You might be looking at a completely new career path or cleaning out the attic. You could be trying to lose 10 pounds or to eat more greens. But whatever commitments you make in life, if your goals are far away or difficult or just plain unclear, chances are that you might fail.

As anyone who has ever made a firm decision for self-improvement knows, many people flunk at achieving their well-intentioned goals and scientific research backs this up. 1 While we might fault ourselves for lack of commitment or discipline, research has also shown that by breaking our goals into small increments on the path to the larger goal — what psychologists call subgoals — we may have a better chance of achieving the grander result we are planning for. 2

“Subgoals are doable. You can perceive concrete steps whereas your larger goal may be more abstract,” says Kristen Duke, assistant professor at Behavioural Economics in Action at Rotman (BEAR), at the University of Toronto. Duke studies the ways our decisions are influenced by emotions, work that relates to how our thoughts could motivate or deflate our approach to goals. Duke says it can be difficult to maintain motivation toward long-term goals but a technique that generates repeated jolts of motivation may help.

“Once people start to feel a sense of progress, it continues to be motivating. And as you get closer and closer to a goal, you get more and more motivated,” Duke says. “So if you set up these more intermediate goals, you have more of these moments when you get that extra stimulation.”

In one study, people exercising were able to burn calories faster when their goal (200 calories) was broken down into smaller achievements. 3

Taken out of the lab, this may mean that someone who wants to give up cigarettes may find a smaller subgoal — such as booking a doctor’s appointment or learning about smoking cessation — more motivating and successful than trying to stop cold turkey.

If you want to conquer a goal, it may be better to chop it down to size. Here are some ideas on how to get started with subgoals.

Goal: Build a budget you can stick to
Subgoal: Review your grocery bill for 30 minutes

For those who want improved finances and are routinely buying the same standard items weekly, running your eye over your grocery bill receipt can give you instant ideas. It can be less intimidating than trying to redo your family’s budget all at once. Groceries are regular expenses so tinkering with what you buy could have a larger impact over 52 weeks. For instance, if your goal is to save more money, there may be more discretionary items in your list that you can do without than you might think. Or you may simply decide local grocery brands are a better bargain than national brands.

Goal: Eat better this year
Subgoal: Analyze one food craving

If you are trying to eat better, building new habits can be a frustrating challenge. Jumping out of auto-pilot mode is a proven behavioural science technique to develop a healthier diet. You can also make it a subgoal. 4 The next time reach for a food craving, think deeply about why you are eating this particular snack right now: Are you bored? Stress eating? If so, what’s the underlying cause of stress? Stepping back and examining your motivation may be the beginning of a new, better routine.

Goal: Get in better financial shape
Subgoal: Book an appointment with a financial advisor

Much like putting off a call to the dentist lest we hear bad news, a call to a financial advisor may provoke unnecessary trepidation. If you have a goal to get your finances in order but are not sure what is the first step, getting someone with financial know-how to weigh in on the state of your money affairs may be the path to some education around money. An advisor can examine your overall financial situation, help you make smart decisions about your money and suggest ways to help your investments grow. You may gain a lot through one simple phone call and it may lead to a better situation later.

Goal: Learn how to run for exercise
Subgoal: Take a regular walk around the block

Many of us want to become more active, but it can be hard to break from our sedentary lifestyle. Before you learn to jog or even run 10K, a subgoal might be just putting one foot ahead of the other, whether it’s a walk around the block or taking the dog for an extra half-mile. Anything that gets the blood pumping is a benefit. Exercise can have a valuable impact on all kinds of health issues, and the great feeling you receive from all those endorphins will push you to conquer another subgoal in your fitness area.

Goal: Build a diverse portfolio
Subgoal: Make your first investment

Part of having a successful financial plan means owning a portfolio of investments that has the potential to grow over the years. Whether it’s part of your Registered Retirement Savings Plan or Tax-Free Savings Account, your investments can mean you are working toward a financial goal, but it starts with making your first investment. It may not look like a subgoal — becoming an investor seems like a big step — but it is one step toward a well-rounded financial plan. A financial advisor can help you make that first investment and help support your decision on what sort of investment is right for you.

Duke equates subgoals to a teacher putting a jelly bean in a glass jar when a class is on good behaviour with the promise, when the jar is full, they get a pizza day. The visible reminder pushes everyone to work towards getting a slice.

“It’s a clever incentive system that takes advantage of how motivation works to help keep us on track,” says Duke.

“And then once you’ve reached the subgoal, it’s motivating too because you say, ‘Yay, I did it.'”