Why is it so difficult to define, work toward, and achieve your long-term goals?
While it’s easy to spend hours each day crossing off to-do list items and answering emails, those lofty and life-changing goals always seem to get left for someday.
But living without long-term goals is like going on a road trip without a map. You might get to see some nice scenery along the way, but you won’t make it to your destination.
Even worse, knowing your long-term goals and still not working toward them makes it feel like you’re wasting your time and can lead to so much unnecessary stress, anxiety, and even depression.
Instead, long-term goals give you focus and energy.
When you know the North Star that you’re working toward, it’s easier to stay motivated, kill procrastination, and prioritize the projects that really matter.
In this guide, we’ll teach you how to define long-term goals for your life and career that truly matter to you, make real time to work on them each day, and even give you some long-term goal examples to help inspire you to get started.
The psychology of long-term goals: Why you keep avoiding your greatest desires
Goals are how we paint the picture of a future we’re motivated to work toward.
Sticking with this metaphor, however, most of us spend too much effort on the tiny details without taking the time to regularly step back and look at the bigger picture.
This is because what’s happening right now–today, tomorrow, this week–is so much clearer (and therefore easier to work on) than what could happen months or years from now.
Psychologists call this cognitive tunneling–when you get overwhelmed by all the options available to you and focus on what’s easiest instead.
Not only are our long-term goals psychologically taxing to think about, but they’re also scary.
Fear of long-term goals can be broken down into three categories:
- Fear of starting: We put so much pressure on our long-term goals that we feel the need to wait until ‘the perfect moment’ or when ‘we’ve got it all figured out’. But these moments don’t exist and are just another form of procrastination.
- Fear of failing: Other people often define us by our achievements. And while we’d love to be the kind of people that hit big goals, there’s always that nagging thought of what other people will think if we fail? How will they judge us?
- Fear of success: Paradoxically, hitting your long-term goals can be just as terrifying as failing. Our brains have evolved to save energy by avoiding change. And success in your long-term goals will come with drastic changes to your life and who you are as a person.
These are natural fears to have. But as entrepreneur and author, Tim Ferriss, wrote: “It’s very hard to achieve goals if you have the emergency brake on, and the emergency brake is fear.”
To get past these fears and psychological barriers, you need a clear plan and strategy in place to define, tackle, and stick with your biggest goals.
7 strategies for reaching your long-term goals
Long-term goals are easy to dream about. But turning those dreams into a reality takes a clear, actionable plan. Here are 7 best practices taken from the world’s best coaches, psychologists, and entrepreneurs.
1. Connect your long-term goals to your core values
If you’re like most people, you’ve probably got more than a few long-term goals that you’d like to achieve. The good news is that you have a lifetime to reach them. The bad news is that 92% of people never actually achieve the goals they set out to hit.
The problem? A lack of motivation due to setting the wrong types of long-term goals.
In the complex science of motivation, one thing is clear: It’s easier to be motivated to work on goals you truly believe in.
That might sound like an obvious statement, but how many times have you given up on a long-term goal when you realized you didn’t enjoy doing the work to achieve it?
Proper goal-setting requires a commitment to the process and not just the end goal. If your long-term goal is to start a business because you want lots of money and not because of an intrinsic quality like ‘freedom’ or ‘a family connection to entrepreneurship’, you’ll be more likely to give up on it.
In positive psychology, this is called Valued Living–when your actions match your personal core values.
The first step in setting long-term goals that you’ll be motivated to hit is to define your core values. Here are a few examples (you can find more on a list like this):
So, let’s say you pick “Leadership” as one of your core values. In this case, some meaningful and realistic long-term career goal examples might be:
- Become a senior manager at my current job
- Start my own company
- Become a mentor to younger people joining my profession
Why does this long-setting method work? From a scientific perspective, research on how people stay motivated when goals take not just years but decades to reach has found that “individuals pursuing very long-term goals sustain motivation by envisioning possible futures that result from the work they are doing.”
Your core values won’t change much over time. The more you can connect your long-term goals to the type of person you are and want to be, the easier it will be to stay motivated to hit them.
2. Use the WOOP strategy to turn ‘dreams’ into concrete steps
Even with a clear understanding of your core values and a set of long-term goals that align with them, it can be easy to fall into the trap of wishful thinking.
