Long-Term Goals: Techniques & Examples for Setting and Achieving Goals
Long-term goals are defined as longer goals that take more time. These science-based goal-setting techniques can help you more easily achieve your long-term goals and manifest your dreams.
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What Are Long-Term Goals?
Goals are defined as the desired states that people seek to obtain, maintain, or avoid (Nair, 2003). Long-term goals are defined as bigger goals that require more time to achieve and often more planning. Long-term goals might include goals for our health, education, career, relationships, and more. Because long-term goals require careful planning and sustained effort, it can be helpful to implement the following science-based goal setting techniques that help you to set the right goals and reach them more easily.
How to Set Long-Term Goals
The research helps us understand how to set long-term goals that benefit us the most. Here are some rules for goal setting based on this research:
Long-term goal setting rule 1: Set goals
For more than 100 years, research has shown that setting goals or aims helps improve performance and the likelihood of reaching an outcome (Latham, & Locke, 2007). That is, simply setting a goal is better than not setting a goal.
Long-term goal setting rule 2: Set specific and challenging goals
We are also benefited by setting specific goals that are a little bit bigger or challenging, but not too challenging. With easy goals, we may indeed achieve them. But if we set easy goals, we often don't achieve as much as we could because we don't push ourselves as hard.
Long-term goal setting rule 3: Set goals that matter to you
It probably doesn't surprise you that reaching goals that you care about is easier than reaching goals you don't care about. But it's important to get clear on what you do care about—and why you care about it—from the start, otherwise you can end up pursuing goals that don't matter to you.
Long-term goal setting rule 4: Set goals that you think you can reach
It can be tricky deciding on the exact goals that you think you can reach. But if you believe in your ability to reach the goals you have set, you are way more likely to persist until you reach your long-term goals. Sometimes this may just be a matter of clarifying how you'll reach the goal so you'll have more confidence in yourself. Either way, setting goals that you believe to be realistic is key.
Long-term goal setting rule 5: Commit to your goal
Committing to your goal can be hugely beneficial because humans don't like to disappoint themselves or others or seem unreliable. Committing to a goal ensures that quitting the goal is emotionally uncomfortable and therefore we are less likely to quit. So commit, in writing, and ideally in front of others to the long-term goals you set for yourself.
Long-term goal setting rule 6: Create a feedback cycle
Feedback can be helpful so that you know how well you are doing (Latham, & Locke, 2007). Even if you don't have someone to provide feedback for you, you can still create a feedback cycle. For example, you could track your progress on key aspects of the goal, like how many times you did X or much you improved at Y. This helps you know if your inputs are resulting in the outputs you desire and expect.
Long-term goal setting using the SMART goals approach
When you put this all together, you get the SMART goal setting method. The acronym SMART helps you remember the key parts of setting effective goals (Lawlor, 2012). Here is the SMART goals guidance.
Set goals that are:
S - Specific
M - Meaningful
A - Achievable
R - Realistic
T - Trackable
For each goal you set, evaluate how 'SMART' it is and use this to help you set better goals.
Long-Term Goal Setting Tip
One more tip for setting goals. We are most motivated to fulfill core needs like autonomy, relatedness, and competence. So try to choose goals that relate to one of these needs. For example, autonomy goals might include 'being your own boss' because you are free to work on what you want. Relatedness goals might include 'finding a life partner'. And competence goals might include being an expert in your field. By focusing your efforts on goals that fulfill these needs, they have more meaning and are likely easier to stick to (Sheldon & Elliot, 1999).
How to Reach Long-Term Goals
After setting high-quality goals, the next step is to start working towards reaching your goals. This involves experiencing and working through several psychological phases which present their own challenges (Sniehotta, Schwarzer, Scholz, & Schüz, 2005). The long-term goal achievement phases are:
Initiation. Getting started on the goal.
Maintenance. Continuing to work on the goal and execute actions that lead to achieving the goal.
Persistence. Overcoming challenges, setbacks, and emotional issues like exhaustion, boredom, or dissatisfaction.
