This Is Why We Love Baby Steps

We tend to think of the status quo as something cozy — nothing changes, so nothing requires any work. Our brains don't fully agree, however. In fact, we're much more likely to favor constant incremental actions if the alternative is doing nothing at all.

That's according to a new study just released by an international coalition of researchers. Marketing professors wanted to look at how we assess goals, like losing weight or making a sales target. When we do that, we're really looking at the gap between what we want and what we currently have. "Usually, the bigger the gap, the more difficult the goal," said study co-author Amitava Chattopadhyay in a press release. "However, if there is no gap to speak of, as in the case of a status quo goal, the brain starts scanning the context, anticipating potential reasons for failure."

In short, we get nervous about the ways we could screw up the status quo when we think too much about it. Inertia starts to look harder than we thought. Conversely, if we start thinking about modest goals with small, achievable steps, that pings us as actively satisfying — and less likely to invite catastrophic failure.

This is a useful framework for considering all kinds of longer-term actions, from applying to your dream job to investing and saving for retirement. We already know it's helpful from a productivity standpoint to break down big projects into digestible steps. It's the ultimate in risk reduction, and our brains will be thrilled the more widely we apply that principle.