Everyone has dreams. Everyone sets goals.
One thing that differentiates people who achieve their dreams is that they know how to map a plan.
Strategic planning involves using a mix of different types of goals.
Learn about the critical types of goals below.
We all have goals, but it is important to understand that to achieve an end result we need a few different types of goals.
You not only need to focus on the Ultimate Goal, you also need to have Long-Term, Medium-Term, and Short-Term Goals.
You could even divide the hierarchy further. For example, short-term can include what you want to get done today, or this hour, or even in the next second. But for simplicity’s sake, we will focus on these broad categories because they function well without getting too confusing. The approach that we will take is working from the Ultimate Goal (top) back to the Short-Term Goals (bottom). This type of thinking is what is called Top-Down Thinking.
The Ultimate Goal
The ultimate goal is the final outcome that you want to achieve. These are the most difficult types of goals to define. Often people never define their goals to this level. The reason is that it is easy to confuse long-term goals with what you really want.
An easy example of this is weight loss. A person might say that their goal is to lose 20 pounds (about 10 kg). They think this is their ultimate goal, but it is actually a long-term goal. There are two major reasons for this:
1. Most people want to keep the weight off
2. 20 pounds is a stand-in measurement for something harder to define: how you look
The ultimate goal for most people who want to lose weight is to live a lifestyle that gives them a body that they can be satisfied with. In this case losing 20 lbs is a long-term goal, but also changing the habits so that they can keep the weight off is just as important, if not more important.
I should note that the larger and farther out your ultimate goal is the harder it is to clearly define. For example, if you use the practice suggested by many productivity experts of focusing on what you want at the end of your life, expect it to change. The reason for this is that you change as a person as you move through your life so naturally your goals will shift too.
Other great examples of ultimate goals are running a successful business, having a family, or being able to practice medicine.
Ultimate goals generally take at least a few years to accomplish. Others may take a lifetime.
These are difficult goals that take the greatest amount of work to achieve. If you can successfully take care of all of your long-term goals, your ultimate goal should take care of itself. Long-term goals are usually the concrete and definable components of an ultimate goal. They involve putting in the time or developing the skills that allow you to be able to achieve your ultimate goal. When you achieve these you should get a sense of satisfaction and increase your belief that you can succeed.
These goals help give you direction. Additionally, they should stop you from taking shortcuts. A big red flag is trying to take something that you know is a long-term goal and making it into a medium or short-term goal. They should take plenty of time to achieve, at least 3 months and often years.
Finishing a degree, losing 20 pounds, building a support network, developing a product for market are all great examples of long-term goals. They don’t give you what you really want, but they are necessary to get there.
Long-term goals can be too distant or too overwhelming to keep us on track. We need many successes along the way to get to our ultimate goal.
Medium-term goals help us focus on the relatively near future, generally from 3 days to 3 months. They are opportunities to measure success and see progress. They will help lead you to your long-term goals and to your ultimate goal.
An important note about this level is we often cross over from parallel goals to sequential goals. Sometimes this happens with a long-term goal, but it almost always happens at the medium-term level.
An easy example of this is education. If you want to be a doctor, you can’t start your bachelor's degree until you finish high school. You can’t start medical school until you finish your bachelor's degree. Many educational paths work like this. Those are 3 long-term goals that have to be done sequentially.
But in the real world many long-term goals run concurrently—this is what I call parallel. To illustrate, you can learn how to fit exercise into your life at the same time you change your diet habits which could be two long-term goals on the path to maintaining a lower weight. If you are opening a business you might be marketing the business while you build out the space where you’ll be operating.
Medium-term goals tend to have a natural order, and you probably have a few of them going on leading to multiple long-term goals. Often one medium-term goal cannot get started until you finish another one.
Opening a business is a good example of this. You can’t start building out the location until you have picked the location and signed the lease. With weight loss you can’t lose 20 pounds until you have lost 5.
At the end of the day, the only thing you really need to know is what is the next step to move forward toward your goal.
These are your short-term goals.
All the others make sure that these goals are taking you to the place you want to go. The reason why it is valuable to start from the top and work your way down is to make sure you are going to a desired destination.
These goals could take anywhere between 2 minutes to a few days. These are the most valuable actions for keeping you focused and moving forward because they are clear.
Losing 20, 10, or even 1 pound isn’t a clear action. Getting your workout done today is. Eating 5 servings of vegetables today is.
Finding a new job isn’t a clear action. Sending 5 job applications today is. Picking a university or degree program is.
These need to be clear so you can check them off as soon as possible.
A special note on short-term goals: they fall into two distinct categories.
• One and Done: Actions that once they are completed never need to be done again.
• Maintenance: Actions that have to be repeated a number of times, sometimes indefinitely.
Knowing what kind the short-term goal is helps you approach it. There are various systems that you can use to help you decide how to choose which ones to get done. For example, the Do Or Die List which instructs you to do “One and Done” task a day (or make a lot of progress on it). And then to focus on maintenance tasks.
You would be shocked how much progress you will make if you can make one step forward every day and do a good job on maintenance.
Common Problems (and Solutions)
Having no short-term goals
This happens when you know what you want but you don’t have the next action clearly defined. Often indecision is a lack of clarity. You want to start a business, but don’t know what to do today to move forward. You want to lose weight but don’t have a plan for exercise and diet for today.
Just keep asking yourself “What is the next action?” until you have the next physical step. The only step you need to know is the next one.
Obsession with the end result
While you should have a goal that you are working towards, end results aren’t always in our control.
This is especially true for competitive events where everyone’s end goal is to win.
But other examples are when the goal is unrealistic or your perception becomes warped. Also, sometimes you just get unlucky.
You will not always be successful. Instead you have to learn to enjoy the process, celebrate the small wins, and keep working toward what you want in life.
Having unclear (or wrong) goals
Every stage of goal setting should be as clear as possible. The only level where some fuzziness is allowed is the ultimate goal. After that your goals should be SMART goals. We often don’t really want vague goals. They are usually just desires that we think will make us happy.
For example, getting fit. What does fit mean? It could be losing weight, adding muscle, running longer, running faster, getting stronger…the list goes on and on.
Better goals would be: to be able to fit into your clothes from college or be comfortable going shirtless at the beach; regularly competing in marathons; being strong enough to move furniture. These are still not as clear as we would want for long-term goals, but they would suffice for ultimate goals. We can easily turn them into very clear long-term goals.
Or my favorite unclear goal: to be rich or famous!
Usually when people set goals like these they have an idea that the end result is happiness. But you can be miserable and fit, rich, or famous. Or all three.
If happiness is the goal it is important to realize that it is not something that external change will always provide.
A great example are lottery winners who are notorious for often ending up more miserable and unhappy than before they won their millions.
Happiness is found in the process, not in the end result.
Setting and achieving goals is an important part of living a fulfilled life. Our best chance at succeeding is to take the time to set useful goals. Goals that help us express our deeper selves and where we can find happiness in the process of striving.