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How to See the Forest and the Trees: Setting Short Term and Long Term Goals
Do you set New Year’s resolutions? Life feels like a clean slate on January 1st, and it’s so exhilarating to pursue something you’ve always wanted. Maybe it’s to lose weight, develop a new skill or finally get out of a dead end job.
But then, it’s so often the case that once the Superbowl party rolls around, all the goals go kaput. It’s so discouraging to watch dust collecting on the new treadmill, to have new books sitting unopened on the coffee table, and to face the same long commute to a boring job, with no end in sight.
Chronically setting goals and never achieving them makes it feel pointless to set them at all. Why try if you’ll only feel like a failure in the end?
What if goal setting was tantamount to being granted a wish that’s certain to come true! What would you ask for? A house? Better health? A brand new car?
The truth is, you really can achieve “impossible” visions. Goal setting isn’t about falling short and always missing the mark. It’s about putting a plan in place to realize wonderful things in your life.
In order for goals to be effective, you need to pan in and pan out at the same time. In this post we’re going to look at how achieving goals requires the right mix of long term and short term goals…and a few strategies for keeping yourself on track!
The Myth of Overnight Success
Do you ever read those “40 under 40” articles about really young people who seem to have it all? They’re successful, bright, wealthy and it all apparently happened overnight.
If you dig a little deeper, however, you’ll realize that it isn’t like that at all. In her reality show “My Life on the D-List” comedian Kathy Griffin points out that achieving success is about slogging through the muck of hard work for years and years. And she’s not alone. Most anyone with a success story has had to grind away for years, to no acclaim.
To make an analogy, achieving a huge milestone is like a dam breaking. Over a long period of time, water gradually builds up, and then finally one day the dam gives way to one epic splash. That is to say, success doesn’t just happen. It’s the result of continually pounding away at a vision.
If you don’t set goals, you’ll still make decisions about how you spend your time. But the decisions are made without a lot of reflection. It’s really easy, for example, to develop a habit of eating out most nights of the week…and then at the end of six months wonder where the money is for a summer vacation.
Not setting goals is a bit like driving a car with no destination in sight. You’ll end up somewhere eventually, but it may not be anywhere you wanted to go!
Goal setting is about taking the macro view of your life, or one area of it, and getting deliberate about the choices you make. It’s about determining the direction you want to head in, and looking at the steps needed to get you there.
Tips on Goal Setting
We set goals for all areas of our life. Maybe you’re looking to budget for retirement and a vacation at the same time. Or maybe an organization has the objective to create a culture with more transparency.
When shaping goals, a good starting place is to unpack everything related to the topic.
If it’s a financial goal, outline all your financial obligations, both short and long term. This may include a college fund, a summer vacation, a new car, groceries, monthly bills, house payments, and retirement.
Or with a goal related to company culture, consider all of the factors that shape the culture: communication tools, recruitment methods, rituals around meetings, project planning procedures, and policies around work life balance. There’s really a lot that goes into company culture, so this takes some real brainstorming.
The next step is to look at all of these pieces and develop the goal. Crafting the right goal per your situation is central to achieving it. Let’s look at characteristics of a good attainable goal.
Set Goals, Not Desires
A goal is measurable, and focuses exclusively on work you can control.
Maybe you’d like to have a transparent company culture. At first blush, this seems like a perfectly appropriate goal. However, changing a culture has a lot to do with things completely out of your control. It’s dependent on the cooperation and behavior of other people within the organization.
Having a transparent culture, then, is really a desire and not a goal.
Developing a goal around this entails doing specific things that might bring about more transparency. These could include things like sharing the long-term strategy with the entire team, soliciting feedback from everyone at the end of a project, or regularly scheduling skip level meetings with the team.
Incorporating these practices would hopefully bring about transparent company culture. If not, it’d be necessary to shore up a new set of goals.
Set Motivating (not Demotivating) Goals
The way we frame a goal affects the level of enthusiasm we bring to it.
Consider these goals around weight loss: “I want to get out of my oversized clothing” and “I should start eating better” and “I want to look great this summer.”
Although each of these goals achieves the same end, the last one looks at the desired result and is far more aspirational. The first two focus on the problem, and feel discouraging.
Or within a company, setting a goal of “figure out what went wrong with the failed products from last year” may well bring about dissension within the team. Rather, a goal to “design innovative products that serve customer needs” keeps the team forward looking and thinking creatively.
When framing goals, it’s best to get away from “should” language and an emphasis on failure. In order to make the goal aspirational, focus the goal around the desired objective.
