Download the Schwab app from iTunes®Close

Choiceology: Season 8 Episode 1


Listen on Apple Podcasts, Google PodcastsSpotify or copy to your RSS reader.

Breaking down a goal into smaller steps could help you achieve your goals.

Most people wouldn’t attempt a marathon or a climb up Mount Everest without first working through some less audacious objectives. And yet there are countless examples of ambitious goals—new businesses, academic degrees, career changes, athletic feats—that were abandoned because they appeared too daunting in scope.

In this episode of Choiceology with Katy Milkman, we look at a simple strategy that can make your biggest goals more manageable.

Shannon Miller is one of the most decorated athletes in the history of gymnastics. She is a seven-time Olympic medalist, and two-time inductee into the US Olympic Hall of Fame. While her ambitions as a young gymnast included competing at national and international events, she learned early on that achieving those lofty goals would require many small steps along the way. You’ll hear how Shannon Miller’s approach to goals led her to the pinnacle of her sport, and also helped her through a devastating illness.

You can read more about Shannon Miller’s challenges and triumphs in her memoir, It’s Not About Perfect: Competing for my Country and Fighting for My Life.

Next, Hal Hershfield joins Katy to explore how breaking your savings goals into smaller amounts and shorter intervals can help you overcome certain psychological hurdles. He also discusses scenarios where smaller monetary increments may not actually be in your best interest.

Hal Hershfield is an Associate Professor of Marketing, Behavioral Decision Making, and Psychology at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. Read his paper Temporal Reframing and Participation in a Savings Program: A Field Experiment for details on his research with Stephen Shu and Shlomo Benartzi.

Choiceology is an original podcast from Charles Schwab. For more on the series, visit

If you enjoy the show, please leave a rating or review on Apple Podcasts.

Click to show the transcript

Announcer: Shannon Miller, looking to add an individual Olympic gold medal to her trophy case, on the balance beam. A tumbling pass, two layouts: beautiful. That move, actually called “The Miller.” Absolutely flawless execution. Now, she has to stick that dismount. It all comes down to this moment.

Katy Milkman: That’s a recreation of an iconic moment for gymnast Shannon Miller, a gold-medal performance at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. In this episode, you’ll hear from Shannon on how she approaches big goals and big challenges. And I’ll be speaking with UCLA psychologist and researcher, Hal Hershfield, about a peculiar phenomenon that influences your willingness to save money.

I’m Dr. Katy Milkman and this is Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. It’s a show about the psychology and economics behind our decisions. We bring you true stories involving high-stakes moments. And then we explore the latest research in behavioral science to help you make better judgements and avoid costly mistakes.

Shannon Miller: To see the American flag being raised, to have the hometown crowd right there yelling and screaming. It was deafening.

Katy Milkman: That’s gymnast Shannon Miller talking about her experience at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The story of Shannon’s success begins long before that competition in the Georgia Dome. It starts when she was a precocious five-year-old kid.

Shannon Miller: Stepping in the gym as a five-year-old, I got to run and jump and go into foam pits and be on a trampoline and swing on bars. It was just the coolest thing ever, and that love really just grew. Very steadily over time, I just wanted to go to the gym more and more and try more skills. And then I started competing when I was nine years old. And that was so exciting for me to have this moment of getting out there with my team and being able to show people what we had been practicing. I’d never had this thought about winning a gold medal, but I knew I loved this sport and I knew I loved challenging myself and getting to that next goal and accomplishing something.

Katy Milkman: Shannon advanced rapidly in the sport. By the time she was a teenager, she was unstoppable.

Shannon Miller: I went to states and then qualified for regionals and nationals. And then all of a sudden, I found myself getting my red, white, and blue uniform in the mail and being able to go out and compete internationally for my country. And for this little girl coming from Oklahoma and to be able to travel the world and do something that I loved was such an incredible experience.

Katy Milkman: Goal-setting played a key part in Shannon’s success early in her gymnastics career.

