A goal is a clearly defined personal objective, something you want to achieve in a specific time period. What you may not realize is that there are different types of goals. Just as you wouldn’t train for a sprint the same way you would train for a marathon, different goals will require different approaches.
There are three main types of goals: short-term, long-term and on-going.
During college I pursued several intense, short-term goals. One particular summer, I regularly worked 80+ hours per week to pay for my fall tuition bill. I taped a goal meter on the wall next to my bed with the exact amount that I needed by the end summer marked on the top of it. Every time I earned a paycheck from my various jobs, I used a red marker fill in how much closer I was to my goal.
As the summer wore on and I wore out, that meter served as motivation. It prompted me to pick up another shift or reminded me not to spend money. It was a constant, visual reminder of my goal and showed me exactly where I was on my way to achieving it.
That disciplined lifestyle wouldn't be sustainable over a long period of time, but it was doable for three months.
Short-term goals, as the name implies, are ones that can be attained in a short time frame. They're goals that we're willing to dedicate an intense amount of energy to, something Dave Ramsey calls gazelle intensity. Not all short-term goals are worthy of that energy however. Prioritize what you want to accomplish and determine if you are really dedicated to exerting the effort it will require to reach that goal.
A side benefit to a short-term goal is the relatively immediate results, clearly illustrating how achieving our goals helps our lives.
Motivation techniques, such as a poster on your wall to mark progress, or an inspirational photo, work well for short-term goals. An action plan with specifics allows you to cross items off as they are achieved. Tracking incremental advancements can serve as motivation to keep going. Remember to keep day to day goals realistic, otherwise, you won‘t feel you are making progress.
A word here about accomplishment: I have come to realize the wisdom in pausing to breathe as part of the goal setting cycle. Resting after attaining a goal allows reflection on your accomplishment, gives perspective and re-energizes you for the next task.
Retirement is a long-term goal for me and my husband. I know that we need money saved, but because we haven’t formed specific plans for retirement, I don’t know exactly what that will mean for us yet. I can imagine the type of life we would want to live when we're retired, but because there are so many unknowns, it’s next to impossible to anticipate the exact budget we will have. Even people who are a year or two from retirement often have trouble envisioning what it will look like!
However, just because I can’t clearly envision the specifics of that goal doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be setting a target and working toward it.
Long-term goals are directional. I’m aware of the general direction I need to go to reach our retirement goal, even though I don’t know the details. I know that saving monthly for retirement now will give me the freedom to make more specific decisions down the road.
Treating a long-term goal like a short-term goal is a recipe for disaster. For a short-term goal, I may look at my bank account daily as a way of seeing if I'm on track. If I were to attempt the same thing for a long-term goal, like frequently checking a retirement account, the process would be frustrating at best.
Another example is a career goal. If your goal is to one day be in the C-suite of your company, revisiting how you have yet to attain that goal daily, weekly or even monthly will discourage you and set you back.
Long-term goals are ones you re-visit over time. Check in periodically to make sure you are on track and making progress, but don't obsess over the results daily.
After months of spending too much at the grocery store and throwing away far too much food, I decided it was time to get my grocery shopping budget under control again. While that may seem simple to some, it's a goal that requires constant on-going attention and energy from me.
Now I sit down and plan out our meals once a week. With planning, I no longer have to decide multiple times throughout the week whether to eat what we have on hand or find an easier/faster option. Now I go to the store and spend money on groceries I know will be used.
If you approach an on-going goal, such as grocery planning, regularly exercising or controlling your budget, the same as you do a short-term or long-term goal, you are setting yourself up for failure. Sprinting for on-going goals becomes exhausting and not checking on them regularly makes it more likely that they won’t happen.
Clearly I won’t ever attain perfection in my goal of eliminating all the wasted food in our lives by meal planning. There are going to be successes and there are going to be days where I simply don’t have the time or energy to follow the plan. This is to be expected. Think of on-going goals as behavior training. Pat yourself on the back when you do well, but when you get off track, reroute and try again.
An article on the Mind Tools website reminds us that “unless you clearly define exactly what you want and understand why you want it the first place, your odds of success are considerably reduced”. When setting goals, remember the SMART acronym: they should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Bound.
Next time you set a goal, recognize what type it is (short-term, long-term, or on-going) and the amount of energy or patience it will require. Having clear expectations and awareness of your direction will increase your chances of successfully attaining your goals.