What are your long-range goals? That is, goals that will take a year or more to achieve? If you already have long-range goals, now is a good time to take stock. How will you make significant progress toward them in the weeks and months ahead? The longer-range the goal, the more important it is to figure this out.
And if you don’t have long-range goals, you likely have some long-range wishes. Now is a great time to identify some wishes you might turn into goals for the new year. Nothing stops you from turning long-range wishes into achievable long-range goals — except perhaps a few misconceptions about them.
Long-range goals are worth the effort
Long-range goals are worth the effort because they are disproportionately important to your happiness. They give you a meaningful direction so that you can keep moving forward through any emotional ups and downs. You don’t get lost when you have a serious, meaningful goal to pursue.
They build your sense of efficacy. Long-range goals are achieved through completing a series of shorter-term sub-goals. They guide you through a series of successes such that you always have progress to celebrate.
They grow your skills and capacities. You never know everything you will need to know to achieve a long-range goal. When you set such a goal, you are committing to the joys of discovery and growth.
On the other hand, if you don’t have any long-term goals, life can become a “rat race.” Life becomes a cycle of sameness in which days blur into weeks, months, and years, with nothing to differentiate them. What you do accomplish loses its meaning because you’ve done it before. It poses no challenge to you, except perhaps the challenge of overcoming boredom.
I recommend that you always have a long-range productive goal you are working toward, even if you are retired. This is called a central purpose. See my series on this topic for why a central purpose is important to your happiness. But that doesn’t mean productive goals should be your only long-range goals. Goals to improve your health, relationships, and recreation time also add joy and meaning to your day-to-day activities.
Why people don’t set long-range goals
Despite their potential benefits, I find many people shy away from committing to long-range goals. It’s not that they don’t have aspirations. Sometimes they fear their goals will turn out to be unachievable. This would mean pain, suffering, and a colossal waste of time, energy, and money. Other times they just think the time isn’t right. Their schedules are full, so they fear that adding in a long-range goal will guarantee overload and burnout. It’s certainly true overcommitting guarantees conflict, stress, and struggle. And that leads pretty directly to failure.
These fears are directly or indirectly related to the fact that you don’t know exactly how to achieve most long-range goals. For example, suppose you wish to find a romantic partner. It seems there’s some luck involved in finding the right person. Or suppose you have some vague lofty dream of “improving the culture” or “achieving world peace.” It’s not so obvious how what you’d do today could impact the state of the world around you.
These are legitimate concerns. To be clear, I do not recommend setting any goal that is doomed to failure. But if you have a wish or dream that you think is impossible, it just means you need to do some thinking about it. With the right goal-setting and planning tactics, you can always turn a wish into a meaningful goal that is within your power to achieve. And with these same tactics, you can build in successes along the way. With the right process, you get objective rewards from every ounce of effort you invest. If you decide to change direction 1 year in on a 3-year goal, you don’t regret the effort you put in because you got so much out of it.
How you address difficulties in pursuing long-range goals
There are several different kinds of processes that address these concerns.
First, you often need to reformulate a goal so that there are multiple ways to achieve it. For example, if you set a weight-loss goal of “lose a pound a week next year, so that I am 52 pounds lighter on December 31,” you set yourself up for failure. If you have even one bad week, technically you will have failed. The words you use to define the goal matter, because they define success and failure.
In a case like this, where the goal is described in an unrealistic way, it’s easy to think, “I’ll just do better next week” without ever finding out why you weren’t able to lose the pound that one week. Or worse, why you gained a pound back!
A better way to formulate such a goal is, “get on a sustainable diet that ensures I lose about a pound a week.” This kind of goal invites experimentation. That’s necessary to finding a way that will work for you when there is a lot of uncertainty in the process.
Second, you often need to prepare yourself to deal with unforeseen conflicts with other goals and values. Obviously, you shouldn’t set a goal if you can’t put some time into it. But even a commitment of as little as 2–3 hours a week for an exercise program or a hobby or a date night can be difficult to fit into your existing schedule. You are already busy 24/7 and your value hierarchy reflects that status quo. Adding in a new goal will create some internal conflict even if you decide intellectually to cut something to accommodate it. It will take purposeful action to reprogram your stored values to reflect your new conscious convictions.
To achieve any long-term goal, you need to do both up-front planning and day-by-day monitoring so that you can identify and overcome the actual obstacles to achieving it. This takes some practice. You may need to learn some introspection skills. It also takes regular review. You may need to put in place some simple overhead routines, if you haven’t already set them up. But of course, once you have created these routines, they support all of your future long-term goals.
Third, you need a process to take advantage of what you can and can’t control. It is well known in project management that on any project, you can only constrain 2 out of 3 of time, quality, and budget. If you have a high-quality goal and a short amount of time, you had better throw a lot of money at the problem. If you have little money but you want the result to be high quality, you’d better give it indefinite time. If you need the project done on time, on schedule, you better have the flexibility to leave out the bells and whistles that make it a higher quality, larger-scope result.
This last is particularly important to understand. There is a metaphysical difference between a low-quality result and no result. This is the difference between giving a presentation off the cuff versus cancelling it. It’s the difference between scrambling at the last minute to invite everyone over for a party 3 days hence, versus spending so long on a clever invitation that you never invite people at all. It’s the difference between stopping emotional eating with great effort after 5 minutes of inhaling junk food, versus eating your way into a stupor, effectively kicking the problem down the road until something happens to prompt you to pick up the pieces.
On long-term projects, you often need to ration time and money as you go, but you also want eventually the high-quality result. The solution is to iterate: to create shorter-term results — real results — that may be lower quality than you want, but which provide a foundation for creating the eventual end product.
Always be finishing
If this sounds complicated, well, it can be, but it doesn’t have to be. I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out how to teach people how to do this. I call the general solution “planned evolution.” The two-sentence description is: you reverse-engineer the long-range goal into a series of results that go from low to high quality. You make sure that you get meaningful results in the short-term even if you need to course correct. One way or another, you are always working on a motivating 2-week “key result” that moves you materially forward toward your long-range goal.
The way you do this is to essentialize what is most important to you about your long-term goal. Different people need to break down similar long-term goals in different ways to accommodate their own individual priorities, experience, and constraints. Ultimately, you can plan the work on a long-term goal such that you are motivated to tackle whatever obstacles you face this week, because you see a short-term payoff on the long-term goal that makes a meaningful difference to you.
With this approach, you are always “finishing” something that matters as you work toward a long-range goal. You are motivated, not just by the long-range payoff, but by the short-range rewards that are so real and tangible that they help pull you forward and keep you on task for the long haul.
I teach this method in my Just-in-Time Planning course, I coach people through it in my Launch program, and I give an overview of how you do it in my Finishing Sooner Rather than Later freebie. I hope you can join me.