Shannon Miller: My coach Steve Nunno, he used to pass out index cards at the start of the year and we would sit down, and we’d have to write down on one side of that index card our long-term goal. And it might just be a goal for that year. I want to make it to the state competition. Eventually I would write, I want to represent the United States at an Olympic games. Well, that’s all well and good. It’s nice to have a dream, but how are you going to make it happen? So, we had to turn that card over, and we had to painstakingly write down all of those things we needed to accomplish in order to get to that long-term goal. So, if I wanted to compete at states, I needed more difficult skills in my routines. In order to get those skills, I needed to be stronger, more flexible. It was the sit-ups and push-ups and leg lifts. Those were the things I could work on each day.

Katy Milkman: That incremental strategy was a winning one. Shannon achieved her big goal by qualifying for the 1992 Olympics, at the age of 15. She captured five medals at the Barcelona Games. In the individual events, Shannon brought home two bronze medals: for floor exercise and uneven bars. And two silver medals in the balance beam and the all-around competition. The final medal Shannon brought home was a bronze team medal.

Shannon Miller: I was very young and just to be able to be on that team and walk in the arena, representing the United States, it was incredible. I know everyone wants to talk about gold these days, but that bronze medal for our team at that time might as well have been a gold. We got on the podium for the first time in a non-boycotted games. And I think one of the most important things about that is it showed us that it was possible. After the 1992 Olympics, I came back to Oklahoma, they had a huge parade for me down our Main Street. People were flooding the streets. And I think for me, this painfully shy little girl that was all of 15 years old, coming back I had a hard time processing that they were there for me.

Katy Milkman: This new-found fame was a major adjustment, but Shannon’s parents helped her stay grounded.

Shannon Miller: I do remember coming home and there was about three feet of fan mail in our living room, my parents’ living room. And I remember my mother looking over and saying, “You will answer all of these letters. That’s part of the responsibility. And you don’t know what young athlete out there, you might be touching their lives. We can do a little bit each day, but you’re going to answer these.” And it took me many, many months.

Katy Milkman: The following year in 1993, Shannon won the World Championship’s all-around title in England. But despite her success in the sport, Shannon reached a point where she wasn’t sure she wanted to continue.

Shannon Miller: But that summer of 1993, I remember coming to my parents and saying, “I’m finished. I’m all done with gymnastics. That’s it.” They said, “Well, let’s just have your coaches come and we’ll sit down, talk about it. And if you still want to stop gymnastics, no problem.” And so they came, my coach, Steve Nunno, Peggy Liddick. They were sitting at the dining room table with me and my parents. He turned and he said, “Well, why do you want to quit gymnastics?” And I said, “I don’t want to do it. My back hurts, my shins hurt. I just don’t want to be there anymore.” And he said, “Okay. Well, so why do you want to quit gymnastics?” And I thought, “well, are you not listening to me?” And he said, “I get it. Yes, you’ve got shin splints. You actually went through a growth spurt, so your back is hurting. But these injuries are ones that we can work with, but I need to understand why you don’t love it.”

Katy Milkman: Her coach created a plan of action. Shannon would come into the gym for two hours, just four days a week and see how she felt.

Shannon Miller: For me, that was absolutely nothing. At the time I was working out six to seven hours a day, six days a week. So, if I could appease him by coming in for two hours, he said, “We won’t do anything that hurts. If it hurts your shins, hurts your back, we’re just not doing it.” By the end of the week, my shins aren’t hurting quite as bad as they used to. And by the end of the second week, I had learned a new skill on uneven bars and my body was feeling a little bit better. And he added a third week on there somehow. He understood I had forgot to set goals, but he had to get me to understand that I needed to come up with goals, whether it was learning a new skill, which was always my first love, whether it was a new competition. He needed to know whether I still had that fire, still had that love for the sport, or if I really was mentally, physically just done.

Katy Milkman: And it worked. Again, setting a goal and dividing it into manageable pieces gave Shannon the small wins and the motivation she needed to stick with gymnastics. She continued training and in 1994, won the World All-Around Championship’s title again, the first time an American athlete won the title in back-to-back years. In 1996, she again joined Team USA at the Olympics. And this time they were the home team.

