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.
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.