Revision. Periodic review of the goal to track progress, revise plans, and reevaluate the goal as a whole.
Let's go into each of these a bit more to ensure you'll know how to set yourself up for success.
How to Start Long-Term Goals
At this 'initiation phase' of a goal, there can be a strong feeling of inertia. The idea of doing this giant thing can feel overwhelming, leading to paralysis or difficulty getting started. Indeed, getting started can be the hardest part. To reduce 'the overwhelm', it can be really helpful to break long-term goals down into pieces, then smaller chunks, then tiny executable tasks. These 'baby-steps' make a goal a lot easier to start because they seem so doable and simple.
Take a goal like building and growing a successful business. You can break the goal down into clearer objectives like acquiring a certain number of clients or customers, making a certain amount of profit per year, or selling a certain number of products. Then write down the specific tasks that are required to achieve each of these smaller goals. For example, maybe you need to make 1000 sales calls per month. Keep breaking your goals down into smaller chunks. Maybe you need to write a sales script, buy a list of leads, and make 50 sales calls per day.
Whatever your goal is, try to break it down into small enough chunks that they can be achieved in a few hours, or at most, a few days. This can make it easier to get started. Then do this task. Wha la! You've just started your long-term goal.
How to Progress Towards Long-Term Goals
Once you've got a list of your tiny goals that make up your bigger long term goal, you can help yourself continue moving towards your goal by creating an action plan (Sniehotta, Schwarzer, Scholz, & Schüz, 2005). An action plan is a sequence of activities, tasks, or steps that must be taken to achieve a certain goal.
When creating an action plan, you map out exactly how you plan to get from where you are now to where you want to be. By doing this ahead of time, you don't have to think about how and when to do every task. You've already mapped it out for yourself and have set up a task sequence, timeline, and calendar, so all you have to do is execute. Here are some guidelines for action planning:
Create your 10 year plan
It can sometimes be helpful to start with your endpoint and work backwards. Think about the goals you want to have achieved in 10 years and what smaller goals are required to get there. For many of us (me!), 10 years can feel like a long time away. But creating a 10 year plan can help you avoid short-termism—you think in ways that can help you be more successful in the longer-term. It might affect the path you take or the specific goals you set. Instead of potentially cutting corners to reach your goals in 3-5 years, you might see that cutting these corners will actually hurt you in the longer run.
Create a personal journey map for your long-term goals
Journey mapping is a tool that is often used in user research to help web designers think through how web users will get from their entry point to purchase or some other predetermined destination. The map creates a visual to better understand the major and minor steps in the journey and alternate paths that could be taken if one gets stuck. To create your personal journey map, just draw a map with each major milestone in a box. Think about alternative ways you could get to your end-point if one path is blocked. Then post this on your wall to provide a visual reminder of where you are headed and to keep yourself motivated.
Clarify the time it will take to complete each smaller goal
Try to estimate how much time each of your tasks will take. Then compare this against how much total time you have available. With this, see how much you can expect to accomplish in a day, week, month, and year. Personally, I also like to leave a few hours each week for miscellaneous tasks that will inevitably slow me down. Once you have this information, you can create a timeline.
Create a timeline
Based on your guess of how long it will take for you to achieve each smaller goal, create a rough timeline for when you expect to have achieved major milestones. For example, maybe you can complete all the tasks needed to launch your new business website in 1 month. Seeing this mapped out can help you get a better sense of whether you're progressing as planned, if you need to modify your goals and plans, or if you need to revise your timeline to account for changes or new information. Check in on your timeline every now and then to see how you're progressing.
Schedule your activities
Pull out your calendar are start blocking out time for the specific task you need to complete. For example, if you have an hour in the evening on Monday, write in the hour-long task that you need to complete first. Do this for all of your tasks for at least a week or two. Having this mental reminder in your calendar can help you stay on track and make sure you're accomplishing the required activities to reach your goal.
