How Do Long-Term Goals Differ from Short-Term Goals?

In Lewis Carrol’s book “Alice in Wonderland,” the author subtly explains why goals are important:

“One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree. Which road do I take? She asked. Where do you want to go? Was his response. I don’t know, Alice answered. Then, said the cat, it doesn’t matter.”

That’s the thing—if you don’t set goals, it doesn’t really matter what you do in life. Is that the way that you want to live?

Goals Help You Live With Purpose

Most people want to live a life that matters. What does that mean, though?

The Productive Woman says that we all want to leave something behind. We want to make an impact. We want to leave a legacy.

That can happen without setting goals. We might get lucky.  We could be in the right place at the right time and get noticed. But do you want to base the purpose of your life on luck?

It doesn’t really matter what your legacy is. There are so many humans in this world that we all have a unique role. Being the kind of parent whose kids open up to them can be just as meaningful as coming up with the next great invention.

But don’t you want to feel as though the actions that you take every day are meaningful? Don’t you want to know that the path that you’re on matters?

Setting goals allows you to create a life that you love. This practice lets you set objectives that resonate with your values. When you set goals, your life becomes a road map to your legacy.

Your path may change, but when it does, it shifts with intention. Setting goals helps you feel like you’re in control of your life. You may not be able to regulate everything that happens to you, but you can guide your circumstances to meet your desires, needs and wishes.

There Are Different Types of Goals

There are so many different types of goals, including those based on time, focus and topic; SMART goals; personal goals; educational goals. The list goes on and on.

You can set goals in just about every area in your life. But there are two types of goals that will help you carve out the steps that can get you from where you are now to where you want to be. Those are long-term and short-term goals.

Short-term goals are more pressing than long-term goals. It doesn’t mean that they are more important. They are simply created with a shorter deadline than long-term goals.

Why Are Long-Term Goals Important?

There is one question that you can’t escape at a career or college interview: Where do you see yourself in five or ten years? If you haven’t set long-term goals, this question can be tough to answer.

If you don’t have a vision for what you’ll be doing half a decade from now, how do you know that your current actions are taking you in the right direction? You may be the kind of person who prefers to wait and see. Maybe you live in the moment.

Some people say that they don’t set goals because they prefer to go with the flow. But as Andy Hunt says, “Only dead fish go with the flow.”

You don’t have to be a controlling person to set goals that influence your life. You can live in the present and still set goals for the future. In fact, having a road map for the future can help you live mindfully without worrying so much about what’s coming next.

Long-term goals bring focus to your life. They make the actions that you take more meaningful. They allow you to realize how the behavior that you have today is important for your life and other people’s lives.

Setting long-term goals allows you to visualize your place in the world. This practice lets you shine a light on the butterfly effect so that your life feels less chaotic and you can connect the dots from what happens today and your desired future.

Why Are Short-Term Goals Important?

Short-term goals are important for several reasons. Primarily, short-term goals help you remain consistent with your goal-setting practice.

Imagine if you only set long-term goals. If you establish objectives that are one to ten years away from the present time, will you really have the discipline and enthusiasm to keep them at the forefront of your mind?

If you’re like most people, the answer is probably “no.” About 92 percent of people don’t accomplish their goals. Perhaps if they broke their long-term goals down into shorter chunks, they would find the momentum to keep going.

Short-term goals can be like stepping stones. Let’s say that you set a goal to take a backpacking trip across Europe in two years. You’ll need to get several things done in order to realize that objective.

You might need to:

  • Research destinations
  • Buy travel gear
  • Buy tickets
  • Purchase and look at guidebooks
  • Write an itinerary
  • Estimate a budget

Those bullet points are your short-term goals. If you set a deadline for each one, you can move consistently toward your long-term goal even though the trip won’t be happening for a while.

Sometimes, your short-term goals don’t need to add up to a long-term one. For example, you might have a goal to clear out the sink before the end of the day.

