Scott H Young

Why I Stopped Setting Long-Term Goals


I started setting goals about 6 years ago. When I started, I heard from authors and speakers that I needed to set long-term goals. Specific goals that I wanted to achieve in 5-10 years. I followed their advice and set long-term goals for my income, health, business and even the number of books I wanted to have read.

I now believe that this advice isn’t worthwhile, particularly for people under 30.

You Don’t Know Who You’ll Be in 10 Years

One important lesson I learned was that, if you’re investing a lot of energy into self-improvement, you’ll change a lot in a few years. And not just in a single dimension. Your beliefs, values and goals will shift as you engage in self-improvement. A goal that might appeal to you when you’re 18, might seem boring or even ridiculous when you’re 25.

Part of this change is from having new experiences. In the last five years I’ve made hundreds of new friends, lived in a different city, built a new business, started a university program, participated in international competitions and learned to salsa. Perhaps it’s a tired cliche, but new experiences change who you are and what you desire from life.

Part of this change is from improvement itself. Goals that were incredibly motivating can seem boring once you reach a certain level of progress. I briefly chatted with Steve Pavlina in an email and he mentioned how income goals were incredibly motivating to him when he was just starting his business, but now that he has earned a higher income, it no longer drives him.

If you aren’t the same person in five years, how can you set a goal that is supposed to last ten?

6-18 Month Goals Drive Action

The other problem I found with long-term goals is that they didn’t drive any action. The entire point of setting a detailed, written goal is to create a sense of urgency and motivation in the present moment.

That sense of motivation is often worth more than actually reaching your goal. While achieving a goal is rewarding only for a moment, the act of having written goals keeps you engaged and enthusiastic for months and years.

I don’t think goals set 5-10 years in advance drive action. It’s still worthwhile to have a bigger picture in mind when setting 6-18 month goals, but there isn’t much point setting a deadline for it.

Setting a shorter term goal drives action. A long-term goal for me is earning a full-time income as a writer and being able to live anywhere in the world running this business. That goal is appealing, but it doesn’t drive action. However, thinking about my upcoming book project pushes me to write a chapter today.

Find Your Big Picture, Not a Deadline

I’ve found it far more useful to define a big picture for my life, instead of a long-term goal. A big picture is the lifestyle I want to live and the accomplishments it contains. No deadline. No hammering out the details. Just a big picture I can set shorter goals towards.

My big picture right now is living a digital lifestyle. That means being able to support myself full-time from writing and running an online business. I intentionally keep this big picture vague. I don’t specify whether it needs to be from running this website or starting a different online business. I don’t specify the exact amount of money I want. I don’t specify where I want to live. I also don’t specify when I want to reach this goal.

I break most the rules of goal-setting when having a big picture, but in doing so, I think it serves me better. Because I know I’m going to change as a person, I keep the big picture purposefully vague. That way, instead of having 10 year goals that change every six months, I can keep the same big picture.

Having a deadline is useless because long-term goals don’t motivate action. I’d rather avoid the deadline completely and just be patient with my projects. As long as I’m working as hard as I can on shorter term goals and those goals are inline with my bigger picture, I’m going to reach that big picture as fast I could with any other method.

Embrace Uncertainty

More than just a method, I believe in embracing uncertainty. Instead of viewing constantly shifting long-term goals as a problem, I see it as a sign that I’m doing a good job. If my goals stay stagnant for a long period of time, it means that I’m not exposing myself to enough new opportunities.

I say that this approach is more important when you’re under 30, because that’s the time of your life with the most frequent change and flexibility. If you’re 35 with children, a stable career and a mortgage, you won’t have the same rate of change.

However, I know people who reinvented themselves late into their 30s and 40s. Colonel Sanders started Kentucky Fried Chicken when he was in his sixties. Even if you’ve already reached a stable point in your life, that doesn’t mean you can’t continue to embrace uncertainty.

Ben Casnocha, who has an excellent blog, writes that he feels he doesn’t need long-term goals to motivate himself. Although he places this as a personal idiosyncracy, I think it shows he embraces the long-term uncertainty life offers and uses it to his advantage.