There’s plenty of advice out there that will suggest all you need to do is visual your success and you’ll get there. However, psychologists have found that just thinking about your long-term goals can actually derail your progress.
NYU professor Gabriele Oettingen calls this Fantasy Realisation Theory. As she explained: “The warm emotions the fantasies aroused led [people] to feel as if they’d already met goals.”
Rather than daydream about your future success, Dr. Oettingen said you should think about the real obstacles in front of you and how you’ll deal with them. In her studies, this mental contrasting (balancing the positive and the potential negatives in your mind) has been shown to greatly increase your chances of sticking with long-term goals.
To help you with it, Dr. Oettingen has a simple strategy called WOOP:
- Wish: What exactly do you want?
- Outcome: What would be the outcome of achieving this wish?
- Obstacles: What will get in the way of achieving this outcome?
- Plan: How will you work through these obstacles?
It’s a simple process, but clearly understanding what will get in the way of your long-term goals will greatly increase the chance you stick with them.
3. Break your long-term goals down into short-term tasks
Out of the many obstacles you’ll face along the way toward hitting your long-term goals, one of the most dangerous is setting too large of a goal.
No one expects you to sit down and write a novel in one go. Instead, every major project–whether it’s personal or at work–needs to be broken down into specific milestones and tasks.
Breaking large goals into smaller, more manageable ‘chunks’ makes them feel more realistic. It also gives you a clear action plan instead of making you feel overwhelmed.
Here’s an example:
Let’s say you want to write a novel. You understand the obstacles that will get in the way and how you’ll overcome them. But now what? Sit down and write? That might work for a day or two but you’ll most likely quickly lose steam.
Instead, write down three to five actionable next steps you can do in around 30 minutes a day to start.
Here’s what that might look like:
Goal: Write a novel
- Spend 30 minutes and outline the first chapter
- Commit to writing 200 words every morning before work
- Every Sunday evening, edit what you wrote throughout the week and then plan what you’ll work on next
It takes a bit of up-front investment but meticulously planning out the steps you need to take to hit your long-term goals helps you put one foot in front of the other, even when you’re exhausted or unmotivated.
Meticulously planning out the steps you need to take to hit your long-term goals helps you put one foot in front of the other, even when you’re exhausted or unmotivated.
What’s even better is that these small steps are great opportunities for ongoing feedback. By breaking long-term goals into smaller pieces, you can measure your progress along the way. Instead of staring off into the far-off future, you start thinking about tomorrow, and the day after, and so on.
4. Schedule your goals to remove the decision to work toward them every day
If you look at the action steps above, you’ll notice that each of them has some sort of scheduling or time element. This is because you’re much more likely to do something that has a hard date or time attached to it. (This is part of the SMART goal framework that we also suggest using).
Scheduling when and how long you’ll work toward your long-term goals helps you overcome what’s called decision fatigue.
This is where you get overwhelmed by all the choices you have to make each day and default to what’s easy. (It’s the reason why you might pick up fast food on the way home from work even though you have a goal of losing weight.)
While setting clear timelines for your goals can help avoid decision fatigue, one of the easiest things you can do is change your morning routine.
Research shows that, on average, we’re most productive and energetic in the first few hours of our day. This makes it a perfect opportunity to put in your daily work toward your long-term goals.
For example, designer and SuperBooked CEO, Dan Mall makes sure to have an hour set for meaningful work every morning before his daily work. Instead of spending energy deciding what to work on, he’s simply following through with a decision that’s already been made: Wake up. Work on meaningful work.
Think of all the scenarios where you can get rid of the friction of choice in your life.
If your long-term goal is to become a runner, set your running clothes out the night before. If your goal is to spend more time reading, try burying your phone in your bag or a drawer and have a book and notepad next to you instead.
5. Create if/then statements to avoid the distraction of ‘urgent’ tasks
There will always be something that feels more urgent than working toward your long-term goals. Especially now, between emails, calls, meetings, updates, and chat, it’s hard to not feel like something else needs your attention.
Psychologists call this the urgency bias.
However, you can protect your focus and counter this bias by creating if/then statements for when distractions arise.
Keeping with our long-term goal example of writing a novel, let’s say you’ve committed to working on it from 5:30 pm –7 pm every evening. But your work email starts to explode at 5 pm.
