Breaking Down Goals

Making and keeping goals is hard, but breaking down goals into bite sized, smaller steps can be key to achieving a larger objective. According to an article in Psychology Today, 80% of people’s New Year’s resolutions fail by February!  The author goes on to give her thoughts and theories as to why they fail in this articleBreaking down goals into measurable chunks will increase your chances of success.

Breaking down goals

breaking down a smart goal into steps

So often, we have good intentions when it comes to setting goals for ourselves. But there are many reasons why goals fail, and setting huge, audacious goals can be part of that reason. But for the most part, we can pinpoint four reasons goals fail.

Four traps to goal success: 

  • People don’t set clear goals
  • They feel discouraged
  • They feel overwhelmed
  • They are not ready to change

Do any of these reasons sound familiar?

It makes sense! But, the real reason goals fail, beyond these four things, is when people are drawing a mind map, creating a plan, or a goal, they are not SMART about it. We might make a goal that is lofty, unrealistic, and it’s not specific enough to know where to begin. Let’s take a look at these components to a good goal…

Start by understanding the concept of SMART goals. People are very smart, just not about the way they start projects or set goals. 

SMART is an acronym for;

  • S: specific – did you detail what it is you want to achieve?
  • M: measurable – how are you going to measure success?
  • A: is this goal attainable or too lofty?
  • R: is this goal realistic?  
  • T: timebound – Do you have a set timeframe for this goal to be measured?

First decide if the goals are SMART.  Are the goals specific and measurable, or too general?  Are they actually attainable and relevant? 

Once you have a goal in mind (that can be further broken down), you can move on and actually break down the goals and get started on that first step.

goal oriented mindset

If you or your learners are working on a goal oriented mindset, breaking down goals is a terrific method to improve the likelihood of success.  Featured in this post are a specific tool for breaking down goals into measurable chunks. This printable resource supports individuals in using a goal oriented mindset to accomplish tasks they set out to achieve.

In this activity, learners can break down goals to make them more attainable.

Once the larger goal is set, use the goal-oriented mindset strips to break them down.

Decide on the overall goal- At the top write the overall goal: I will clean my room.  Make this more specific by adding time frames, steps, ways to measure success, and possibly a reward at the end.  A better goal might be worded; I will clean my room, to be inspected every Sunday, and check off at least 8/1o items on the list each week.  *Striving for 100% all the time might lead to failure.

Break the goal down into steps- Help your learner decide what the steps might be to achieving this goal. Write each of these steps on the first strip, then staple the second strip on top.  Each time a part of the goal is accomplished, your learner will snip off the next piece of paper to reveal another chunk of their goal.

Some of the steps to cleaning a bedroom might be:

  1. Put all dirty laundry in the basket
  2. Take all plates, cups, and other dishes out of room
  3. Put trash in the bin, then empty bin
  4. Put clean laundry away
  5. Put toys in their boxes or back on the shelves
  6. Change sheets
  7. Vacuum
  8. REWARD!

Each one of these tasks is measurable.  Make them attainable by changing and tweaking as needed.  Having a list like this makes this overwhelming chore seem more doable. If not, you may end up with a kid like mine, who would just lie in the middle of the mess and cry.

Check out this post on writing a goal ladder for another method to achieving goals.


Before trying to “break down goals” into steps, think about a goal you have recently set for yourself. It could be one that was a great success, or went down in a ball of flames.

Now look back and determine if your goal was SMART.  Did it have all the pieces it needed, or was it flawed from the start? 

Then recheck and see if you fell into one of the four traps:

  • People don’t set clear goals
  • They feel discouraged
  • They feel overwhelmed
  • They are not ready to change

A goal was set for me last year to keep the dog off of the bed and couch.  It was a miserable failure.  Why? I was (and still am not) not ready to change. While the goal was clear, it was not attainable.  

Once you have spent a little time on introspection, it is time to share your wisdom and skills with your learner.  If you are not able to set and achieve goals, it will be harder to help others to be successful. This goal oriented mindset will not be impossible to teach if you are not great at meeting your own goals, as we are often able to teach others to do what we can not do ourselves.

If this idea of breaking down goals into chunks makes sense, these goal-oriented mindset strips are a great jumping off point to getting organized and working on executive function. How about learning to make and follow checklists?

Our learners know they need to change and grow, but may get stuck in the first step of figuring out what goals to set.  Change may seem overwhelming, they are not aware of what they need to learn, or can not think past this current moment to imagine a goal. 

Adult goals seem to revolve around the following:

  • Lose weight
  • Learn to cook, fish, surf, snowboard, etc
  • Eat less, or eat healthier
  • Exercise more
  • Worry less, or decrease stress
  • Save more money
  • Have a better body image

What are some good goals for your younger learners?

  • Join a team
  • Clean their room
  • Write neater
  • Read more
  • Make a new friend
  • Learn a new skill (shoe tying, bike riding, shoot a basket)
  • Eat more vegetables
  • Watch less television
  • Play less video games

Of course these goals would need to be SMART in order to lead to success. Help your learners break down their goals with these mindset strips along with other strategies to develop a goal oriented mindset.

Setting and working on goals is part of executive functioning skills. The OT Toolbox is full of posts on EF.  Just type Executive functioning in the search box, or check out this executive function course to get started.

Other resources for kids on breaking down goals include:

As for my goal of not having the dog on the bed or couch, I have written that one off, and decided to focus on something more attainable. 

Free Activity for Breaking Down Goals

Above, we shared how to use this printable resource that helps users to break down their goals into bite sized pieces. You can get a copy of that goal breaking activity here. Simply enter your email address into the form below to access this file. Print off the tool and get started with creating goals and breaking them down!

This item is also available inside our OT Toolbox Member’s Club.

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Breaking Down Goals Activity

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    NOTE*The term, “learner” is used throughout this post for readability and consistency. This information is relevant for students, patients, clients, preschoolers, kids/children of all ages and stages or whomever could benefit from these resources. The term “they” is used instead of he/she to be inclusive.

    Victoria Wood, OTR/L is a contributor to The OT Toolbox and has been providing Occupational Therapy treatment in pediatrics for more than 25 years. She has practiced in hospital settings (inpatient, outpatient, NICU, PICU), school systems, and outpatient clinics in several states. She has treated hundreds of children with various sensory processing dysfunction in the areas of behavior, gross/fine motor skills, social skills and self-care. Ms. Wood has also been a featured speaker at seminars, webinars, and school staff development training. She is the author of Seeing your Home and Community with Sensory Eyes.

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