Set a big picture instead of ten year goals. Embrace uncertainty. Oh, and don’t let your life be written in advance.


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21 Responses to “Why I Stopped Setting Long-Term Goals”

  1. Michal Sobczyk says:

    Actually it would be a good idea to write about how to create a vision. I’m myself in a point in life when I have no idea where I want to be in 5-10 years from now. And that’s not fun at all, because I have some vague ideas where I want to be but I don’t know how to put it all together and which what to do with my life :).

    Cheers

  2. Scott,
    The difference between setting long term goals and finding a big picture really resonated with me. I have a big picture goal to become a published writer, but in the absence of a specific book project don’t find that particularly motivating. Very nice distinction.

  3. Iair says:

    Scott, I agree with you, particularly because it was always very difficult to set a long term goal and translate it into action.

    I am not a follower Of Leo’s writing, But I read his book (The power of less) and setting a Major long term goal was for him the only source for motivation and concrete (essential) action. What would he say about your point of view?

    Iair.

  4. Jens Upton says:

    Long term goals differ amongst people. Mine may be 2 months to 1 year. Very rarely longer than that. Some people I’ve spoken to have goals spanning ‘years’, usually involving marriage, career, properties, cars, vacations.
    I’m just not interested in placing too much value on those things. I have very few material possessions. As you’ve already hinted at, I don’t know precisely what my interests will be, how my goals will have changed, what I’ll be thinking in 2 years time.
    I like your big picture v dealine attitude. I also find certainty in uncertainty which is kinda contrary but that’s life for ya!

    Thanks for this article
    Jens

  5. Thiru says:

    Hi Scott,
    Good one. I too had the same thought process as you and I still have some of them. When I used to attend interviews for my jobs I used to confront the question “W is ur LT goal” with answers like “I prefer setting ST goals and it works well in this dynamic environment where there are more changes”. Still I dont know how well it was taken. But I was giving some LT goals too for some interviews thinking the previous answer doenst go well with them. But at one time I asked myself “What do I believe on”, then it was that ST goals make LT goals.

    I think people know or get to know this mostly but when they lose focus or deviating from the Big picture, they are advised (or forced) to take a LT goal setting and finally they go on to believe that without deeper analysis on themselves. Jus my view.

  6. […] » Why I Stopped Setting Long-Term Goals (scotthyoung.com) […]

  7. Jim Bartlett says:

    Hi Scott, you know what? I agree with you. We change SO much every 5 year block (or at least we should ;-)

    For instance, I remember when I started in network marketing in 1987, my “dream car” was the 1987 Ford Thunderbird Turbo Coupe. I just HAD to have one! Now, 22 years later I think it is one of the ugliest cars Ford ever made!

    Goals are good, short term ones especially, but until you have become a mature adult (when does that happen?) it is wise to let the looooong term stuff work itself out somewhat on it’s own. A general guideline of how you want things to be can be good, but we really do change a LOT in 5+ years.

    Keep up the good writing Scott.

    Warm regards,

    Jim

  8. Adam says:

    Everyone needs to learn to embrace uncertainty at all ages (and stages) of their lives. So much of our lives is uncertain, much more than we realize (especially when we’re in our 20’s).

  9. Adam M. says:

    Hey Scott, I have always admired your drive towards your goals and you have correctly stated that motivation is not created from specific, deadline goals. I have changed my goals to reflect this and it feels more liberating to just have a “big picture” and not worry about too many specifics. This allows me to focus on the present and I thank you for that.

  10. John says:

    Totally agree. My 6 – 18 month goals are aligned with my big picture, but I don’t plan the big picture goals into mucht detail. It isn’t worth the effort to my opinion.
    John.

  11. “If my goals stay stagnant for a long period of time, it means that I’m not exposing myself to enough new opportunities.”

    This really resonated with me — you’re absolutely right! Great post Scott!

  12. I think a long-term goal and a big picture are the same thing. The difference they have against a short-term goal is that, a shot-term goal should have a more specific deadline such as “I must finish writing my book by 1 September 2009.”

