Think Small: The Surprisingly Simple Ways to Reach Big Goals, by Owain Service, Rury Gallagher

1 Aug 2019


These are my reading notes & a quick summary.  If we’re aiming for big things, it’s easier to succeed if we get the small details right.

Chapter 1 – Set Goals

  • Choose the right goals.Make a list, a long list, of possible objectives.
    Things which make people happy (and most of us don’t realise how important these are) are:

    • Strengthening social relationships – Social networks (work, church, sports groups) have huge impact on people’s wellbeing
    • Getting healthy & active
    • Learning something new
    • Being more curious – being curious can mean being self-aware, being mindful of sensations, thoughts, feelings, looking for new experiences.
    • Helping others – by giving money, or time
  • Focus on a single goal.
    Consider your list of possible objectives them in terms of (i) how happy they will make you and (ii) how excited you are by them. Pick one.
    Then (for your one single goal) set a measurable target. Not just get healthy or learn Java. Something tangible which can be measured/achieved. And a deadline.
  • Chunk it
    Break the goal down into steps, again measureable with a deadline, OR chunk it into pockets of time (e.g. 1 hour, 1 day)

Chapter 2 – Planning

  • Make it very simple. Have very clear on/off settings. E.g. No working at weekends. Gym Tuesdays & Thursdays.
  • Actionable. When, where, how.
  • Make habits. Repeated behaviours are automatic behaviours. (E.g. I always have popcorn at the cinema. It’s automatic)

Think of the problems. People are problem-solving monkeys. If you explicitly state the problem (e.g. I can’t go to the gym because I hate getting up early) then you’ll find yourself working towards a solution.

Chapter 3 – Commit

  • Make a commitment
    This has to be linked (very clearly) to the goal (chapter 1) and to the steps (chapter 2)
  • Make it public
    Write it down. Sign it. Tell your mother. Tell friends. Make it public. (E.g. people are less likely to get divorced if they have a big wedding with lots of guests because of the big public commitment. Um.)
  • Get a refereee
    It really helps to have someone to help you stick to the goal. The book says referee. I’m thinking cheer-leaders, or Team-You. See

Talk to other people about your goals.
People are more likely to do something if they have made concrete plans (when, where, how) and if they tell others about their concrete plans.

Chapter 4 – Rewards

  • Rewards have to be meaningful.
    If it’s money, it must be enough to make a difference. Pay enough, or don’t pay at all. Experiences work well as a reward. E.g. concert tickets, massage vouchers, etc. Donations to charity can also work – they make people feel good about themselves. People care very deeply about losing something – this can be a much bigger incentive than getting something. E.g. lose a day’s holiday, lose their parking space.
  • Rewards can backfire
    Some rewards can have a contrary affect. This is particularly true of money; people really don’t like getting monetary rewards for something they feel is a moral duty or altruistic action. (E.g. if someone’s goal is to help the homeless, any monetary incentive is seriously unhelpful.)
  • Rewards must be linked to a goal
    There has to be a very clear line between achievement and reward. Example Only pay out if grade A achieved, or 20 kg of weight lost or 20 study sessions attended.
  • Rewards must be binding
    They can’t be something that people can wiggle out of, or change their mind about. (I only got a B, but I’m going to treat myself anyway).
  • Small rewards are good for progress and to build a habit. Example: giving kids stickers for eating fruit and veg

Chapter 5 – Sharing

Goals are not just for individual betterment; they work for groups and you can use a group to help you achieve individual goals.

  • Ask for help
    People helping other people achieve goals really helps. People make more effort when their friends are involved, and the friends like being asked for help; it’s a win-win situration.
  • Use social networks
    Take care. Social networks can be enlisted to support, and help people achieve goals, but it can also undermine them. E.g. A group of friends who smoke or overeat are unlikely to help you achieve a health goal. Tap into social (real-life or interwebs) networks so they nudge you in the right direction.
  • Doing things in a group
    Even if the goal is personal, you are much more likely to achieve it if you work with other people. E.g. getting children to study together or tutor each other makes a drastic difference.

Chapter 6 – Get Feedback

  • Hot or Cold?
    You will know the goal, but do you know where you are in relation to the goal? This is easy for some goals (e.g. weight) but hard for work-related or learning goals. Example: social workers tracking long-term consequences of their actions.
  • Feedback
    Giving feeback works best when it is immediate and when people can take action. Eg. Good feedback (for children, and adults) will tell you what was wrong AND how to fix it. Effort and persistance should be encouraged. (Also, any parenting book will tell you to praise children for effort. The same applies to adults.)
  • Compare performance to others
    People overestimate their own ‘good’ behaviour, and deingrate their neighbours. (I exercise more than they do, I am better at my job that they are, etc.) It can be a real shock for someone to find out that they’re not that good, or that they are in the bottom ranking. People care deeply about rankings; we always want to know that we are doing better than their peers.

Chapter 7 – Stick with it

  • Practice with focus and effort
    Don’t just put in the hours – work well & seriously. Think about the quality of the practice. Note: Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule is bunk – extrapolates from one job (musician) to others such as programmer without paying much attention to the type of practise.
  • Test and Learn
    What works? For goals such as “do a better job” it can be very hard to tell what makes a difference – you need the evidence. If you don’t know then experiment. Make a change and measure the difference. As an example where this didn’t happen – look at the “Scare Them Straight” program – this was meant to keep people out of prison. It was an utter failure, and it took 25 years for people to notice.
  • Notice small successes, celebrate them
    Also notice and think about who has helped you? How? What have you learnt?