This is how you can tackle big, scary goals

If you take too much time to contemplate where you are now and where you want to end up, there’s a risk you’ll never tackle big scary goals.

I learned to tackle big scary goals as I grew up on a remote cattle ranch in Wyoming. Our ranch house was located at the bottom of a canyon, cut deep into the earth over the years by the North Laramie River.

Several times a year my Dad climbed the steep south mountain of the canyon to visit an elderly neighbor woman named Sophie. The cliffs of the canyon rose 1,000 feet on either side of the ranch house, covered with boulders and littered with the debris from an occasional landslide. When I turned eight, Dad relented and allowed both my brother and me to climb with him on one of his visits to Sophie. He had not heard from her for a while and she had no telephone. Confused and alarmed, I wondered how we would “stick” to the rocks and not fall off.


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He told me not to worry about how we would tackle that big scary goal as I looked up from the bottom to the top of the mountain. Instead, he told me to keep my eyes on the few feet of mountain in front me so I could find places to put my hands and feet. We would use those crevices to pull ourselves up. Steps that led upward would reveal themselves as we got closer.

Even though the mountainside looked sheer from the bottom, there were lots of crevices and places to climb once we got started. They were invisible from below, lost in the grandeur of the larger view.

I broke down my goal into small steps to be taken one at a time. I was successful and able to reach the top.

If you take too much time to contemplate the huge distance between where you are now and where you want to end up, there’s a risk you’ll never tackle big scary goals.

This is how you can tackle big scary goals:

1. Start backwards from your goal

This discipline helps us think about the obstacles that we’ll meet along the way. It helps us to think about the barriers we’ll need to break, customers we’ll need to contact, or product we need to refine if we want to be successful.

Most of us start with the goal we want to achieve, and while this can give us vision, it often does nothing to help us understand and acknowledge the challenges we’ll meet along the way. Vision is vital but once we have that, it’s helpful to backtrack from that vision to see how we might get tripped up by a variety of things. Ego, competition, complacency—all are factors we need to anticipate so we can recognize them if/when they rear their ugly head.

With each step up the mountain with Dad and my brother, I looked around to see how I’d be able to descend in a safe and timely manner. It gave me confidence that I knew how to conquer the obstacle in front of me.

How To Make It Work For You: While it may sound pessimistic at first, always anticipate what can and could go wrong. Work backwards from the best case scenario and build in safeguards so you’re prepared if things take a turn for the worse.

2. Work around your brain’s limited capacity

Our brain cannot remember everything. Recent studies show that our working memory capacity is limited to five to seven items. Anything more than that is likely to fall out of our brain’s memory.

If we rely on our memory alone, we’ll stop at every task and and ask ourselves, “What am I supposed to do next?” This is when we get distracted, get off track, or miss a step. When we break down a larger project into smaller steps, it helps us identify what step we need to take next.

Too much information can intimidate as well as inspire. When we create mini-goals, we break big scary goals into achievable steps. This helps us understand all the tasks involved as we tackle the big scary stuff so we can create a timeline to get them done. When we create mini goals we chunk the bigger tasks into smaller ones which allows our brain to make connections.

Small steps feel safe. They’re not overwhelming so once we’re in action, it’s easier to plot a path forward.

How To Make It Work For You: Take a closer look at each goal and see what steps are needed to achieve that specific goal. When you break down a huge project into smaller chunks, you can also experience the smaller joys of achievement and progress. Individual steps should be physically written down on your task list or in a checklist. You can refer back to them when you can’t remember what comes next.

3. Connect goals to behavior

It isn’t enough to want to achieve. To be successful you need to go one step further and take an honest inventory of what will be required of you to make your goal a reality. Even more important, think about how will you sustain it over the long term.

The most important question you can ask yourself is, “Who do I need to become to reach my goals?” A person who responds from a place of authenticity will know that they do not need to change who they are, they only need to dig deeper into who that person already is.

To connect your goals with behavior, your questions will always start with: “I need to be someone who…”

You fill in the blanks but the answers need to be specific and tied to your goal. When you connect your goal to specific behaviors that will enable you to achieve them, you can chart a clear path for what will be required to tackle big scary goals.

How To Make It Work For You: It’s important that you’re able to articulate your specific goals. If you can’t, wait until the vision becomes clearer for you. Clear the detritus from your mind and focus on those goals that feed your values and lead to contentment. Everything else is junk to be discarded on your path to personal success. You can reach your goals but you must be willing to engage in the specific actions that will help you achieve them in a consistent manner.

4. Set specific goals

It’s not easy to get excited about vague goals and objectives. Professor and author of Organizational Effectiveness, Gary Latham, cites four main reasons why specific goals are so powerful:

  • Specific goals force us to make a choice to pursue them—and, as a result, help us to identify stuff that’s irrelevant. This increases our focus so we can pursue our goal.
  • Specific goals ignite determination, another cornerstone of motivation.
  • Specific goals inspire us to be more persistent since we have a clear idea of what success looks like.
  • Specific goals start our wheels to turn on the strategies necessary to attain them.

How To Make It Work For You: When we break down a large project into specific goals, it allows us to set specific milestones that keep us motivated to move in the right direction.

5. Seek the opinion of others to keep on track

When we seek the opinion of others or ask for feedback, we don’t admit defeat or succumb to the opinions of others. Instead, the opinion of others provides another perspective on what needs to change. Often, there is a gap between what we think we give to the world and the way others see us.

In addition, when we seek the council of others, it can help keep us on track. It helps us break out of the tunnel vision that can set in when projects take weeks, months, and even years.

We may avoid feedback because we don’t want negative input. However, in a study of 157 participants, researchers found the following:

  • Negative feedback decreased feelings of competence, but still increased immediate game play.
  • Negative feedback motivated participants to repair their short-term performance.
  • Positive feedback fostered longer-term motivation in the participants.

How To Make It Work For You: Seek feedback because it helps to keep you on track and committed to your project. 

6. Build a timeline

Decide when you need to reach your big scary goal if you have the luxury of setting your own deadline. If you do not have that luxury, write the deadline down and then identify how much time you will need to accomplish each step and mini-goal. If you’re pressed for time, how much of the work can you assign to others? Think about getting professional assistance if you need it.

A timeline can give us clarity which also gives us certainty.

After I made it up the mountain, I felt as though I was sitting on top of the world! Sophie was there and made us lunch, and then we headed back down. What I learned that day was that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed when confronted by big scary goals. However, by keeping these steps in mind, you create a way to reach the top.

How To Make It Work For You: Humans do not like delayed gratification. When we build a timeline, we give ourselves milestones to meet and each one of them can give us the sense of accomplishment we need to remain motivated when we reach them. A timeline is a visual map that helps us get a picture of where we are, where we want to end up, and what needs to be done to accomplish it.

This article originally appeared on LaRae Quy.


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LaRae Quy|was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years