How to Stick to Long Term Goals
The hardest part of reaching long-term goals is the dedication, determination, and persistence needed to reach them. Setting SMART goals and putting the processes in place that help you progress will help a lot. But something that is often forgotten by the goal-setting researchers is that executing the plans we have set requires overcoming both tangible obstacles and emotional obstacles. Some have suggested that in addition to action planning, a way to overcome obstacles is to create a coping plan (Sniehotta, Schwarzer, Scholz, & Schüz, 2005).
Clarify the likely roadblocks to your long term goals
There are many reasons why we don't reach long-term goals. These can include being in a bad mood, lack of time, bad weather, fatigue, social pressure, and many others. Anticipating the situations that provoke unwanted emotions can help us both be more emotionally prepared for them and have locked and loaded plans for how we can respond effectively. Creating "If-Then" statements for each potential obstacle can help you more easily overcome it.
For example, If I need to take care of my kids during the time I have set aside to work on my goal, Then I'll make up this time on Sunday evening after the kids go to bed.
Think about how to overcome distraction
Perhaps the most common obstacle on the way to a long term goal is distraction. It's not that we need to do something else other than work on our goals; it's that we want to. Maybe some of the things we need to do to achieve the goal are boring or hard. Or, we're just a distractible type of person. Putting plans in place to minimize the influence of these distractions from the start can make it easier to overcome this obstacle.
For example, we can download apps that pause our emails, log us out of social media, or put a time limit on our Internet playtime. Or, maybe we benefit from headphones to drown out noise. Maybe we need a room with a closed door. Or maybe we need a few refreshments to keep handy so we don't have to keep going to and from the fridge. You know best what the best strategies are likely to be for you. Just try to have these strategies handy for when you need them.
Create a coping plan to achieve long term goals
We are the best experts of our own weaknesses and strengths and we know best our own habits, temptations, and emotional responses. It's worth thinking through what challenges we commonly encounter on the way towards our goals and how we can better prepare so that we can more easily overcome them.
So take some time to write down common challenges you expect while working towards your long term goals. Then write down what you'll do. Try to be specific (Say more than, "I'll beat it!"). For example, if low self-confidence often trips you up, make a plan to use a self-compassion activity whenever you're getting down on yourself or start losing faith in your ability to reach your goals. By having specific plans in place to cope with your unique difficulties, you can increase your chances for success.
Video: 7 ways to work towards long-term goals
Reviewing Progress Towards Long-Term Goals
Remember, these goals are long term. A lot can change between the time you set them and the time you achieve them. You might change. Your situation might change. Your goals might change. And that's totally okay! But it's all the more reason to check in your progress, revise your goals, and keep moving forward.
Track progress towards long-term goals
At minimum, it's a good idea to track your progress. Cross off completed tasks, make notes as to which ones we're most impactful, and see if the efforts you are exerting are worth the results. For example, maybe one activity you are doing is having way better results than the other activities. This may be a good time to shift your efforts so that you can focus on the activities that are benefiting you most or helping you progress the fastest.
Modify your long-term goals
If you're tracking your goals, you'll notice if they're not quite feeling right and you need to change them somewhat. Maybe you have developed new values that make your previous action plan untenable. For example, after burning out early in my career and then getting a significant illness a few years later, I repeatedly modified my goals and action plan to allow myself more time. Rest and relaxation became the highest priority and my goals would just have to wait.
Change your long-term goals when necessary
Sometimes, goals need to be thrown out altogether. Maybe you learned something new about yourself that makes you want to pursue a different career than your originally planned. Or, maybe you've decided you want to travel the world and would like to focus on that goal over financial or career goals. It's important to regularly check in on goals to make sure you're not just continuing to mindlessly pursue a long term goal that you don't even care about anymore.
Examples of Long-Term Goals
Although you may already have some personal goals in mind, here are some more examples of long-term goals that may help you think more creatively about what you really want to achieve in this life.
Common long-term goal domains
Video: How to plan for (very) long-term goals
Setting long-term life goals can help us achieve more than we ever thought possible. By using these science-based techniques, we'll be even more successful.