In business we're always chasing the big prize - but it usually takes small steps to make it happen, says Philip Hesketh

In business we're always chasing the big prize. It might be a new contract, better sales performance, or reducing our carbon footprint. To achieve these goals rarely takes one big effort but rather concentrated bursts. So, for instance, when you're tidying up the office don't be too discouraged if you've filled an entire skip but still can't see your desk. Every little helps, as they say at Tesco.

But how do you stay motivated? Or more importantly, avoid being de-motivated when things don't go to plan? Well, psychological research by Linda Houser-Marko and Kennon Sheldon suggests the key to getting big projects done is to balance individual tasks against the grand vision. They compared people's reactions to failure when they were thinking about the individual task and when they were focused on their main overall goal.

Participants played a word game that assessed their verbal ability and were awarded points for each task. Along the way they were given feedback about how they were doing, which was completely made up rather than based on actual performance. Unsurprisingly, motivation fell among those who were told they were doing badly. But what the researchers were really interested in was whether their focus - either on the individual task or the overall goal - affected motivation.

They found that it did. Those told they were doing badly but only on the specific task didn't expect to do so badly in the future as those who were focusing on their primary goal. So it seems that when things aren't going to plan, it's better to stay focused on the individual task rather than contemplate the ultimate goal.

Now translate that to a retailer's annual sales targets. Despite the seasonal peaks and troughs that affect every business, it's human nature to divide the ultimate target by 12 and arrive at a monthly figure. Some months you'll be down, some you'll be up. The point is, you're more likely to achieve the ultimate goal if each member of the sales team stays focused on the task in hand. Sure, one eye has to remain on the big prize, but when actually engaged in the task itself - making a presentation, telephoning an important client, or evaluating progress, it's important to stay task-focused.

If you want to motivate your team, get them to think like a sprint racer. Moments before the race they look off into the distance and focus on the finish line. But as soon as the starting gun fires they stare down at the ground and their feet. The focus is step by step. Then, towards the end, they have just one focus: the finish line. Okay, so someone still always comes last, but you get the idea.

Philip Hesketh is a professional speaker on the psychology of persuasion and author of Life's a Game so Fix the Odds.