We all have our own journeys in life, and they’re not always straightforward. Let me rephrase that — our life journeys are the most twisted, moody, flippant and unpredictable paths imaginable, with dead ends and potholes as common as dirt and absolutely no directions we can 100% rely on. On top of that, we only get one shot to live this life right. So we journey on, through the twists and obstacles, and manage to have bucketloads of fun along the way, all the while heading towards the accomplishments and the rewards that we can look back on with pride when the journey comes to its end.
We all have our big dreams. The big hairy audacious goals, the crazy world visions, our own personal Mt Everests. And they’re mostly the kind of dreams that will take months and even years of hard work to achieve. We know that, and we work towards them. How? By setting ourselves short-term goals, small things we can do that add up and take us closer to The Big Dream. The benefit of small goals is that they’re easier to achieve, and ticking them off one by one gives us a sense of accomplishment and helps us stay motivated for the long haul ahead.
So that seems pretty straightforward. Long-term goals we aspire to achieve, and short-term goals to take us there and help us feel good along the way.
Except it’s not that simple.
The one thing we often overlook, whether we’re planning a new business strategy or setting our New Year resolutions, is medium-term goals.
The ones that aren’t quite long-term dreams, but are much bigger than short-term goals. And the ones that we really need to focus on if we want to accomplish our long-term goals.
The problem with relying too heavily on short-term goals is that they could end up being instant-gratification solutions that may not lead anywhere. Granted, every little counts — words like kaizen are all the rage, and even writing one’s name at the top of a dissertation is supposed to count as progress — but honestly, that depends hugely on exactly what that ‘little’ is, and how consistently you’re doing it. If your long-term goal is to publish a novel, you may set yourself a short-term goal of writing one page a day — but there’s a lot of difference between one carelessly written page every two or three days and one well-thought-out page every day consistently for several weeks. By focusing on the ‘one page’ bit, you risk losing track of the fact that it needs to happen every day for a sustained period if you want to make real progress. And by real I mean something substantial and clearly ahead of the starting point — not just moving one inch ahead and then taking it easy for two weeks.
Therein lies the importance of medium-term goals.
Medium-term goals are aggregations of short-term goals, done consistently over a specific period of time. They’re bigger subsets of the long-term goal, and each one represents a significant step ahead. So if a whole book is the long-term goal, each chapter could be a medium-term goal. Or if long-term is picking up a full dance routine, medium-term is perfecting the intro of the dance. It implies results that actually make a difference and make you feel like you’ve come a good way ahead — as compared with baby steps that, while undoubtedly helpful, don’t have that much impact individually. We often use the concept of ‘kaizen’ to glorify short-term goals, but the real meaning of kaizen is small, continuous improvements. One improvement in isolation isn’t kaizen — it needs to happen repeatedly and consistently to mean something.
That’s where medium-term goals help. By focusing only on short-term goals, you run the risk of getting derailed and stopping — you could get complacent after completing one or two short-term goals, or the sheer magnitude of the long-term goal as compared to the smallness of the short-term goal could make you feel like you’ll never get it done. After all, what’s one page out of a 500-word novel? You need to do it five hundred times to get there — five hundred times! But setting a medium-term goal — say, a 25-page chapter — is beneficial in two ways. One, it motivates you to keep repeating the short-term act instead of tuning out after just once or twice. And two — since it involves much more work than the short-term goal, accomplishing it will give you even more of a rush and thus spur you on to the next medium-term goal. One 25-page chapter — that’s good. Now you only need to do it nineteen more times to finish the novel! Let’s do one more — and one more — how about another…
And thus you progress, in lengthy strides rather than baby steps, towards the big dream.
When setting medium-term goals, it’s important to remember that they should represent more than a short-term goal, but still feel attainable. Medium-term goals that are too big will end up being like long-term goals all over again — they need to be sized so that you aren’t tempted to portion them into even smaller bits, but steadily work towards them with the knowledge that it’s well within your grasp. Needless to say, they should come with a deadline and a measurable outcome — SMART goals, so to speak. The best way to prepare them is to do them in conjunction with the long- and short-term goals so that you can see exactly how the medium-term goal is a step up from the short-term one.
For example, a fitness goal could be spread out in this way.
Long-term: Lose 10 kilograms in six months. Short-term: Skip dessert at tomorrow night’s party. Medium-term: Do an hour of cardio every day for two weeks.
For a writing project, it could look something like this.
Long-term: Get published in five major magazines in 2019. Short-term:Publish an article on Medium by tomorrow night. Medium-term: Write ten articles and pitch them to online publications by the end of the month.
For job searchers, it could go this way.
Long-term: Get a job in six months. Short-term: Update resume by this weekend. Medium-term: Research on twenty companies I’d like to join, find out about the openings that would suit me and reach out to at least one person in each of those companies stating my interest by the end of the month.
See the pattern? It’s simple, really — set a goal that involves fulfilling multiple short-term goals on a sustained basis to generate real results. (That sounds inordinately pompous, but you get what I mean.)
A couple of points here.
One — make sure that you don’t set yourself too many medium-term goals simultaneously. They’re tougher to fulfil than short-term goals, obviously, and it may take a while for you to get used to working on and completing them. Aim for two or three different ones at most, to begin with, and work your way up as you get comfortable with the new system. And ideally, you shouldn’t ever have more than four or five medium-term goals at a time — the more you take on, the more you risk losing focus or getting overburdened. Complete one set before moving on to the next.
Two — I’d like to clarify here that I’m not dissing short-term goals at all. Completing something, however small, always has a mood-boosting effect — and if you’ve been in a prolonged state of lethargy, even something like writing one blog post or cleaning one corner of your room can be the thing that jolts you back into action. What is most important, however, is to not stop after just one or two short-term goals. Our ultimate aim is to achieve the big dream, not to stop at the small things. The small things are the stepping stones, not the destination. And to make sure that we get there, we need the medium-term goals — the check-points along the road that show us how far we have come and remind us how much further we need to go until we’ve fulfilled our ultimate dreams.