Just remember that you should have enough consistent short-term goals to keep you moving in the right direction. Don’t set long-term goals without breaking them down into shorter segments.

At the same time, try not to set too many short-term goals without a larger target in mind. Otherwise, you’re just creating aimless to-do lists that will make you feel busy without giving you a chance to celebrate your accomplishments.

Examples of Short-Term vs. Long-Term Goals

Every long-term goal can be broken down into short-term goals. However, short-term goals can also stand alone.

Short-term goals may be related to long-term goals. For example, your goals may be financial. However, the objectives that you want to accomplish may have different deadlines.

Here are some cases in which your short-term and long-term goals may be related but don’t necessarily rely on one another:

  • Short-term: Pay off credit card debt
  • Long-term: Pay off mortgage
  • Short-term: Make mortgage payments every month
  • Long-term: Build up a college fund for your kids
  • Short-term: Make insurance payments
  • Long-term: Save up to by a car
  • Short-term: Save for this year’s vacation
  • Long-term: Save for retirement
  • Short-term: Run a mile
  • Long-term: Run a marathon

What Do Long-Term and Short-Term Goals Have in Common?

Long-term and short-term goals aren’t that different. The main distinction between them is the timeframe.

Long-term goals are like the endpoint on a map. They represent where you want to be or what you want to have accomplished at the end of a particular period of time.

Short-term goals can also be the endpoint on the map. But that map represents a much shorter journey.

Short-term goals can also be the stops that you take to get to the long-term target. You should be able to reach those goals much faster than your long-term goal. Short-term goals may be cumulative, allowing you to get closer to your long-term aims with every objective that you accomplish.

Even though long-term and short-term goals are different, they have many similarities. We discuss those in more detail below.

They Help You Focus

In life, we often have an urge to wander. Sometimes we do this intentionally. Other times, we are aimless because we don’t know where we are going. If you set goals, you know exactly how to come back to your path even when you wander.

You can also choose whether to go off on intentional tangents. If you were driving across the country without a map, you might decide to stay on the route without diversions because you’d be afraid of getting lost. With plenty of maps, though, you could decide whether it would be worth it to take a detour.

Your goals let you steer off course without dysregulating your entire life. They allow you to prioritize your deviations. Sometimes, you decide to keep moving through your short-term goals without getting distracted. Other times, you allow a little diversion because you know how easy it’s going to be to get back on course.

They Simplify Your Life

You may be afraid that setting goals is a cumbersome process. Experts often suggest that you set goals in various categories, such as:

  • Health and wellness
  • Self-development
  • Family
  • Friends and social
  • Career
  • Travel and adventure
  • Love

But if you do that, won’t you overcomplicate things? To answer that question, imagine that you were going on a multi-destination vacation. Would it be easier to hit the road without a plan or arm yourself with a map that could guide you to each location?

The more goals you set, the simpler your life becomes. The world is a stressful place.

If you don’t know what’s coming next, you can only base your next move on your current situation. Everything is relative. You have to make hard decisions all the time.

If you know your destination and have a route laid out, you don’t have to feel stressed every time you come to an intersection. You can just set your course and continue down it.

That doesn’t mean that you don’t need to reevaluate things along the way, but you can coast for a while without worrying so much about every little choice.

Long-term goals let you know where you’re going, and short-term goals can give you the exact steps to get there. If you planned to drive from New York to Los Angeles, you’d have a simple objective: to get across the country.

Adding stops along the way makes your trip even easier. You give yourself a chance to rest along the way. You get to slow down instead of rushing toward the end. These stops represent your short-term goals.

They Make You the Master of the Present Moment

You may think that goals make you the master of your future. Instead, they let you bring your attention to the present.

It’s normal for people to fear the future. A lack of direction can make you feel anxious or depressed.

When you reach a point in life where you don’t know where you’re going, you might try to grasp onto anything that could help. Some people go from job to job or relationship to relationship without finding the meaning in anything. Others just keep adding to their to-do lists without considering where those tasks are taking them.

