How tiny gains are more important

One of the most important aspects of improving a student’s performance, yet rarely given the credence it deserves in modern schooling, is in goal setting. We know from other industries that goal setting has an incredible impact on the motivation and achievement of the participants. Everyone from CEOs to elite sportspersons will focus on not only the setting of an ambitious goal, but perhaps more critically, the systems or steps needed to make the goal a reality.

In schools, goal setting is difficult to do well. It takes a particular dedication and commitment but in reality, it is in the lack of the creation of a series of steps that prevent the goal from being achieved. We want our boys to set ambitious, lofty goals, but too often, they leave it alone as an esoteric poster pinned to the fridge - “I want better grades”. A great goal to have, but vague enough to rarely get any real traction.

One of the most profound books I have read recently turned the idea of goal setting on its head. Atomic Habits, a New York Times bestseller by James Clear, provided simple steps and ideas that changed the way I thought about goals, and stressed the importance of habits. The author professed “You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems”. In essence, the book outlined that whilst goal setting was important, it is actually the process or systems that you set up to achieve the goals which are more impactful. A goal without a system or steps becomes esoteric and unachievable. It is in the setting up of small, incremental, daily habits that allow for success to occur.

The book outlines many practical steps, but perhaps the most powerful idea from my perspective, is in the power of tiny gains. Too often goals leave too big a jump to be achieved, hoping for one big effort in order to be successful. What we know about goal setting, and about life, is that it is not about “one big effort”, but rather a consistent march forward. The theory of tiny gains talks about the compounding effect of making lots of small improvements. Over time, these tiny actions accumulate, to the point where the total effect leads to success.

Why is it powerful? Well tiny gains often mean much smaller actions and are much more achievable. They are also far more likely to be able to be turned into a habit. Once these positive actions turn into something that is almost automatic, then the world is the student’s oyster.

So what does this have to do with your son’s goals? Whilst the above sounds just like common sense, unfortunately common sense is not that common. Our boys are also probably not as experienced as adults in achieving, and failing, at goal setting. Most students have a rough idea of what they want to achieve, but often struggle with the steps needed to achieve it. They set the bar so high and look for a massive improvement straight away. What they should be looking for is the small, incremental improvements they can make that they can turn into a habit.

Take studying for example. We know that the more revision and study a student completes, the greater their achievement will be, regardless of their level of ability. Yet the mistake most boys make at the beginning of a semester is to go from no study and set a goal of studying for two hours a night. Achievable? Maybe. Sustainable? Probably not. A more effective method would be to set the goal of revising or studying for 15 minutes every day. Plan it out, stick it on the fridge, and tick it off each day. A small, achievable action, that if repeated, has the potential to compound. We know that 15 minutes soon turns to 30 and so on. Making it visible and celebrating the achievement is great for the motivation.

As a parent, what can you do to support your son in his goals? The first step is to know them. Talk to your son regularly about their goals, make it a regular part of conversation, and have discussion about identifying the “little” steps. Celebrate their small successes and don’t sweat the small failures. Help your son to create and focus on the system that leads to their goals, rather than the outcome. It is in the process that the improvements will be made. Finally, help them create positive habits that will lead to work ethic. Achievement will follow soon after and the lofty goals will be within their grasp.

Liam Stakelum
Deputy Headmaster