Why do we have such a hard time achieving our long-term goals?
While our to-do lists get consistently crossed off day after day, those bigger, loftier, life-changing plans get swept under the rug and left for someday.
For me, it always come down to choice. Despite promising myself that I’ll work on that novel or start on that new music project, I choose to focus on short-term, ‘urgent’ tasks. But a meaningful life isn’t built by being simply reactive.
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” wrote Annie Dillard in The Writer’s Life and she’s right. While problems arise and fires will always need to be put out, we need to balance the urgent with the important.
Without strategies in place to move you closer to your ideal situation, you’re simply treading water and getting nowhere closer to that distant shore. Let’s change that.
Here are 5 strategies to help you stay focused and chip away at those bigger, long-term goals every single day.
Put your intention out in the world
While talking about our goals can feel narcissistic, having them out in the public is also a powerful motivational tool—when done correctly.
A new study by Dominican University psychology professor Gail Matthews, tracked the connection between sharing your goals and the likelihood of success. The study’s participants were broken up into groups and asked to use varying degrees of public commitment devices for their goals, from simply thinking about them, to writing them down, to sharing a weekly update on their progress with friends.
At the end of the study, Matthews discovered that more than 70% of those who were told to send a weekly update reported successfully completing their goal, compared to only 35% of those who kept their goals to themselves.
When we make our long-term goals public, we become accountable for reaching them, have more opportunities to receive positive feedback, and fulfill our need for social connection—all factors that increase motivation and help us get over the finish line.
Of course, there’s also fear when we make our goals public, but as entrepreneur and author Tim Ferriss wrote:
“It’s very hard to achieve goals if you have the emergency brake on, and the emergency brake is fear.”
Remove the decision
Doing productive and meaningful work comes down to making choices. And willpower researchers have discovered that every single one of these choices mentally wears us down.
Instead, try getting rid of the entire decision-making process and make working towards your goals part of a process.
One easy way to do this is to make working towards your goal part of your morning routine. Your morning routine is a great opportunity to set the tone for your day. Do you want to flood yourself with news and social media, or work towards your goals?
Here’s how designer and SuperBooked CEO, Dan Mall starts his day:
Every morning, before his ‘daily work’ start, Dan makes sure to have an hour set for meaningful work. Instead of spending energy deciding what to work on, he’s simply following through with a decision that’s already been made: Wake up; work on meaningful work.
Think about all the scenarios where you can get rid of the friction of choice.
If your goal is to run every morning, set your running clothes out the night before so there’s no internal friction while fishing around for your shorts in the hamper, about whether you’re really going to jog in the rain today.
If your goal is to spend more time reading, try burying your phone in your bag or a drawer and have a book and notepad next to you instead.
Ready to hit your goals? Check out our free, 33-page Guide to Setting and Achieving Goals.
Break your long-term goals into short-term tasks
I’ve had a lot of big ideas and lofty goals in my life. But looking at the ones that I’ve actually achieved, I’ve started to notice a pattern: I was meticulous about making lists of each step I had to do to hit my goal.
Breaking large, long-term goals into smaller, more manageable ‘chunks’ makes them feel more realistic. Instead of writing a novel, we’re simply writing 1000 words, or finishing an outline.
What’s even better is that these chunks are great opportunities to get ongoing feedback. One of the biggest factors holding us back from reaching our goals is not being able to see the immediate results of our work—a condition University of Sheffield psychology professor Dr. Fuschia Sirois calls Temporal Myopia.
But by breaking our large goal into smaller pieces, we’re able to measure our progress piece by piece. Instead of staring off into the distant future, we think about tomorrow, and the day after, and so on.
Create if/then statements for your life
Life is just too chaotic and unpredictable to think we can just set up these processes and have it be smooth sailing. However, we can still prepare for when the sea rises up on us.
One way to protect your time working towards your goals is to create simple ‘if/then’ statements for when distractions arise.
Let’s say your goal is to write a novel and you’ve committed to working on it from 5:30–7 every evening. But your work email starts to explode at 5pm, or your partner comes home early, or your friends call to invite you out.
Every obstacle requires you to decide what’s more important: working towards your lofty, long-term goal or dealing with the ‘urgent’ requests coming in. As we already know, making these decisions kills our willpower. So instead, have your answer already in place.
If I get work emails after 5pm, then I’ll leave them for tomorrow morning.
If my partner comes home early, then I’ll politely remind them of my goals and commit to spending time with them after my session.
If my friends invite me to go out, then I’ll tell them I’m only free after 7pm.
These might sound silly, but forging a connection between a cue (the if) and your reaction (the then) has been found to be instrumental towards reaching your goals.
Start at the finish line
I’m a dreamer by nature. So when I get lost thinking about my plans and want to ‘come back to reality’, my first step is usually to ask a simple question: What can I do today to get closer to reaching my goals?
It might seem obvious that the journey to our goals starts with a single step, however, new research says this is the wrong way to think.
Researchers from the Korea University Business School and the University of Iowa, found that people who define their path from the end backwards not only both more likely to succeed (especially when it comes to complex goals) and more confident in their choices.
While the researchers aren’t exactly sure why this is the case, it does seem to make sense. In my own life, I’ve been more likely to abandon goals when I lose sight of the desired outcome and get lost somewhere in the middle.
For example, a few years ago I launched a Kickstarter campaign for a photography book—a task that required dealing with a lot of moving parts at once. However, because we had a hard deadline of when we were going to launch, I worked backwards. The end was a master to-do list that started with the launch and then listed each step we’d need to take to get there in reverse order.
Rather than being overwhelmed by the uncertain outcomes each step could have taken, starting at the end let me corral the endless possibilities and stay focused on the end goal.
It’s a simple mental switch, but by starting at the end we feel like our success is closer, are more inspired to plow on, and are more confident in the path we’ve chosen.
You’ve probably got more than a few major long-term goals on your list. And the good news is that you’ve got a lifetime to reach them.
With the right processes in place, you’ll be able to move closer to them every single day and bring more meaning into your life. And while your goals might change, the process never does.
Have you found any other ways to commit to your long-term goals? Let us know in the comments.