Something I observe time and time again in my coaching practice is that we can be our own worst enemy when it comes to setting goals. Of course, some people make the mistake of not setting any goals at all, but that’s not what I’m writing about. This is about setting the right kind of goal on the right timeline so that even the act of defining helps us to bring it towards us.
Our two central issues:
We define short term goals too vaguely to provide enough focus.
We define long term ones too narrowly to be open to surprises along the way.
You read it right - we have them backwards. Most people think that a long term goal means we have all the time in the world to create exactly what we want the future to be, while the short term often feels so chaotic that just getting close should be an achievement. But if we don’t have exact, precise clarity on what’s right in front of us, how on Earth could we see far over the distant horizon?
Imagine walking toward Mt. Everest, the highest mountain in the world. You see the ridge to the summit and plan to make your way to the very top. You decide to keep your focus on this at all times because that crystal clarity will surely help you turn this dream into reality. After all, you defined the expedition as:
Short term goal - climb.
Long term goal - Summit the highest mountain in the world on May 23.
But what happens next? You trip on a rock, if you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky you tumble off a cliff or down a crevasse. Mission failed.
What approach would’ve led to a better outcome in both areas?
Short term goal - Breathe; the air is thin. Proceed carefully, step by step, rope by rope, from your current location up to the next camp to spend the night.
Long term goal - Climb Everest.
Notice how I moved detail out of the long term goal, but packed it into the short term one. Why be more broad when articulating long term goals? In this hypothetical case, it turns out that there’s a terrible storm on May 23. Your softer focus on your own long term goal allows you to take the time to really get to know people on your way up the mountain. During the storm, you are stuck in camp high on the ridge for days on end, accidentally forging a new friendship that would last a lifetime, and you stand atop Everest together a few days later. Suddenly May 23 seems like such an arbitrary detail; the real value of the whole experience was a gift of happenstance which you keep for the rest of your life.
How do we avoid falling into the trap of setting our goals backwards? Try the following questions:
What needs to happen TODAY (in the next hour, day, week, etc) for my short term goal of achieving ______ one month from now? How can I break down my short term goals into even shorter ones?
What are the most important things to me about my long term goal of ________? How can I define the goal in a way which reflects this, yet allows space for life to surprise me along the way?
Words matter. Choose to use words that give your short term goals a specific, sharp focus of what you want, by when, with whom, and how. In the long term, articulate the big picture “why” for yourself, but resist the urge to draw all the details into the painting right away. Allow them to arise and paint a beautiful picture you probably wouldn’t have even dreamed of on your own.