Following Emma’s recent blog post on setting goals for your business, I was at an event recently where the ‘flea in the jar’ analogy was used.

If you haven’t heard this one, it goes like this:

Fleas are well known as being brilliant jumpers; they can jump 18cm vertically and 33cm horizontally! So when a flea is captured in a jar, you need to put the lid on quick otherwise they’re out of there.

However, if you catch a flea in a jar and put a lid on it, fleas very quickly learn to jump below the lid to avoid hitting it. Then when you remove the lid they continue to jump below the rim of the jar and therefore never escape. They quickly become conditioned to their environment, and even when the opportunity to jump higher presents itself, they don’t.

In terms of goal setting this analogy works in the following way:

If you’re conditioned to only achieve a certain amount, even if you can achieve more, you don’t.

How to avoid becoming the flea in the jar

Of course, part of the reason that fleas learn quickly not to jump too high is because they risk a nasty bump on the head. In our small businesses this equates to a knock back or a bruised ego because we haven’t succeeded to jump as high as we want. Human nature means we want to avoid what is perceived as failure and that’s why we end up setting ‘achievable’ goals rather than ‘feasible’ goals.

What’s the difference?

An achievable goal is within our comfort zone. For example, if you achieved 3% growth last year, it’s likely that it’s achievable again this year. Whereas a feasible goal is one that pushes us to the next level, it gives us a target that’s out of our comfort zone but could be achievable if we can avoid the flea in the jar mentality.

So when we set goals for ourselves in business, the trick is to aim higher. Let’s not limit ourselves by setting goals that are unambitious because we’ll end up conditioning ourselves to underachieve every time.

That’s not to say your goals should be unrealistic. But if you want to be successful in your business, remove that lid in your mind and aim a little higher. Here are a few tips for freeing your inner flea!

Rethink what ‘failure’ means – when we start trying to jump out of the jar we risk not achieving our goals. But does that matter? So you decided to aim for 5% growth instead of 3%, and instead got 3.5%, that’s still better than 3% in fact you’ve escaped the jar by 0.5% – that’s a result!

Build your resilience – try to do things in life that builds your resilience and takes you out of your comfort zone. Whether that’s working out harder in the gym, taking part in an extreme sport, or studying for a qualification. By challenging yourself regularly, and learning to deal with setbacks, you’ll find it easier to set yourself feasible goals in business too.

Give yourself the tools for success – perhaps one of the reasons that a goal is currently ‘feasible’ rather than ‘achievable’ is because you need a new skillset to make it achievable. That’s something you can take control over and ensure your business has the knowledge, skills and support you need to be successful*.

Take baby steps – setting feasible goals means also setting realistic goals, so set goals that build up in baby steps. As you discover that these are achievable, you’ll become more confident and will be able to set more ambitious goals based on experience and knowledge.

Watch the video to below to see the flea in the jar experiment!


* At SiGNAL our focus is on helping micro and small businesses succeed in the Bordon area by providing a supportive environment, business skills and education and opportunities to connect with other business owners and entrepreneurs.

One way we do this is through the Bordon Hub – this is a membership group for local business owners that meets once a week for business training and support. Sessions are designed to give members essential business skills to enable them to grow their business and achieve their goals. We also introduce a level of accountability; ensuring that those members that want to commit to achieving specific goals keep on track and also get the support they need.

You can find out more about the Bordon Hub here, or sign up below for our weekly newsletter to find out more about more about forthcoming events.