On the importance of short-term goals
Goals might be intimidating. They might seem far away and even impossible. It’s easy to look around your current company and see no hope for advancement. It’s easy to peek into the gym and see nothing but scary machines and fit exercisers. It’s easy to look at your credit card balance and see no chance for future saving.
Part of the secret to forming new habits successfully is to start small. Keep focused on the task immediately at hand. Achieve what needs to be achieved next. It’s much easier to run a marathon when you’re simply putting one foot in front of the other.
Conventional wisdom advises to start with the end in mind. While that might help, don’t let your ultimate end goal discourage you, either. Big goals aren’t realized over night. They’re accomplished when you realize a series of short-term goals, one after the other after the other.
Before setting out towards an identified goal, first take a realistic view on how long that goal will take you to achieve. The reason that crash diets don’t work in the long run is because they’re not sustainable – not to mention the damage they’re liable to do to your health. In fact, even if you experience initial significant weight loss, you’re actually likely to put even more weight back on than you had lost – that’s why they’re called yo-yo diets.
If finding a healthy weight for your body is your goal, be realistic about how long that is likely to take. If you’re a woman who wants to lose about 30 pounds of fat and gain 5 to 10 pounds of muscle, you’re not going to get there in a month, three months or even six months. This kind of physical progress takes at least a year of dedicated, hard work. It takes an overhaul of your lifestyle.
Same goes for searching for a new job, moving up at your current company, or saving for a big expense like a pet, a car or a diamond ring. Job hunts can take a year of improving your resume (get a friend who works in HR to help you edit it), working with head-hunters and agencies, scouring LinkedIn, reaching out to friends and former classmates and attending networking events. Moving up at your current company means making your goals clearly known to your supervisors and getting and implementing their feedback on how you can improve yourself and your chances of getting ahead. Saving for a big expense means putting some money aside every month for the sake of achieving a significant sum at the end of the year (or the next year).
The bottom line is: be realistic about the timeline of your goals.
Once you’ve come to the terms with the fact that your Rome-sized goal won’t be built in a day, don’t lose hope. Identifying a do-able timeline is a crucial step to achieving a goal.
Simply acknowledging that your goal will take a long time is only the first step, though. After that, it’s time to break down your big goal into what it really is: a series of short-term goals.
Achieving extraordinary things means big changes in your lifestyle, and changes in lifestyle mean starting with your day-to-day habits.
That’s why the secret to achieving anything big begins with your smallest daily habits. As the saying goes, take it one day at a time, stay patient and you’ll be much more likely to see results.
Change your day by taking control of your time. Often we’re too busy to sit down and assess if we’re using our time as wisely as we could be, but remember: your time is one of your most valuable possessions.
Invest a half hour into sitting down and planning out how you will restructure your day. For example:
Out of bed by 6
Healthy breakfast (pre-plan your meals or eat the same thing every day to simplify things)
Out the door by 7
Finish your toughest tasks and highest priorities first thing in the morning – whether it’s a project report or a particularly loathsome errand, getting it done in the morning is the only realistic way to achieve it. Your motivation only fatigues throughout the day.
Perk up during your lunch hour with a quick exercise routine – it takes less than 20 minutes, leaving you another 40 to freshen up and grab lunch (better yet, bring your own lunch) before heading back to your desk.
Do the work that needs doing – but at the same time, don’t forget that it will all still be there tomorrow morning. Always remember how important your personal time is – not just to you, but perhaps more importantly, to your partner, your family, and the other people who depend on you.
Leave yourself 20 minutes at the end of the day to work on the small task that will move you closer to your goal. For example, study your Chinese flashcards. Make your meal plan for the week. Write a cover letter for the job you want to apply to.
Give yourself a bed time. Just because you’re an adult doesn’t mean you should stay up late. Your body needs rest if it’s to get up and work just as hard again the next day.
If you’re able to stay focused on the small daily tasks that keep you on track, you will begin to notice results – even if others don’t. If you’re on a year-long healthy eating and exercise program, you will feel different after only a week or two. If you’re saving for a vacation and you see your savings account hit the first hundred dollars, you’ll practically smell the salt water and feel the sand between your toes.
The satisfaction of making progress will help to get you motivated, but inevitably, life will have other plans for you. You will have an emergency lunch meeting that cancels your workout for the day. You’ll be stuck in traffic and have no energy or willpower to do your grocery shopping for the week’s meal plan. You will have an extra glass of wine at dinner with friends and hit snooze on your alarm one too many times to eat a healthy breakfast before work.
Nobody’s perfect, and no routine is perfectly followed. Don’t expect perfection, and don’t let little mistakes throw you off completely. Did you skip a workout and have cold pizza for breakfast? No big deal, just get back on schedule the next day. Did you spend a week in front of Netflix watching the new OITNB season? All hope is not lost – pick back up where you left off in your MBA test-prep book. Haven’t logged on to LinkedIn in over a month? It’s still there, waiting for you.
Don’t look at your goals as all-or-nothing: create your plan, do your best to stick to it, forgive yourself when you don’t, and always, always come back to it. You’re never too far gone.
A successful series of accomplished short-term goals add up to the realization of a big dream. But don’t delay rewards until you’ve reached the ultimate goal. If you’ve denied yourself any extravagances for the past three months in order to save up the first thousand dollars for your wedding, give yourself a nice dinner out with friends or your partner. If you’ve finished your first 5k race, celebrate with a beer or two with your running buddies after. Achieving a short-term goal and seeing the progress towards your greater goal is a powerful motivator. Plan rewards for yourself for reaching each short-term goal on the road to your ultimate dream and you’ll keep yourself moving ahead.