    A long-term goal or a big picture need not be as specific. You may set one that says “I must be running my own restaurant 5 years from now.” Both the goal and the deadline are not specific – restaurant concept not defined and no specific date set. But at least you know what you want to be doing 5 years down the road. I think that is very helpful paving your path and setting short-term goals.

    Cheers~

    Mark

  13. Ian Berry says:

    These are very wise words Scott. Thank You.

  14. […] blogger, but set a deadline of 6 months, instead of 6 years. This short-term thinking detracts from the big picture, where becoming really good at something takes at least a decade, not just 18 […]

  15. […] may even change yourself.  Scott Young mentions on his site that he’s stopped setting long-term goals, because everyone changes so much so quickly.  If you read what he says, you’ll understand […]

  16. Marvin says:

    I disagree with you. For starters, it seems like this article is mainly about how you feel about long term goals. Just because they don’t motivate you like they do others, doesn’t mean they aren’t worth setting/pursuing.
    Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that you discuss what works best for you. The amount of time you’ve put into thought and discussion about goals is part of the reason I read these blogs so regularly. But then on the other hand, this post seems self-absorbed. If you’re going to talk about yourself the whole time, at least say, “hey, long term goals aren’t my thing, but maybe they’ll prove more motivating for you.”
    If this site really is about getting more out of life, long term goals can be helpful to achieve more. For example, if you want to read books this year, and I want to read 100 books this year, at the end of the year, who do you think has read more books? I suppose it depends on what you mean when you describe getting more out of life. In my opinion, 100 books is more books than however many books you casually decide to read in a year. You just can’t argue with more.
    This sentence was especially bias and unhelpful… “Having a deadline is useless because long-term goals don’t motivate action.” This sentence is a sentence about you. It’s not about long term goals and it’s not about action. It’s about how you feel, it’s your opinion. If you were me, you would see how long term goals motivate action.

  17. Scott Young says:

    Marvin,

    I don’t see a one-year goal as being long-term. Long-term is necessarily in the 5-10+ years range. Short-term accomplishments of less than a few years can be effectively driven by goals.

    -Scott

  18. Marvin says:

    What I was trying to say is for some people, long term goals do motivate action. sometimes long term goals are how people get more out of life. the 100 books in a year was a poor example.

  19. les says:

    The best information ive received and embraced in from Tony Robbins ‘Time of Your Life’ and the ‘RPM Lifeplanner’. The philosophy of this is to shift your focus from ‘goals and ‘to do’s onto ‘OUTCOMES’ The RPM Life Planner is fantastic as it helps you create your ultimate vision ‘big picture’ and ultimate purpose ‘the why’. It then helps you define ultimate visions and purposes for all your life areas with a focus on balancing your entire life to live a fullfilling life. Once you define your visions, purposes, outcomes, values and standards, you then define a 1 year outcome. From your 1 year lifestyle outcome, you further break it down into quarters for improving each area of your life, then one hour each week you plan the following week broken down into daily outcomes inline with your ultimate visions. The great thing about outcomes is that maybe you only need to acheive 2 of your daily actions to accelerate towards your vision as their are many ways to acheive an outcome. Th problem with goals is that you can end up focusing to much on to do’s that are not the greatest steps towards your outcome, which creates demotivation and an non fulfilling day. The RPM life planner is all about ensuring everyday is fulfilling. This is how Tony Robbins manages to run 11 huge business’s. The RPM Planner is an ultimate MAP and a way of thinking. Its like a psycological ultimate growth adventure for getting what you want, meeting your needs and aligning your entire life with your values, standards and identity.

  20. […] but set a deadline of 6 months, instead of 6 years. This short-term thinking detracts from the big picture, where becoming really good at something takes at least a decade, not just 18 […]

  21. SA says:

    Re: ” you don’t know who you’ll be in 10 years”

    I agree that we are continually evolving and growing (if we take those opportunities and let ourselves). A little different from the topic of long-term goal setting, but: what is your opinion on marriage? What we want now, we won’t want 10 years from now… so likely what we value in a partner now, likely won’t be the same down the road (unless that partner grows in the same ways, which is unlikely). Just something to think about. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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