In this scenario, most people would feel they have no choice but to choose the ‘urgency’ of email and skip working on their long-term goal. Yet, having an if/then statement in place gives you a better option.
- If I get work emails after 5 pm, then I’ll leave them for tomorrow morning.
- You can create if/then statements for all sorts of common scenarios when you skip working on your long-term goals.
- If my partner comes home early, then I’ll politely remind them of my goals and commit to spending time with them after my session.
- If my friends invite me to go out, then I’ll tell them I’m only free after 7 pm.
These might sound silly, but forging a connection between a cue (the if) and your reaction (the then) has been found to be instrumental toward reaching your long-term goals.
6. Skip the ‘messy middle’ by starting at the finish line
It might seem obvious that the journey to achieving our long-term goals starts with a single step, however, new research says this is the wrong way to think.
Researchers from the Korea University Business School and the University of Iowa found that people who define their path from the end backward are not only more likely to succeed (especially when it comes to complex goals) but they’re also more confident in their choices.
While they aren’t exactly sure why this is the case, it does seem to make sense.
How many times have you started working toward something even with a clear end-goal in mind only to get lost in the messy middle?
Rather than being overwhelmed by the uncertain outcomes each step could have taken, starting at the end lets you corral the endless possibilities and stay focused on the end goal.
Think of it as a product launch. Instead of starting where you are now and planning each step toward your launch day, work backward. With a deadline and scope defined, you can start to reverse engineer how you got there. If this goes well, you’ll end up with a master to-do list that can guide you.
7. Avoid perfectionism by getting comfortable with uncertainty
Lastly, one of the biggest reasons we give up on or quit working toward our long-term goals is that our inner critic gets in the way. Perfectionism can kill your motivation and make you question why you’re even chasing this goal in the first place.
But to keep working toward your goal, you need to recognize that you won’t have all the answers up front and that your first effort probably won’t be great.
As Van Gogh wrote in his collection of letters: “I tell you, if one wants to be active, one mustn’t be afraid to do something wrong sometimes, not afraid to lapse into some mistakes.”
Being comfortable with feeling uncomfortable is the secret to hitting your long-term goals. But it’s not easy. Here are a couple of methods to help you overcome perfectionism:
- Ask ‘what’s the worst-case scenario?’ Working on or showing someone your progress toward a big goal often means embracing some level of vulnerability. To get over that fear, play out the scenario to its end. Will the world collapse? Will you get fired? Or divorced? Usually, the consequences aren’t as dire as we make them out to be.
- Reframe uncertainty as excitement. Not knowing the outcome means you’re not tied to a specific outcome. Try to think of yourself as an explorer, not a guide.
- Use the Beginner’s Mind. As a beginner, you’re excited and open to all paths. But when you become an ‘expert’ in something, you suddenly think you know better. Instead, philosophers suggest approaching projects as a beginner would. Ignore your expectations and prejudgments and just try.
17 long-term goal examples for your career and life
Sticking with your long-term goals takes planning, preparation, and resolve. However, it all starts with picking the right long-term goals in the first place.
While the best long-term goals are ones that connect to your core values, even just understanding those values can be difficult. Not to mention, trying to translate them into specific, actionable goals.
That’s why to help you get started, we put together this list of long-term goal examples for both your career and life. Use them freely or treat them as a launching point to customize for your own needs, wants, and values.
- Get hired at your dream company
- Become a manager or hit some other seniority milestone
- Become a mentor to more junior employees
- Start your own business
- Pursue a totally different career path
- Master time management and increase your productivity
- Learn to speak a new language at a native level
- Obtain a new degree (or complete a second one)
- Complete a marathon, Iron Man, or some other large physical challenge
- Hit and maintain your goal weight
- Buy your own property
- Start a family
- Learn how to play an instrument
- Travel to 10 different countries
- Become debt-free
- Learn to cook like a chef
- Conquer your biggest fear
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” according to author Annie Dillard. Whether it’s finishing a manuscript, launching your own app, or finishing your PhD, it’s empowering to work hard on something important and see it through to the end. And the more you do it, the more confident you’ll become in your abilities.
While your long-term goals might change over time, the process for hitting them will always stay the same.