We live in a world with finite resources, including time, labor, and money. This means we can’t achieve everything. If a company, for example, sets a quarterly goal to start a new podcast, then the time and money dedicated to this takes away from another desirable objective of, say, starting a newsletter.
A realistic approach to goal setting means accepting trade-offs. In order to determine the supreme objectives, it’s good first to lay out all possibilities onto the table to evaluate them.
The MosSCoW Method of Prioritization effectively helps with this process of sorting through various goals. It’s about identifying the musts, shoulds, coulds and won’ts of a project or objective.
By identifying things that “must” happen, it’s easier to then decide areas that can slide down on the priority list.
In sum, setting good goals makes it easier to achieve them, so take some time to craft good goals. You may find that in achieving one goal, others fall into place as well!
The Macro View: Setting Long Term Goals
We all have a fantasy of where we’d like our lives to be, and each of ours is a little different. If you could have a completely different life in ten years, what would it look like? Maybe you’d have an entirely different career, or even be working for yourself. Maybe you’d live in another place, and own your own home. Or maybe you’d achieve a huge physical milestone, such as climbing a mountain or deadlifting 200 pounds.
Tony Robbins has been known to say that “We overestimate what we can accomplish in a year, and we underestimate what we can accomplish in ten years.”
Goal setting oftentimes is focused on the short term: the ten pounds we want to lose, the savings for a vacation this summer. And we get discouraged when we don’t achieve these, as we may have set our sights too high.
However, the fact is, when we set our minds to something, we can shift our lives 180 degrees within six to ten years.
Long term goals aren’t achieved linearly. We only cross the finish line after a lot of hiccups, setbacks, detours and roadblocks. And so be sure to anticipate them!
And sometimes, your final objective isn’t crystal clear at first. But that’s ok.
Maybe you’ve quit your job in search of “something else” that you can’t define precisely. Just by outlining some of your musts (I want more freedom, I want more independence, I want more work life balance) provides direction. Clarity comes from taking steps in the direction of these musts.
Here are three pointers to keep in mind when setting long term goals.
1. Ask Questions to Clarify
When you have a lot of uncertainty around a long term goal, it’s good to ask questions to arrive at a better understanding of where you want to be.
A good set of questions clears away some of the brain fog. If you’re setting goals around a career, ask things like “What kind of environment do I want to be working in?” “Where do I want to live?” “What do I value most in a company culture?” “What skills do I want to utilize?” and “In what situations do I feel the most energized?”
Taking the time to answer a good list of questions allows imperatives to surface. It creates priority and some “musts” start to emerge. From there, it’s easy to chart a path toward making a long term goal a reality.
2. Pick One (or Two) North Stars
Generally speaking, long term goals are huge milestones. When you have a list of five or ten, it’d take a superhuman to achieve them all. Simply attempting them leads to burnout.
And, by making everything important it means that nothing really is important.
Limiting long term goals to only one or two makes them much more achievable.
Narrowing goals down also gives your ship a clear direction to sail in. In letting the North Star be your guide, you may find that many other things fall into place as well.
3. Seek Out Resources and Experience
Oftentimes, embarking on a vision is a step into the unknown. Maybe you’re considering diving into a career you know nothing about. Although this is exciting, it also begs the question, “Am I suited to this type of work?”
Determining whether or not you really want to achieve your goal entails seeking out educational resources, as well as having some hands-on experience.
For example, when embarking on a new career, materials such as the career-change workbook “What Color is Your Parachute,” personality tests and internships all serve to let you understand if you’re headed in the right direction.
In sum, it really is possible to change your life. Long-term goal setting entails embarking on a path, and learning as you go along. Oftentimes, along the way you achieve greater clarity as to where you ultimately want to be headed.
The Micro View: Setting Short Term Goals
“Every action that brings a company closer to its goal is productive. Every action that does not bring a company closer to its goal is not productive,” says the character Jonah in Eliyahu Goldratt’s bestselling book, The Goal.
When you’re in a situation you don’t like, it’s easy to have a myopic focus on a short term goal. Maybe you’re stuck in a job where every day is the same and there are no opportunities for growth, and so you decide that you will take any other job opportunity you can find.
Or maybe you really want to lose some weight, and so go on a crash diet to lose it all in just six or eight weeks.
But this narrow focus doesn’t always pan out. Often, the next job is just as bad as the first, or you gain all the weight back right away.
Effective short term goals are about alignment. It’s a two step process of first identifying where you want to be in five or ten years, and then working backwards to see how to get there.
As Brian Tracy, author of Eat That Frog, 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time, says: “In your work, having a clear idea of what is really important to you in the long term makes it much easier for you to make better decisions about your priorities in the short term.”
