Dreams vs. Goals: 9 Major Differences

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If you’re like me, you dream of one day lying on a beach somewhere without any texts or emails waiting for a response and without anyone on standby, expecting you to fulfill some type of responsibility any time soon.

And, if you’re like me, you don’t have a written plan that you’re following in order to make this dream into a reality. Instead, it’s a vague series of passing thoughts that aren’t supported by any concrete plans.

Sometimes you envision a beach, sometimes that idea turns into a mansion in the mountains of some sort, and sometimes…you’re literally just in your basement with no responsibilities.

Dreams often seem to be so far out of reach and vague that people don’t bother doing anything to try to realize them. But, unlike dreams (and as we know from all of our previous articles on SMART goals), goals come along with very specific plans to make sure they get accomplished.

Many people confuse dreams and goals, and in doing so, don’t make progress toward reaching either. However, if you recognize the difference between a dream and a goal, you may be able to work toward putting the necessary pieces together to one day be living your dream.

You need to have dreams and goals—and you need to understand that there are some significant differences between the two.

In this article, we will look at 9 major differences between dreams and goals.

Dreams vs. Goals: 9 Major Differences

1. Goals Require Action

Your dreams make up a vision of what you want your future to look like. They’re general and abstract, and something that you passively think about without taking direct action.

On the other hand, your goals are the things that you work toward to help turn your dreams into a reality. You can only reach your goals if you take action, while dreams simply require a vision of something you wish for in the future. You really don’t even have to stand up to have a dream.


2. Goals Have Deadlines

Looking at the SMART goal format, “T” stands for Timely or Time-sensitive, meaning the goal has to have an end date. This element is there so you know when and if you have indeed achieved your goal.

Dreams, on the other hand, are just hopes for “the future”. That could be one year, five years, or 20 years away. And once you’re living your dreams, it isn’t over–it becomes your reality. You may never realize your full dreams, but each relevant goal that you achieve will get you closer to living your dream.


  • Dream: I want to retire and live in France. On a vineyard. With a boat.
  • Goal: By the end of 2021, I will be fluent in French.

3. Goals Have Intentions

When you set a goal, you have an accompanying intention to achieve it. This is where the “A” in SMART goals comes into play, as it stands for Achievable. The reason that you set achievable goals is because you intend on reaching them, so you want to be sure that they’re realistic. I’m not going to make a goal to complete a marathon this weekend. I would need a lot more time to prepare for that, so it isn’t really achievable right now.

I dream of coasting my Yacht through the clear waters of the Greek Islands, but I can tell you right now I have no intentions of actually doing so anytime soon.


  • Dream: I want to walk out of my job and never look back.
  • Goal: I will apply to three jobs that seem like a better fit for me than my current job by the end of the month.

4. Goals End with Results

The point of creating goals is to achieve an end result that will make you better off in some way than you were before you started. This relates to the “S” in SMART goals, which stands for Specific. You know you have achieved a goal when you get the specific results that you initially set out for that have improved your life in some way.

Dreams, on the other hand, are vague. You may not know exactly what results you’re looking for–and what you may be chasing is a feeling more so than an achievement.


  • Dream: I want to live a happy and fulfilled life.
  • Goal: I will write three things in my gratitude journal every night that I am thankful for to help me stay aware of all of the good things in my life.

5. Goals Cost You Something

Working toward your goals doesn’t necessarily cost you money (although it could), but they can cost you in other ways such as with your time, energy, or effort.

Think of some of the things you have to give up if your goal is to qualify for a marathon. You have to give up your warm bed early in the morning, in addition to a lot of time and energy to train, and a lot of effort and willpower to stick with it during times that you may want to quit.

Dreams, however, are free. They’re just ideas and visions that can come and go.


  • Dream: I want to be a runner.
  • Goal: I will wake up at 4:30 am every weekday to run the distance that I’ve laid out in my training schedule.

6. Goals Have Concrete Criteria

The “M” in SMART goals stands for Measurable. Your goals have guidelines that you have to follow and criteria that you have to meet so you’re able to measure your progress. Goals are very structured. You know where you stand.

On the other hand, because your dreams are vague and usually pretty fluid, you don’t really actively measure your current progress toward that day when you’re “living the dream”.


  • Dream: I want to be in control of my time.
  • Goal: I will apply to three schools that offer an MBA program by April 30th in order to learn how to run my own business.

7. Your Dreams Inspire Your Goals

Like many other things, dreams need a fuel source to stay alive. This means that the more work you put into realizing your dreams, the closer you will get to actually living them–and the more potential you will be giving them to come true.

Your dreams can inspire you to change your life, but only if you take action (in the form of setting goals).

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Your dreams can inspire your goals in life, but only if you take action.

You’ll have your ups and downs in life, but no matter what your circumstances are, you can always keep your dreams alive. You just have to adjust the actions you’re taking depending on your conditions. During some periods of your life, you will be able to make a lot of progress with your goals, and during others, you might need to slow down a bit–it’s just important to keep moving.


  • Dream: I want to become a published author.
  • Goal: I will write 500 words every day.

8. Dreams Are Fluid

What were your dreams as a child? What about in your teenage years? And now?

Chances are, your dreams have changed with time, and they will continue to adjust as you gain new experiences in life.

But because your goals are made with a deadline in sight, there isn’t as much wiggle room. The types of goals that you make may start to vary, but the process of setting goals doesn’t let you change them if you want to achieve them.


  • Dream: I want to be an astronaut.
  • Goal: I will obtain a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science by the end of 2023.

9. Goals Challenge You

Because they require action and work, your goals will present you with challenges that will lead to personal growth and development. If you are setting your goals correctly, they’re challenging enough to keep you from getting bored, give you the motivation that you need to reach your potential, and keep you excited about your end result.

Because your dreams don’t put the pressure on you that your goals do, they may stretch your imagination, but they aren’t going to really challenge you in the way that a goal will.


  • Dream: I want to become a good cook.
  • Goal: I will learn to cook at least one dish well enough to host dinner for my friends next month.

Final Thoughts on Dreams vs. Goals

Having dreams is a necessary part of creating the best life for yourself. Your goals are just the actionable steps that you have to take to achieve that wishful life. We look at our dreams and goals differently, as we make plans to achieve our goals, but we often see our dreams as being far-fetched. However, you need both of these things in your life, as your dreams will ensure you stay focused while you’re accomplishing your individual goals to help you make progress.

We often think about our dreams, but simply wishing about our ideal picture of what life could look like won’t get you any closer to making it a reality. You have to set goals to help you make the necessary progress to get there one day.

To learn more about this topic, read our article about the differences between realist vs visionary personalities. And for some inspiration, check out our favorite songs about following your dreams.

On a related note, one goal-setting technique that's gaining traction is called dreamlining. Learn more about it here.

Finally, if you want to take your goal-setting efforts to the next level, check out this FREE printable worksheet and a step-by-step process that will help you set effective SMART goals.

Connie Mathers is a professional editor and freelance writer. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Marketing and a Master’s Degree in Social Work. When she is not writing, Connie is either spending time with her daughter and two dogs, running, or working at her full-time job as a social worker in Richmond, VA.

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