Shannon Miller: The 1996 Olympics in Atlanta were absolutely spectacular. Here I’d come off of the 1992 Olympics. I understood what it meant to be at an Olympics, but there’s nothing that can ever truly prepare you for that enormous fanfare and the ability to compete on home soil, to have your hometown crowd right there with you. And I’ll never forget walking into the Georgia Dome, 40,000 screaming people. You walk through this curtain and into the arena to compete. You’re already feeling that anxiousness, the nerves, the excitement, a little bit of worry. You know you better leave with that medal. And you want to hit your routines and all these things are going through your mind, but you’re also focusing on your next routine so that you keep all of those concerns at bay and just really focused on your job. But it’s hard because you look up and you see this sea of red, white, and blue, and you see flashbulbs popping like the 4th of July.

Katy Milkman: The American team was a powerhouse of seven elite gymnast from across the country. Together they came to be known as the Magnificent Seven.

Shannon Miller: I think that’s the perfect name because it was truly magnificent the way that team was built and the way we prepared. And it was just that great mix of three that had competed in 1992, the energy of the new, younger ones coming onto the team. It was just magnificent.

Katy Milkman: The Soviets had dominated women's gymnastics for decades. The 1996 games were the first Olympics since the breakup of the Soviet Union where athletes from the Soviet Bloc countries competed separately. But Russia was still a powerhouse and Russia and Romania were the teams to beat in 1996. As the competition progressed, the American team began to close in on Romania and Russia.

Shannon Miller I never actually knew where we were on the leaderboard. I think someone may have told me that we were in second in between the compulsory round and the optional round. But other than that, I didn’t know what our point spread was. I didn’t know who was in second, third. I didn’t pay attention to that because I was focused on the optional competition ahead and just hitting all four events.

Katy Milkman: By the final event in the optional round, the Americans were in the lead with a thin margin over Russia. The vault was the final event. Team member Dominique Moceanu made a surprising error, falling during her dismount. It all came down to Kerri Strug. On the first two attempts, Kerri injured herself and tore two ligaments, but she pushed through and stuck the landing to clinch the gold medal for Team USA.

Shannon Miller: What stands out the most about that final night of the team competition is really just standing up there with my teammates. Hoping we raise the correct arm and being just unbelievable, just surreal that somebody is placing an Olympic gold medal around our necks. To see the American flag being raised, to have the hometown crowd right there yelling and screaming. It was deafening. It was such a spectacular moment that it’s impossible for someone to say ‘96 Olympics and may not immediately think of that moment with my teammates.

Katy Milkman: After winning the team gold medal, Shannon also participated in the all-around competition. She was doing really well until she made a small mistake.

Shannon Miller: Apparently, I was in first place headed into the third of four events. And that night I stepped out of bounds on the floor exercise and out of any possibility of a medal that night. And I was heartbroken. I went into the vault finals a couple nights later. I ran down the runway and I landed flat on my backside on a vault that I really did not miss. In other competitions, training, it was not a difficult vault for me.

And I spoke to my mother that night and I kind of vented to her, “Mom I don’t know what's going on here. I never had trouble with this vault. And now I have one last event, the last 90 seconds of my entire career, the last opportunity I have to bring home a medal for my country. And it all comes down to a balance beam four inches wide. The most feared event in all of gymnastics and this is what I have to look forward to. And I was terrified. What if I fall? What if I fail? What if I let everybody down?” And that’s when she stopped me and she asked me one question, “Have you done the work? At other competitions, in training, did you do the work?” And I said, “Yes.”

Katy Milkman: Knowing she had done all that she could, Shannon confidently walked into the beam competition.

Shannon Miller: That beam routine was probably the fastest 90 seconds of my life. I’m not sure I even remember a moment during that routine, except for setting up for the dismount. I was all of a sudden at the end of the beam, arms raised high, ready for the dismount, said a little prayer, “Please God, just let me land on my feet tonight.” And I hurdled toward the end of the beam. One twist, two flips and then I felt my feet hit the floor. It was the most amazing mix of emotions. The joy, the excitement, the relief, when I saw my coach jumping up and down the sidelines. I think I saluted the judge but who knows. But I didn’t know what the score was, if there was a medal, what color it might be. I just wanted to live in that moment.