Oftentimes, the long term goal is the big, glamorous achievement, such as a new career or a new home. The short term goals, however, are like the back end work which no one but you notices. These, however, are critical to achieving the big vision.
In order to keep on track, here are three pointers for succeeding in short term goals.
1. Break Work Down
When setting short term goals, it’s hard to gauge how long some things take. Maybe we take on a quarterly goal to run a half marathon, and find that it’s way out of our reach.
In order to achieve the short term goals we set, it’s good to break a larger task down into smaller tasks that can be completed in just a week or two.
So something like “go out for three five-mile runs” might make a better short term goal, as this can be accomplished in just one week.
And of course, it’s always good to celebrate your wins, no matter how small.
2. Be Willing to Pivot
Progressing with short term goals is like taking a journey toward a final destination. As you progress, it’s good to pause and reflect on how things are going.
Are the action steps you’re taking moving you closer to your long-term goal? And does that long term goal still look like a worthy endeavor?
It’s ok to pivot based on the feedback. Maybe you headed back to school to study law, and discover that it’s just not at all what you had in mind.
Our long-term goals aren’t set in stone. They’re malleable, and depending on what we learn along the way, we can move the goal post and change the North Star.
3. Take One Step at a Time
When working toward a long term vision, it may feel like you’re moving at a snail’s pace. But a glacier doesn’t melt overnight.
It takes patience to press on, trusting you’ll reach the finish line eventually. By focusing on small wins and celebrating them, it’s easier to stay on track.
In sum, short term goals are often the somewhat tedious, back end work that you need to do in order to achieve a larger goal. But short term goals give you a boost of momentum. These small successes motivate you to achieve the big victory. And don’t be afraid to adjust course as you continue along.
Strategies for Staying on Track
Achieving goals is a journey. At some turns, you experience exhilarating, expansive views. However, at other times you feel like you’re stuck in the badlands, making very little discernible progress with no end in sight.
It takes some stamina and finesse to press on and navigate these inevitable ups and downs. Here are a few strategies for staying on track.
1. Remember the Why
Glamorous goals all entail boring work such as writing code, doing the books and cleaning up messes. These things take time, and they all need to get done.
It’s a real slog getting through “meaningless” tasks, and so make an effort to maintain focus on your “why.” What’s the overall goal you hope to achieve? What’s the dream?
A vision board with the goal clearly displayed keeps you mentally aligned to your long term objectives, even amidst the daily grind. Placing a vision board in sight of your work area keeps you thinking big during all the mundane tasks of your day.
2. Use Metrics
Some goals have a clear and definite finish line. Say something like completing a book: once you’ve finished the last page and closed the cover, it’s definitely completed.
Other goals, however, are far more nebulous. Consider a goal such as “increase marketing efforts.” Although this is certainly a worthy goal, it’s such a huge, broad topic that it’s hard to define when you’ve “completed” the goal and can cross it off your list.
In these sorts of instances, it’s helpful to set clear metrics around the goal, so that you can know when you’ve given it a good faith effort and can move on.
With a goal to increase marketing, for example, both time or quantity metrics provide appropriate limits. Maybe the goal is to spend five hours each week marketing. Or, another might be to send out one newsletter a month and ten social media posts each week.
When a goal feels seemingly endless, metrics allow you to shut down the laptop at the end of the day and move onto something else.
3. Use Mental Agility
Achieving goals is a psychological challenge. You’re stretching yourself and possibly doing things you’ve never done before.
Long term goals present surprise detours as well. Maybe late in the game, you find that you want to change course.
Rather than becoming disheartened, however and getting derailed, mental agility allows you to keep your head in the game, and acknowledge that roadblocks and detours are part of the process.
In sum, achieving short term and long term goals is no piece of cake. From time to time, it feels like a real grind, and it requires strategy to keep you pressing through to the end.
One Brick at a Time
To an onlooker, achieving huge milestones may look effortless, but the fact of the matter is that they’re really a lot of hard work.
Effective goal setting entails taking a micro and macro view to one area of your life, and aligning short term goals to the long term vision. Many short term goals aren’t glamorous at all, and it requires strategy to achieve them.
No one’s goals look exactly the same. Everyone has their own special set of factors and desires that determine the direction they choose to take.
If you’re in a difficult or seemingly inescapable situation, it lifts your spirits to set goals and take steps toward a way out. The more steps you take, the clearer your vision for the end goal. And when all of your efforts culminate, and you cross the finish line, you receive a badge of honor that no one can take from you!