Long-term goals are one of those things that are easy in theory but tough to actually execute.
After all, it’s easy to say you want to be somewhere in a year, but 12 months is a long way off and it doesn’t take much to get sidetracked along the way.
In light of this, a lot of people don’t set long-term goals for themselves. The problem is that if you don’t have long-term goals, it’s like going on a road trip without a destination in mind. You’ll end up somewhere, but it probably won’t be where you want to go.
So, with this in mind, let’s talk about how to set long-term goals and actually achieve them.
Long-term goals vs. short-term goals
Short-term goals are those tasks or achievements you hope to complete relatively quickly. A short-term goal can span anywhere from a day to a few weeks or even several months.
Anything from wanting to complete a report by the end of the workday to losing five pounds over the next 30 days is a short-term goal.
Long-term goals are those that extend well beyond a few months. For example, you might hope to create an amazing app over the next 12 months or pay off all your credit card debt over the next two years.
Aside from time, other differences include strategy, scale, and the potential roadblocks in crossing the finish line.
Think of short-term goals as a simple walk around the block or a 5K run. Neither requires much thought or planning. While the run is a step up from the walk and requires a bit more strategy, both are straightforward tasks with very few hurdles to clear.
Compare that to a 10K run or a half or full marathon. You have to plan how you’ll train, map out rest and recovery periods, and ensure that you have all the right running gear.
The hard truth is that focusing solely on short-term wins can really limit your success in life.
Short-term goals make you feel good about yourself. You get to check off boxes on your to-do list, but you don’t make progress in significant areas of your life. If you don’t set some difficult goals for yourself, you’ll never know how much you can really achieve.
Instead, use your short-term goals as stepping stones toward much bigger goals. Create smaller, more attainable targets that will move you toward what you really want to accomplish in life.
Hitting these milestones will provide you the confidence to continue along your journey toward achieving your long-term ambitions.
Examples of outstanding long-term goals
You can set a long-range goal for anything – from getting a promotion to improving your credit score to finally taking that European vacation. But to make these things happen, you need to do long-range planning, including setting up short-term milestones that keep you moving toward your ultimate destination.
Let’s look at some examples of outstanding long-term goals in four key areas of your life.
Long-Term Career Goals
- Establish a specific upward trajectory: Professional long-term goals often focus on promotions or pay raises. And while these are great objectives on their own, they’re more effective as milestones along the way toward much bigger objectives, like achieving a specific role (rising from an entry-level role to an executive position) or working for a specific company that you admire.
- Become an expert in your field: Obtaining an advanced degree or acquiring specific certifications can dramatically improve your career, but you have to plan how you’re going to get them. This is especially true if you already have a busy professional and social life. Creating long-term advancement strategies helps you get the education you need in a realistic period of time.
Long-Term Financial Goals
- Build your savings or save for retirement: Unless you plan on hitting the lottery or writing a mega best selling book, you’ll need to start saving for retirement long in advance. You need to calculate when you want to retire, how much money you need, and what action steps you need to take in order to get there.
- Buying a home: A home will probably be the biggest purchase of your life. And while you obviously don’t need to have the full amount to buy one, you need to save some money for a down payment and banks look at your credit score when determining whether to give you a loan. So you need to plan how much you’re going to save and what concrete steps you need to take to improve your credit.
Long-Term Health Goals
- Improve your strength levels: If you want to improve your overall strength levels, you need to create a long-term training plan for yourself that includes specific milestones, like being able to lift a certain amount of weight or do a number of pushups.
- Compete in a major athletic event: Completing a 10K, half or full marathon, or even an Ironman triathlon, not only does wonders for your health but also your confidence and general well-being. In order to compete, you need to assess where you currently are and how far away you are from the fitness level needed to participate.
Long-Term Personal Goals
- Strengthen personal relationships: People don’t change overnight. Improving who you are and strengthening your relationships is a long process that never really ends but continually evolves. Setting out to become a better friend, spouse, parent, or contributor to your community will lead to a more fulfilling life.
- Learn a new skill: Learning a new skill, like playing the guitar or speaking a new language can significantly enrich your life. In order to learn a new skill, you need to regularly practice. Setting milestones, like learning how to play a specific song you like, can help you keep moving toward your ultimate goal.
How to set long-term goals so that you actually achieve them
Now let’s talk about how to set long-term goals in ways that set you up for the most success. Now, obviously there is no specific right or wrong way to go about the process. However, there are certain strategies you can employ that make it more likely that you’ll achieve what you want.
