Things don’t get done on their own.

It doesn’t matter if you want to lose weight, start a business, improve your social skills, or move abroad… Nothing will happen, at least not at an optimal pace, if you don’t plan ahead and set specific goals.

But how far ahead should you plan for?

I’ve heard people advocate goal setting for 1 week, 1 month, 3 month, 6 month, 1 year, 3 year, and 5 year timeframes.

The scary thing is that setting goals that are too long – or too short – can actually cripple your motivation and productivity… And cause you to consistently FAIL to achieve your goals.

In this article I’ll analyze different goal lengths to evaluate which is superior in terms of making productive progress, staying motivated, and maximizing self-development.

I: Goal Length and Productivity

The bestselling book Getting Things Done by David Allen is considered the bible of productivity.

The main premise of this book is that you must break goals down into the smallest chunks possible in order to achieve consistently high rates of productivity. And it makes sense: breaking your goals down into tiny tasks makes it far easier to take action, do these tasks, and make progress on your goal.

And this makes perfect sense. For example: it’s far easier to do a simple Google search for “accounts in my city” (a simple and manageable task) than it is to file this years tax return (a vague goal with no obvious start point).

With this in mind, let’s take a look at how productivity will generally vary based on goal length. I’ve created 3 broad categories to make this analysis easier:

Short Term Goals (less than 1 month)

For short term goals, you can likely break the entire thing down to specific, actionable tasks in a matter of minutes. For example: filing your annual tax return.

Moderate Term Goals (1-6 months)

For moderate term goals, you can likely break down a sizeable portion of the goal in actionable tasks. You know exactly what you need to do in order to get started, but you’ll likely need to sit down, re-evaluate, and brainstorm your next actions a few weeks in. For example: starting a blog or cutting down 20 pounds.

Long Term Goals (more than 6 months)

For long term goals, figuring out the best way to start won’t be an easy task. Because of the large scope of the goal, there are probably several different options for how you can start. Your first actions will likely revolve around researching these options before really getting started and diving in. For example: building a successful online brand or making drastic body composition changes like being jacked at 8% bodyfat (assuming your body is not anywhere close to that).

Advantage: Short term goals – they’re by far the easiest to plan for and take action on.

II: Goal Length and Motivation

The second metric I want to discuss is motivation, and how goal length affects your levels of motivation.

When I say motivation, I mean two specific things:

  • Goal Specific Motivation: how excited and determined are you to take action and accomplish a specific goal?
  • General Motivation: how much does a specific goal motivate you to take action and stay consistent in other areas of your life?

For example, one of my current goals is to build my instagram account to 10,000 followers in the next 2 months (a moderate term goal). On one hand, I’m excited to reach that specific goal. This ensures I maintain a consistent posting schedule, target specific niches to gain followers, etc. That’s “goal specific motivation”.

On the other hand, the fact that I’m growing my instagram account has motivated me to enroll in an online course to grow my YouTube channel. Seeing consistent growth has also motivated me to stay consistent with my other daily habits like taking cold showers and meditating.

Now let’s dive in and examine how both types of motivation vary based on goal length:

Short Term Goals (less than 1 month)

You should be sufficiently determined to complete a short term goal, because it shouldn’t take much effort. But you’re probably not going to be too excited about it, because the end result won’t likely have a big impact on other areas of your life.

Moderate Term Goals (1-6 months)

Moderate term goals offer a solid balance between these two types of motivation. They’re large enough in scope that they’re likely to motivate you to step up your game in other areas of your life. Also, the finish line isn’t too far away so you’re more likely to notice real progress and get excited about reaching the end result versus with longer term goals.

Long Term Goals (more than 6 months)

For long term goals, it’s quite likely they’ll have a big impact on your general motivation… at least at first. When you make the decision to set a big goal, it can be very emotional. Imagine setting the goal to be the CEO of your company, or to have a YouTube channel with 100k subscribers. Just visualizing achieving these things is powerful. However, their long duration means this motivational high is prone to fading after weeks or months. If something else comes up, you hit a plateau, or you just lose interest in the goal, then both types of motivation can quickly diminish.

Advantage: Moderate term goals – achieving these goals can have a big impact on your life AND you still get to see fast progress.

III: Goal Length and Self-Development

This metric might seem a little vague, but allow me to explain…

Every goal that you set and every goal that you accomplish is like a small point on a large chart that graphs the direction of your life. The goals that you choose to pursue, and the goals that you see through to the end, combine to illustrate a picture of who you are, what you value, and what legacy you’ll leave behind.

I hope that last paragraph makes sense (go read it a second time if you have to). Either way, it will make a lot more sense after you read my breakdown below:

Short Term Goals (less than 1 month)

The benefit that short term goals offer, in terms of self-development, is that they allow you to “course correct” and make frequent changes to your direction in life. If you strictly set short term goals, you’ll always be pursuing something you’re currently interested in (or just need to get done). However, the drawback is that their small scope means you won’t be making any notable accomplishments.

Moderate Term Goals (1-6 months)

Moderate terms goals again offer a great balance in this regard. It’s unlikely that you’ll undergo significant changes in interests over a 6 month period. You should still be excited about any goal you set after a few months have passed. This allows you to “course correct” at more realistic timeframes, while also being able to pursue goals that can have a significant impact on your life (and the lives of others).

Long Term Goals (more than 6 months)

The obvious benefit of longer term goals is that you can accomplish bigger, more meaningful things in this timeframe. However, it’s human nature to change and evolve. This means that you’re unlikely to be super passionate about the same exact things as today, one year from now. If this happens while pursuing a long term goal, and you fail to acknowledge it, you risk “stunting” your self-development by dedicating more time to a specific goal than you really should.

Advantage: Moderate term goals – they are large enough in scope to mark significant achievements, yet still allow you to “course correct” every few months.

So… What’s the Optimal Goal Timeframe?

Clearly I believe that moderate term goals (1-6 months) are the superior option in terms of productivity, motivation, and self-development. Here’s why…

  • 6 months is enough time to accomplish sizeable goals
  • It’s also short enough that progress is always evident
  • The finish line is always in sight, and this is extremely motivating
  • You avoid partially completed long term goals you no longer care about

In general, I recommend setting and pursuing moderate term goals. Anything shorter is insignificant. And anything longer is unlikely to hold your interest and keep you motivated.

What’s your opinion on setting goals? How long do you aim for? Let me know in the comments.

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