Katy Milkman: With that performance, Shannon Miller became the first American to win the balance beam final at the Olympics, as well as the first American woman to win an individual gold medal at a Games that included athletes from the former Soviet bloc. After the 1996 Olympics, Shannon became the most accomplished gymnast, male or female, in US Olympic history, tied only recently by Simone Biles at the Tokyo Games. After retiring from competitive gymnastics, Shannon turned her attention to her education. She earned an undergraduate degree in marketing and entrepreneurship in 2003 and a law degree in 2007. She started her own company in 2010. That same year Shannon’s life took an unexpected turn.

Shannon Miller: That summer I launched my company devoted to women’s health, and we just focused on helping women make their health a priority and not feel so guilty about it. And I also started hosting a radio show during that time where I would interview physicians, nurses, healthcare experts on every topic. And as we moved into that Fall, we talked a lot about cancer awareness, the importance of early detection, getting to those regular exams, all of those good things. Work was going great. Our son had just turned a year old. So, we were enjoying those moments. My schedule was jam packed.

And I looked down at my calendar and realized I’m going to be out of town on the date of my next exam. So, I called up fully expecting to cancel my exam, just to put it off till next year, a few months won’t make a big difference. I feel fine. And I was immediately put on hold. And during that maybe 60 to 90 seconds of being on hold, I just felt this incredible guilt, this weight in my chest of here, I’m about to do the exact same thing that I’m asking other women not to do.

And so when the receptionist came back on the line, I said, “Look, I can’t be there on this date in a few weeks, but I can maybe get on your first available appointment list.” And she said, “Oh, that’s great because we just had a cancellation on the other line. You can come over now.” And in the span of maybe a 10, 15-minute visit that morning, my doctor found a cyst on my left ovary, which sent me into a whirlwind of tests and scans.

Katy Milkman: In January of 2011, Shannon underwent surgery to have the cyst removed. It was a rare form of ovarian cancer that, luckily, they had caught early, but she needed to go through an aggressive chemotherapy regimen.

Shannon Miller: When I found out I would need to go through chemotherapy, I had reverted back to some of that competitive mentality. I knew what we were dealing with. We had this plan of action. I had a great medical team, had wonderful support system with my husband, family, friends, coworkers. Everything was aligned and now I just needed to step up and do the work. And that’s how I had looked at it, for better or worse. But I couldn’t do much physically after surgery. And as the weeks went on during chemo and the effects of treatment started to take hold, losing my hair, the nausea, fatigue. I couldn’t open a bottle of water by myself for over a year because of the neuropathy in my hands. I used to swing around uneven bars for six hours a day and now I can’t open a bottle of water.

It humbles you very quickly. And I think for me, I had to be humble in my goal-setting. And so a lot of times my goal was to wake up, and get dressed, and then walk twice around our dining-room table. And on my most difficult days, if I could do that, then I could chalk that up to a win. And then there were other days that I was feeling a little bit better, that it was a 10-minute walk. If I could take our son out and do a 10-minute walk, then that was a win.

Katy Milkman: It took over a year for Shannon’s nausea to subside enough to start eating a variety of foods again, and experience less fatigue.

Shannon Miller: The fatigue is not, “I’m tired today.” It is laying in bed feeling as if each one of your limbs weighs a thousand pounds. And I would lay there and wonder how in the world am I going to move my leg four inches to the edge of the bed so I can stand up? So you’re going through all these things. You’re going through it mentally, emotionally, physically. So, finding that support is so important. And I think for me, it was just the reminder that, okay, if it's a five-minute walk today, maybe it’s a six-minute walk tomorrow. And that the focus was to get healthier and stronger, little-by-little, each day and not try to rush the process.

Katy Milkman: Again, Shannon’s approach to goals, breaking them down into achievable steps, brought her a win, one more important than any gold medal. She has been cancer-free since 2011.

Shannon Miller: Goals don’t always have to be the biggest, best, craziest, no-one’s-ever-done-this-before goal. Sometimes it’s just a goal that makes you feel really good about what you’re doing and helps you take that next forward step.

