year, the equivalent of a full work week, but it is presented as a bite-size daily commitment.
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? Through a large, multimonth field experiment, we recently confirmed the power of this technique—which validates much older research with contemporary scientific standards.
In the 1970s psychologist Albert Bandura and his contemporaries conducted a series of pioneering studies with small populations of students and community members that suggested the benefits of breaking an ambitious target into small “subgoals.” Since that time, surprisingly little research has explored this. In particular, there has been a lack of experimental research employing large sample sizes, naturalistic settings (that is, where people are going about their daily life) and prespecified analysis plans. Recently our team ran a massive new field experiment with state-of-the-art methods to assess whether breaking big goals into bite-size pieces really can meaningfully improve outcomes. We published our findings last year in the Journal of Applied Psychology, and our results offer several insights for tackling your new year’s resolutions (and other goals).
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.
We randomly assigned more than 9,000 CTL volunteers to receive e-mails every other week for three months that varied in their description of the volunteers’ 200-hour yearly commitment. One group was encouraged to hit the 200-hour mark by volunteering “some hours every week,” thus providing no tangible goal breakdown. Two other groups, however, were given clear subgoals: we encouraged one to volunteer for four hours every week and the other to volunteer for eight hours every two weeks (either approach still added up to 200 hours within a year). Then we tracked how much time each group of trained crisis counselors actually spent volunteering during our three-month study.
Breaking down big goals into bite-size pieces had a meaningful and sustained impact on volunteering. Both groups who were encouraged to focus on a smaller subgoal (volunteering four hours weekly or eight hours every two weeks) volunteered 7 to 8 percent more than their peers who were simply encouraged to hit their big goal with a little work each week. This may sound like a modest increase, but when scaled across an organization with thousands of volunteers, our intervention translated to thousands of additional hours volunteered each month at essentially zero cost to the organization.
We also found suggestive evidence that the more flexible “eight hours every two weeks” framing, in particular, led to more durable benefits over time. Although volunteering declined each week during the 12-week experiment across all participants, this decline was slower in the “eight hours every two weeks” condition than in the stricter “four hours every week” condition. This finding suggests that making modest goals flexible might encourage more long-term perseverance.
Our work dovetails with other research from recent years by behavioral scientists Hal Hershfield and Shlomo Benartzi, both at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Steven Shu of Cornell University that shows that people are four times more likely to sign up for a savings program when it is described as depositing $5 a day rather than (the equivalent) $150 a month. Hershfield and his colleagues theorized that consumers may find it less painful to give up smaller amounts of money more frequently relative to an equivalent one-time lump sum. Similarly, we believe one of the reasons that subgoals motivate people is that these objectives make them focus on committing small bits of time or money toward their goal in the near future, which is less daunting than making equivalent but larger and longer-term commitments of hours or cash. Taken together, this new research suggests that whether goals require doing a single action or “keeping your nose to the grindstone,” subgoals may help.
So don’t plan to run 365 miles this year; aim for seven miles a week. And instead of promising to commit 200 hours to a goal in a year, mark four hours a week or eight every two weeks on your calendar. As for Milkman, after 365 practice days, lo and behold, becoming bilingual is at last on the horizon for her.
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