Scaling down: on seeking fewer goals, relationships, and experiences

Reading time: 4 minutes

We have heard it so many times: quality matters more than quantity. Yet, we struggle to apply the adage. We try to earn as much money as possible; to visit many places; to make lots of friends; to read loads of books. In many areas of our lives, quantity seems to trump quality.

Thanks to the work of psychologist Barry Schwartz published in The Paradox of Choice, marketers are aware of the less-is-more effect. As a result, they strive to simplify consumers’ lives by providing them with a limited number of options. But marketers don’t need to hold a monopoly on simplifying our lives. You may also already know that money truly doesn’t buy happiness—at least past a certain point. Could we benefit from scaling down our goals, our relationships, and even our experiences?

Scaling down your goals to scale up your ambition

Reading about successful entrepreneurs or scrolling through an endless feed of inspirational posts may trigger a desire to achieve more by expanding your goals. You too, should learn how to speak Mandarin or to play the guitar; you too, should get a promotion; you too, should launch a blog. The result is an overwhelming laundry list of ambitious goals.

While ambitious goals can feel exciting, having a sense of attainability is important to maintain our motivation. This is especially true in the early stages of a project. “When you are just starting a pursuit, feeling reassured that it’s actually doable is important, and achieving a sub-goal increases that sense of attainability,” explains Professor Szu-chi Huang, who studies motivation and self-regulation at Stanford.

In addition, research suggests that fewer goals is better. The implication is clear: not only should you have fewer goals, but you should break down your big goals into smaller goals. In the words of James Clear: “Go smaller. Can’t learn an exercise? Reduce the range of motion. Struggling to grasp a new concept? Break it down. Failing to stick with a habit? Make it easy. Master stage one, then advance.”

Scaling down our number of goals and the goals themselves may feel like we are making less progress, but the compound effect of improving a little bit everyday is more powerful than striving—and often failing—to accomplish ambitious goals from the get-go. Fewer, smaller goals can lead to outsized achievements. As Steve Jobs said: “Quality is more important than quantity. One home run is much better than two doubles.”

Less is more

Many areas of our lives could benefit from scaling down. One area that may be unintuitive is relationships. Social capital is seen as a helpful resource, and having a support network is crucial to people’s well-being. But the quality of this support network is what matters most. Research suggests that satisfying friendships—not just any friendships—have a positive impact on physical and psychological well-being.

In addition, friendship is not always reciprocal. In fact, only half of friendships are reciprocal. “This misperception of friendships’ character for the majority of people may result in misallocation of efforts,” write the MIT researchers behind the study. It may feel uncomfortable, but taking the time to figure out which are your most satisfying relationships and which friendships are actually reciprocal will help you scale down your support network to only include the people who do contribute to your well-being. Fewer, more meaningful relationships.

Another unintuitive area of our life which could benefit from scaling down is experiences. We spend so much time and energy doing, we don’t leave space for being. Life is not a checklist. Instead of attending every single event available to us, let’s craft a big adventure for ourselves. Instead of trying to read all the latest books, let’s build an antilibrary of classics. Instead of eating out every evening, let’s save up for the best restaurant in town (and let’s go with someone meaningful).

Scale down your consumption by buying less. Scale down your time spent at work so you can see your children grow up. Learn to let go of unnecessary or overwhelming goals, relationships, and experiences. Know when less is more, and when you have enough.