Katy Milkman: Shannon Miller is a seven-time Olympic medalist and two-time inductee into the US Olympics Hall of Fame. Her memoir is titled, It’s Not About Perfect: Competing for My Country and Fighting for My Life. You can find a link in the show notes and at

You've probably gathered by now that by breaking goals down into bite-sized increments is the overarching theme in this episode. For Shannon Miller, goal increments were key to her success in everything from her Olympic routines, to answering mountains of fan mail, to sticking with gymnastics in the face of injury, to beating cancer. Each of those goals might’ve seemed insurmountable had Shannon not taken them little-by-little, identifying the smaller steps she should focus on in order to make meaningful progress.

Fortunately, for the rest of us, this strategy works in all sorts of less dramatic situations. You don’t have to have Olympic ambitions in order to leverage this approach. There’s a growing body of evidence supporting the importance of thinking about big goals in terms of their smaller component parts. The legendary Stanford psychologist, Albert Bandura, first ran studies exploring this idea with just a handful of student participants. And his results offered suggestive evidence that encouraging people to focus on goal components rather than goals as a whole could be helpful. More recently, scholars have begun to validate this theory in large samples. My doctoral student, Aneesh Rai, for instance, led a study with thousands of volunteers who had made a big commitment to donate 200 hours of their time and energy to a nonprofit over the course of a year.

In our project, we sent short emails to volunteers that either reminded them of their large commitment and encouraged them to make some progress or prompted them to aim for a more bite-sized goal: volunteering four hours a week or eight hours every two weeks. We continued sending these reminders for months and we found that encouraging people to tackle a bite-sized portion of their goal rather than the whole kit and caboodle produced roughly 8% more volunteering. So large studies suggest more bite-sized goals really can help our motivation. Hal Hershfield has done some fascinating recent research on how reframing a goal can change our willingness to even begin when it comes to saving money.

Hal is an associate professor of marketing, behavioral decision-making and psychology and UCLA's Anderson School of Management and he joined me to talk about this phenomenon. Hi, Hal, thank you so much for doing this. I really appreciate it.

Hal Hershfield: Hey Katy, it’s good to be here. Thanks for having me.

Katy Milkman: I am really excited to talk about your brilliant research. I would love it if you could talk a bit just to start, about your amazing study showing that breaking down big savings goals into smaller parts can produce great results. Could you tell us a little bit about that research?

Hal Hershfield: Yeah, I’d be happy to. So, this is a project that I did in collaboration with Shlomo Benartzi and Steve Shu. And we worked with a Fintech app, a basic savings app. And it was a pretty simple setup, which was to ask new users if they wanted to enroll in a recurring savings program. In other words, money would get taken out of their checking account every so often. And we had a little twist in there, which is that we just decided to reframe the time units of the amount of money that they would contribute. So, in other words, some people were asked if they wanted to save $150 a month. Others were asked if they wanted to save $35 a week. And then we had a group who was asked if they wanted to save $5 a day, which you can probably tell is all the same amount.

Katy Milkman: And how did that turn out?

Hal Hershfield: So, you know how you have those moments where you look at data and then nothing works? And that’s like a lot of moments.

Katy Milkman: A lot of science. Hypothesis failed.

Hal Hershfield: Failed. This was not one of those moments. We looked at it and I had to do a double-take and say, “Oh my gosh, four times as many people signed up for this program when it was framed as $5 a day, compared to when it was framed as $150 a month.” So, it was about 28% who signed up in the $5-a-day framing. About 11% in the $35-a-week and 7% in the $150-a-month. And I remember writing to Shlomo and he said, “This is amazing.” And, Steve said, “Well, let me just double-check.” And he did all of my analyses again, every single one. And we said, “Yes, this is real. This is happening.” So we’re excited.

Katy Milkman: It’s a really big result. It’s really interesting. Could you talk a little bit about why you think this simple reframing had such a big effect on people’s decisions?

Hal Hershfield: Yeah. And by the way, I should probably note first off, to some extent, these are warm leads. These are already people who are interested in a Fintech app. Whether we would see such high rates of participation in another setting, I don’t know. But I suspect we would still see these big differences between groups. So why does this happen? I think there’s a couple of reasons. One of which is that we have different mental buckets or different mental accounts for our monthly, weekly or daily expenditures. So from a monthly standpoint, we can think of things like mortgage and rent, maybe car payments, or cell-phone bill. And when you think about something that’s $150 a month, well, there may not be that much wiggle room to add another big expense like that to your already growing list of monthly expenditures.