But if you have long-term and short-term goals, you can relax a little bit. The future is spelled out for you to some extent. You can stop working so hard to create something out of nothing.

When you’ve done the work to set goals, you don’t always have to struggle so hard. You can take time to learn more about yourself as you move down your path. The more you develop yourself, the easier the next steps become.

As your route into the future becomes laid out for you, you can stop and smell the roses. You can enjoy the present moment because you’ve set your life up in a way that aligns with your values and desires.

Athletes are prime examples of how goals can help you immerse yourself in the present. Marathon runners, Olympic athletes and sports players talk about how being in a flow state improves their performance.

Do you think that these individuals ignore their greater goals to get into that zone? On the contrary, they can focus on the immediacy of their situation because they’ve already laid out their goals.

When you’ve already set up your time to prepare for the future, what you do in the present becomes more impactful. The actions that you take now may have implications for your future goals. Even if they don’t, you can enjoy your current time without worrying that you’re getting too distracted or moving away from your priorities.

What’s the Procedure for Establishing Long-Term and Short-Term Goals?

Now you know a little more about the difference between long-term and short-term goals. You should understand that you must develop a healthy balance of both to keep yourself hyped up about moving forward in life.

It’s time to learn some techniques for setting goals.

Backward Goal Setting

The Backward Goal-Setting method is one of the most common. It gives you a chance to incorporate your short-term goals into your long-term vision and set realistic deadlines.

To use this technique, follow the steps below:

  1. Write down your big vision. Try to stick to one category, such as “Create a website.”
  2. List all of the high-level activities that you’d have to do to launch your website. These might include:
  • Get a domain name
  • Purchase a hosting package
  • Hire a web designer
  • Come up with the navigation
  • Write content for static pages
  • Come up with 10 blog posts to publish when I launch
  1. Look at each bullet point, and decide if you can break them down into smaller action steps. For example, coming up with 10 blog posts might involve:
  • Brainstorm 10 titles for blog posts
  • Research the topic for each post
  • Write drafts for the blog posts
  • Edit the posts
  • Find images
  • Finalize and publish the posts on the website
  1. Come up with a deadline for the high-level activities that you wrote down in step 2. (Those are your short-term goals). Then, write the action steps to achieve those goals on a calendar.

The 4CF Goal-Setting Method

This method of goal setting is based on Dr. Edwin Locke and Dr. Gary Latham’s fundamental principles for setting effective goals.

These are:

  • Clarity
  • Challenge
  • Complexity
  • Commitment
  • Feedback

It’s helpful to use this method along with the backward goal-setting technique to double check that your goals will be effective. After you’ve written down your long-term and short-term goals, evaluate them using the following questions:

1. Are they clear?

You should leave no room for ambiguity. Make sure that you understand the who, what, when, where and how of each goal. The SMART goal-setting technique, which you may be familiar with, refers to this as specificity.

An example of an unclear goal is, “Increase the number of sales.” A way to clarify this goal would be to rephrase it as, “Sell 50 units of product X by the end of the month.”

2. Are they challenging?

All of your goals don’t have to be challenging. But Latham and Locke found that people who set challenging goals were more motivated and confident.

Your long-term goals should be challenging. Your short-term goals should give you simpler steps to follow to work up to the bigger goals.

Maybe you’ve set a goal to run a marathon next year. That’s challenging for most people. But your short-term goal of running one minute longer every day isn’t too daunting.

3. Are they complex?

Goals can be made up of many interconnected parts. If they’re too complex, though, they can be overwhelming.

This is another area in which it helps to differentiate long-term and short-term goals. Long-term goals can be complex. Ideally, you would break those down until your short-term goals became as simple as possible.

4. Are you committed?

Committing to your goals can make them more likely to happen. However, it’s hard to commit to a goal that’s too complex or not challenging enough. You need to have the resources necessary to support your journey.