Make your goals SMART
Goal setting – and then going after those goals – requires discipline. Even with the best intentions, it’s easy to lose sight of what you’re trying to attain. This proves especially true for those goals we set far into the future.
To stay on track, make your goals SMART:
Let’s break down each of these in more detail.
1. Specific – Detail what you want to achieve and how you plan to do it
The more specific and detailed you are about what you want to achieve, the greater your chance of reaching your goals.
Definitive goals are those you can easily envision. Even if you don’t have the details of how you plan to cross the finish line, you can at least start from a loose idea of the direction you need to take.
For example, it’s not enough to say, “I want to make money.” Give it a number, provide it a time frame, and a context. A more effective long-term goal would be:
I want to have a six-figure salary and a 401K and retirement plan in place at XYZ Company by my 35th birthday
Instead of a vague destination (I want to make money), there is a clear objective you’re trying to achieve.
Being specific helps you visualize exactly what you want to do. The more clarity you have on what you want, the more you’ll be motivated to take the necessary steps to get there.
Be sure to write your goals down, and keep them close by so you can always make notes, track your progress, and remind yourself of what you’re trying to achieve.
2. Measurable – Include measurable targets and deadlines
One of the biggest challenges with achieving difficult goals is staying on track knowing whether you’re making enough progress.
To combat this and give you milestones to aim for along your journey, include measurable targets and timelines for each goal.
Using our above example, salary increments are the most obvious checkpoints to include, as they will help guide you towards your six-figure goal.
In terms of working at XYZ Company, you would need to do some research into what they look for in potential employees (skills, education, etc.), and then determine what you need to do to meet those requirements.
Apply the same thought process for any other type of long-term goal. Include measurable achievements so you can track your progress and keep yourself accountable and on target.
3. Achievable – Set attainable goals that will stretch you
Your goals should be attainable, even if they take you several years and tremendous amounts of sacrifice and effort to reach.
For instance, if you’re 30 years old and you’ve never played in a soccer match in your life, winning the World Cup is not achievable. And there are no future actions you can take to see that challenge through.
However, though you may have never run more than a few hundred yards at a time in your life, competing in a 10K run or something even longer is definitely doable if you’re willing to take the necessary steps to see it through.
Set goals that will stretch you but that you can still achieve.
4. Realistic – Be realistic about what you can achieve
Though realistic and achievable often dovetail, there is a distinct difference between the two.
Winning the World Cup with no prior soccer experience is not achievable, nor is it realistic. But running in a marathon is realistic if you put in the work and effort it takes to trek 26.2 miles.
However, making the Boston Marathon your first full marathon is not a realistic goal. For starters, the race requires qualifying times for its participants – fast qualifying times. And to post those times, you need to have run in at least a few marathons before submitting your application.
But setting the Boston Marathon as a goal in three to five years? Absolutely doable.
When laying out your long-term goals, be honest about your situation, capabilities, and timing. Make note of the hurdles you may face in trying to turn your ambitions into reality. Create goals relevant to you, including where you are now and where you hope to be.
5. Time-bound – Set a deadline for each goal
Finally, set a deadline for your goals, including both your shorter-term milestones and the ultimate goal at the end of your journey.
Leaving your goals open-ended without a target date is a recipe for continually putting them off.
While you need to be realistic about time-frames and what’s achievable by when, simply saying “I’ll get there someday” means that you probably never will.
Instead, think about what you want and when you want it and outline the soonest possible time frame in which you could achieve it. Then allow yourself reasonable leeway for potential roadblocks or time to recover from any setbacks along the way.
Again, being honest with yourself about how long it may take you to reach your goal gives you an even greater chance of achieving it.
Celebrate your success
Regardless if it’s a goal you set out to achieve in six months, one year, five years, or throughout your lifetime, once you reach your breakthrough, take time to celebrate your success.
Unlike short-term goals, which, as a general rule, should be relatively easy to achieve, to reach far-off objectives takes enormous amounts of effort, sacrifice, and a deep commitment to staying the course.
That isn’t to say you shouldn’t praise your near-term wins. You need to call out your victories whenever they occur. Particularly if your short-term goals are milestones along the path to greater ambitions.
But long-term goals are landmark, life-changing events that deserve their own level of appreciation.
Of course, once the celebration is done and now armed with the confidence that you can reach the highest levels of your ambition, the next logical step is to set new, highly effective long-term goals.