But I think about $5 a day, well, for most people I think that boils down to a coffee or, there’s lots of other things we can think could cost $5 a day even if we don’t spend that. And so we say, “Sure, I think I can add that.” So it feels a little bit easier. Another reason here could be simply that saving for the future often is painful because you’ve got to make a sacrifice today and you get a benefit later on and the sacrifice is painful, and you see it come out of your paycheck. And so jumping off of the mental accounting reason I just gave, I think this shift from a monthly expenditure to a daily expenditure really lessens the psychological pain of that sacrifice. And it just doesn’t feel that bad to a lot of people.

Now to be fair, we see some people drop out because they start realizing, “Oh my gosh that was $150 a month.” But the reality is that we still have way more people involved in the savings program even after the first month where you see some drop-off.

Katy Milkman: So, in this study you just described, which I just love, you reframe this big long-term goal as a series of smaller, daily, or weekly acts that people could take. And they then achieve more, even though it was exactly the same thing. And I’m curious if there’s any evidence that people can actually do this for themselves, to positive effect. So you did it for them. You’re marketing and saying, “Here’s an offer, $5 a day. You want to do it versus $35 a week or $150 a month?”, but what can people do themselves?

Hal Hershfield: Yeah, I think it’s a great question. Empirically, I don’t know the answer because we haven’t tested that yet. I think if you can set up a more rigorous or automatic way for this to happen, then yes, I think it could work. The problem is if you have to be the one to control this, then I worry that it’s not going to be as effective. So how might you actually put that into practice? If anything opens up an opportunity for businesses to start implementing some of these ideas so that their users and customers can think about these sacrifices in different or easier ways.

Katy Milkman: Do you think of this as related at all to Al Bandura’s work on breaking down big goals into smaller component parts?

Hal Hershfield: Absolutely. I should probably say that theoretically, this idea isn’t new. I think we were really trying to pick a novel context to look at it, but for sure this owes a debt of gratitude to some of Bandura’s early work there. And if you think about saving some large sum of money as if it’s a big goal, then of course breaking it down into chunks just makes it that much more manageable, that much easier to get started on to begin with.

Katy Milkman: Is there anything you do differently in your life now based on this insight?

Hal Hershfield: Yeah. It’s funny that you asked that because we were just going through the process of refinancing our mortgage. And I started to think about different options that we had. And without going into all of the boring details, I did the translation in my head to say, “What’s going to be best in the long run versus the short run? And how much will this really cost us?” And I tried to break it down. I didn’t break it into daily amounts. I broke it more into weekly amounts and it helped put things into perspective. So I’d say maybe on a more abstract level, I've been trying to use some of the insights from that paper to just change perspectives on some of the decisions that I’m faced with. So it’s easy sometimes to think about something in this chunk or that chunk, but let me break it down or let me add it up on the other hand, too.

So if there’s one other insight here, it’s that sometimes things that are broken down for you can end up being really expensive. And so, I remember when we’re talking to our internet provider and they said, “Well, it's only another $25 a month to get the super high-speed internet.” And I said, “Well, that doesn't sound awful.” Then I started adding it up. And I said, “Well, that actually adds up to a lot in a year and do we really want to do this? Do we need this?” So, I think the reverse is important, too.

Katy Milkman: I love that. And actually, that’s a great segue to another question I wanted to ask. Are there ever situations where you think it could actually be harmful to break a big goal down into smaller component parts if you’re trying to make good decisions?

Hal Hershfield: It’s hard for me to think about goals necessarily as being harmful here. If you have a big, important goal and you break it down to smaller parts, I think it is going to help you reach that goal. But I do think there are cases in the spending space where breaking it down could be problematic. We’re seeing this rise of these websites that allow consumers to... This would be the old school way of saying, put purchases on layaway. So, you can purchase this big product, but look, you can put it into a monthly term and it’s only $8 a month or whatever it is. So, I think that can actually be really beneficial at times, if there is something that you've had your eye on or it’s going to bring you some utility or whatever it may be. The problem is if we do this for all of our expenses, and now we’re left with a big portion of money to spend every month on all these things that we like.

