Why do we have such a hard time achieving our long term goals?
While our to-dos crossed off day after day, those loftier, life-changing plans seem to get left for “someday”.
But living without long-term goals is like going on a road trip without a map. Sure, you might get to see some scenery you might’ve otherwise missed, but your chances of getting to your desired destination are pretty slim.
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” wrote Annie Dillard in The Writer’s Life. The problem is that our days aren’t designed for long term thinking. Yet, while fires will always need to be put out, you need to balance the urgent with the important if you want to make meaningful progress in your work and life.While fires will always need to be put out, you need to balance the urgent with the important if you want to make meaningful progress in your work and life. Click To Tweet
So how do you plan, perform, and stay committed to your long term goals and vision? Let’s dive into the science of long term goal setting and then look at 5 mental strategies that will help you stay focused and chip away at your loftiest goals every single day.
Why it’s so important to have long term goals for your career and personal life
As we wrote in our Guide to Effective Goal Setting, Goals are how we paint the picture of a future we’re motivated to work towards. Sticking with this metaphor, few of us set ourselves to paint a very meaningful image of our future.
Instead of broad strokes, we focus on the details. What’s happening today or tomorrow—not years from now. For many people, this comes down to a fear of “not having it all figured out.”
But as entrepreneur and author, Tim Ferriss, writes:
“It’s very hard to achieve goals if you have the emergency brake on, and the emergency brake is fear.”
Achieving your long term goals is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have. Whether it’s finishing a manuscript, launching your own app, or finishing your Ph.D., it’s empowering to thrive for something and see it through to the end. And the more you do it, the more confident you’ll become in your abilities.
That isn’t to say you shouldn’t have short term goals as well. Researchers have found that the small hits of dopamine we get from completing a short-term goal or habit keeps us motivated in the long run.
5 strategies for reaching your long term goals
- Connect your long term goals to your core values
- Remove the decision to work towards them every day
- Break your long term goals into short term tasks
- Ignore “urgent” tasks by creating if/then statements for your life
- Skip the “messy middle” by starting at the finish line
1. Connect your long term goals to your core values
In the complex science of motivation, one thing has become increasingly clear: It’s easier to stick with goals you truly believe in.
This might sound like an obvious statement. But how many times have you given up on a long term goal because you didn’t enjoy it?
The problem is that we often think too much about the outcome of a goal and not our motivation. Why do we want to achieve this goal in the first place?
It’s a big question. But one that can hopefully be answered through a simple exercise.
To understand the types of goals you’re most likely to stick with, you need to first understand the type of person you are. The easiest way to do this is by deciding on your personal core values.
Simply put, your core values are the underlying structure that your habits, processes, and goals are built off. Here are a few examples (you can find more on a list like this):
So, let’s say you pick “Leadership” as one of your core values. In this case, a meaningful and realistic long term goal might be something like “Become a senior manager at my current job,” or “Start my own company.”
Why does this work? Research on how people stay motivated when goals take not just years but decades to reach has found that:
“Individuals pursuing very long-term goals sustain motivation by envisioning possible futures that result from the work they are doing.”
Your future self will most likely have the same core values as your current self. And the more you can see yourself in the “future you” you’re working towards, the more motivated you’ll be to stick with the work at hand.
2. Remove the decision to work towards them every day
Doing productive and meaningful work comes down to making choices. However, the more choices you have to make during the day, the worse you’re going to be at weighing your options and making educated, informed decisions.
Psychologists call this decision fatigue—it’s the reason you pick up fast food on the way home from work (even though you have a goal of losing weight) or make poor decisions later in the day.
When it comes to staying committed to your long-term goals, you need to reduce your choices. While building habits and routines will help immensely, one of the easiest things you can do is change your morning routine.
We’re most productive and energetic int he first few hours of our day. And this time 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?
For example, here’s how designer and SuperBooked CEO, Dan Mall starts his day:
Dan makes sure to have an hour set for meaningful work every morning before his ‘daily 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 of all the scenarios where you can get rid of the friction of choice in your life.
If your goal is to run every morning, set your running clothes out the night before. 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.
3. Break your long term goals into short term tasks
No one expects you to sit out and write a novel in one go. Every major project needs to be broken down into milestones and specific tasks in order to get done. The same goes for your long term goals.
Breaking large goals into smaller, more manageable ‘chunks’ makes them feel more realistic. Instead of writing a novel, we’re simply writing 200 words a day, finishing an outline, or editing a chapter. It takes a bit of up-front investment but meticulously planning out the steps you need to take to hit your long-term goals helps you put one foot in front of the other, even when you’re exhausted or unmotivated.Meticulously planning out the steps you need to take to hit your long-term goals helps you put one foot in front of the other, even when you’re exhausted or unmotivated. Click To Tweet
What’s even better is that these small steps are great opportunities to get ongoing feedback. By breaking long term goals 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.
4. Ignore “urgent” tasks by creating 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, instead of getting swept away by meetings, calls, and “urgent” tasks, we can prepare ourselves for when the sea rises up.
One way to protect your time working towards your long term 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.
In this scenario, most people would feel they have no choice but to choose the “urgency” of email and skip working on their long term goal. Yet, having an if/then statement in place gives you a better option.
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 long term goals.
5. Skip the “messy middle” by starting at the finish line
It might seem obvious that the journey to achieving our long term 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 backward are not only more likely to succeed (especially when it comes to complex goals) but they’re also more confident in their choices.
While they 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 long term goals when I lose sight of the desired outcome and get lost in the messy middle.
Think of it as a product launch. Instead of starting where you are now and planning each step towards your launch day, work backward. With a deadline and scope defined, you can start to reverse engineer how you got there. If this goes well, you’ll end up with a master to-do list that can guide you.Rather than being overwhelmed by the uncertain outcomes each step could have taken, starting at the end lets you corral the endless possibilities and stay focused on the end goal. Click To Tweet
You’ve probably got more than a few major long term goals on your list. The good news is that you’ve got a lifetime to reach them. The bad is that 92% of people struggle with hitting goals.
However, with the right plan, processes, and motivations in place, you can make your long term goal more than just another dream. And while your goals might change over time, the process for hitting them stays the same.
Need more help setting and achieving all your goals?
Try RescueTime—the best time management and productivity tool for staying focused and seeing progress on your long term goals.
Download our FREE ebook Guide to Setting and Achieving Goals
Learn how to set, measure, and hit your goals in our in-depth post on Effective goal setting.
Dig into the psychology behind Why you should be setting smaller goals.