Short-Term vs Long-Term Goals: Which Should You Choose?

In previous posts, we have discussed how meaningful habit change entails, first, identifying your values (your “Why”) and, then, creating goals that move you closer to the kind of values-based life you want for yourself. For example, the value of “ being healthy” might lead you to pursue the goal of “reducing my sugar intake.”

We also discussed how important it is to pursue SMART goals—goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-based.

Short-Term vs. Long-Term Goals 

Another important consideration is whether you should set short-term or long-term goals. For example, maybe you really want to lose 50 pounds. You’ve identified that this goal is specific, measurable, attainable, and realistic, and you think you could accomplish it in a year (which is relatively long-term).

“But a year seems so far away,” you find yourself thinking.

Nevertheless, you’ve heard others talk about the importance of setting big, long-term goals—goals so grand they excite you in a way you haven’t been excited before.

“Imagine what kind of life I could be living if I lost 50 pounds,” you enthusiastically think.

And so you dive in, keeping your eye on the 50-pound prize.

Oddly, though, in just a few weeks, you find your motivation quickly waning. (Maybe some of you have experienced this phenomenon in early February each year.) And once again, that voice in your head tells you that you just don’t have what it takes to reach your goal.

Why Short-Term Goals Are Often More Effective 

As we have discussed before, when outcomes are too far away, we discount, or devalue, them to the point that they have little impact on our current actions. 

And when that happens, we often end up choosing options that are more immediate and, thus, more reinforcing—for example, a piece of cake, which produces satisfaction right now, over exercising, which may take weeks to produce any results.

For this reason, we believe that the best approach is to focus on short-term goals. More specifically, we believe that the best approach is to focus on short-term goals while loosely keeping long-term goals in mind.

You can still keep “50 pounds” in the back of your mind while placing most of your focus on what you’re going to do over the next week to move you closer to that long-term goal (as we ask you to do in the Gale app).

In fact, if truth be told, rather than focusing on losing 50 pounds or even 1 pound, you should focus first and foremost on your values, because the ultimate long-term “goal” is to live the kind of life you want for yourself.

Once you’ve reconnected with your values, go ahead and think about what your long-term goal might be. And when you have your long-term goal in mind, break it down as much as possible. If you want to lose 50 pounds in a year, how many pounds would you have to lose each week, or even each day, to reach that goal?

Now, and most importantly, identify what you need to do over the next week (or even the next day) to move a bit closer to where you want to be. (Remember, your SMART goals should focus on behaviors, not outcomes!)

How Gale helps you measure behavior

Do you need to eat three healthy meals tomorrow? Write 200 words a day for the next week? Practice the piano for 30 minutes on Saturday and Sunday?

Once you’ve identified your short-term behavioral SMART goals, you’re on your way. Now, simply repeat as needed, and change as necessary.

Building Short-Term SMART Goals 

Ultimately, as we’ve alluded to throughout this post, there are several reasons why setting short-term behavioral SMART goals is the way to go.

First, they are discounted less, which means their value will remain high. Second, because behavior is most strongly impacted by its consequences, having short-term behavioral goals means there is more opportunity for reinforcement, which will further motivate us to keep going. 

And, finally, when we simply focus on doing what we value, on behaviors rather than outcomes, and on meeting short-term challenges, we might just find that we easily surpass the long-term goal we initially had in mind.