Katy Milkman: Things that accumulate. Yeah. It’s a nice distinction between a tool that can be used for good if we break down savings, which is something that we all wish we did more of really, and is good net-net but it can also be weaponized and used to convince us to buy junk we don’t need.                                                        

Hal Hershfield: No, that’s exactly right. Look, I’ll add one other thing there, too, just from the individual consumer perspective, there are times when a more expensive product could be better in the long run. Because it could last longer, it could be higher quality, but we don’t want to spend that money upfront. And so I think if used smartly, some of these payment plans could actually help consumers get something that will last longer and may be better in the long run. But you have to be smart about it and disciplined and keep in mind the big picture of all the different expenses that are taking this form.

Katy Milkman: It’s really interesting. This was great, Hal. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this. I really, really appreciate it.

Hal Hershfield: Yeah, absolutely. My pleasure.

Katy Milkman: Hal Hershfield is a researcher and associate professor of marketing, behavioral decision making and psychology and UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. You can find a link to the paper titled, “Temporal Reframing and Participation in a Savings Program: A Field Experiment,” in the show notes and at

Financial planning is a process designed to help you reach your life and financial goals. And a critical part is prioritizing your goals and breaking them down into achievable milestones. Check out the episode of the Financial Decoder podcast called “How Can You Set Better Goals?” to learn more. You can find it at or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Breaking large goals into smaller, more manageable parts is an intuitive concept. Most people wouldn’t enter a marathon without training on shorter distances over a period of time or attempt to climb Mount Everest without first working on some smaller mountains. But what’s so interesting about the research I’ve described is that it isn’t just saying it’s important to make plans and break down big goals into component parts. It’s saying that just describing the same overall goal in terms of the daily or weekly work you’ll need to put in, instead of focusing on the monthly or yearly effort required, can robustly change our actions for the better. So, if you’d like to reach a savings milestone this year, or put in 100 hours on a language learning app, or as a volunteer for a charity you love, you may want to reframe that objective to yourself. Dividing your savings goal by 365 days and focusing on the smaller dollar quantity you need to set aside, is likely to be less daunting. And dividing that 100-hour commitment into a daily or weekly commitment is likely to lead to greater success.

When we reframe big goals that we hope to accomplish over many weeks or months to instead focus on their more approachable and bite-size component parts, our big ambitions feel more manageable, approachable, and achievable, and that can make a world of difference.

You’ve been listening to Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. If you’ve enjoyed the show, we’d be really grateful if you’d leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. You can also follow us for free on your favorite podcasting app. And if you want more of the kinds of insights we bring you on Choiceology about how to improve your decisions, you can order my new book, How To Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be or sign up for my monthly newsletter, Milkman Delivers, at

Next time, you’ll hear about a single, poignant photograph that made a huge difference for migrant workers during the great depression, and I’ll speak with my Wharton colleague Deborah Small about why we tend to become numb to large numbers and statistics. I’m Dr. Katy Milkman. Talk to you soon.

Speaker 2: For important disclosures, see the show notes or visit

Important Disclosures

All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice in reaction to shifting market conditions.

The comments, views, and opinions expressed in the presentation are those of the speakers and do not necessarily represent the views of Charles Schwab.

Data contained herein from third-party providers is obtained from what are considered reliable sources. However, its accuracy, completeness or reliability cannot be guaranteed.

The book How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be is not affiliated with, sponsored by, or endorsed by Charles Schwab & Co., Inc. (CS&Co.). Charles Schwab & Co., Inc. (CS&Co.) has not reviewed the book and makes no representations about its content.


Thumbs up / down votes are submitted voluntarily by readers and are not meant to suggest the future performance or suitability of any account type, product or service for any particular reader and may not be representative of the experience of other readers. When displayed, thumbs up / down vote counts represent whether people found the content helpful or not helpful and are not intended as a testimonial. Any written feedback or comments collected on this page will not be published. Charles Schwab & Co., Inc. may in its sole discretion re-set the vote count to zero, remove votes appearing to be generated by robots or scripts, or remove the modules used to collect feedback and votes.