When you’ve broken your long-term goals down into short-term ones, you can easily gauge whether your goal is reasonable. When you determine that it’s possible and have a clear timeline, you can commit.

Writing your goal down helps you commit to it. So does sharing it with others.

5. How are things working out?

Whether you’re monitoring an employee who is working toward their goals or trying to accomplish your own, you need to set aside time to assess how things are going. Your short-term goals give you a chance to do this consistently along the way.

If you realize that you’re heading in the wrong direction, it’s much easier to turn back after accomplishing a short-term goal than after working for years on a long-term one. You don’t want to reach the end of your life and realize that you were on the wrong path all along.

What Happens When You Reach Your Long-Term Goals?

Long-term goals aren’t the end-all be-all of life. Your goal is not to reach your goals and stop moving.

Ernest Hemingway said, “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters in the end.” Ultimately, does it really matter what you achieve?

You can learn the same lessons whether you end up with a mansion in Beverly Hills or a cabin at the top of a mountain. The processes that you go through to reach those goals push you to reach your full potential.

While your goals do matter, make sure that you’re not setting them in stone. Long-term goals don’t have to be fixed.

As you work up to your grand goals using short-term objectives, micro-goals and action steps, you may realize that you need to alter your path. It’s the same thing that would happen if you were hacking away at a trail in the jungle. You might have planned your route using a satellite image, but once you began the project, you learned that you had to make adjustments.

It’s perfectly normal to alter your course. As you do, make sure that you’re shifting your long-term and short-term goals accordingly.

However, you should take a few specific actions when you reach your long-term goals. Here are some suggestions for what to do when you achieve them:


According to Bill Carmody, the CEO and Founder of Trepoint, you’re likely to burn out if you don’t celebrate your achievements. As a busy, productive member of society, you may be fixated on the future. You get even more excited about life’s potential when you start setting goals and creating visions for where you want to be during the next decade.

It’s easy to overlook the wins—no matter how big or small—that you accomplish. But if you don’t celebrate, what are you telling yourself about the importance of setting goals?

Without reveling in your accomplishments, you’re just working on a long string of to-dos in life. When you celebrate, you release endorphins that make you feel good. Those neurotransmitters interact with the reward centers of the brain to confirm the fact that you did an amazing thing.

Celebrating delivers mental rewards that are just as real as a material prize. In other words, rejoicing because you finished a project can be just as meaningful as going out for a drink with your colleagues to commemorate the occasion.

When you reward yourself, you reinforce the behavior that you want to continue. This is the same principle that leads people to become addicted to drugs. The chemicals reinforce their reward pathways, telling them to take the drugs again because they had a gratifying effect (even if that behavior has other harmful effects).

Becoming addicted to accomplishing your goals isn’t so bad, though. If you want to build your confidence and maintain momentum when it comes to doing what you want in life, celebrate your long-term and short-term goals. The more you celebrate, the more you’re telling your brain to keep doing the same thing.

Share Your Wins With Others

Your loved ones want to see you succeed. Plus, when you let others know that you’ve achieved your goals, you get a dose of support that can boost your confidence.

Celebrating your successes with others tightens your social circle. Your excitement and happiness are contagious. Others may want to be around you just because you’re a fruitful person who always seems to come out on top.

This can help you in so many ways. As we mentioned above, it provides you with people who will encourage you in the future. You may even find a group of individuals that you can look to for help when the going gets tough.

People talk. When others see you hitting all of your targets, they’re likely to tell others about how great you are. This word of mouth can be helpful for creating your social circle or enhancing your business.

As the proverb says, “Success begets success.” Once you start, you might find it hard to stop hitting your marks. The more goals you set, the more you’re likely to achieve. Therefore, make sure that you’re consistently setting, achieving and celebrating your goals.

Will you make some mistakes in your life? Will you fail to accomplish some of your goals? Sure. You’re human.

But when goal setting is a practice that you incorporate into your lifestyle, your wins will significantly outnumber your losses.

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