5 Important Differences Between Short-Term vs. Long-Term Goals

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How do you define “success” in your personal and professional life? Where do you see yourself in ten years? 

Setting goals is an essential and powerful tool for accepting control of your life and positioning yourself in the right direction toward where you want to end up.

One of–if not the–most important components to your success is effective planning, which should lay out each step you intend to take to make your ideal life into a reality. Having short- and long-term goals helps you align your actions and resources with your vision for the future.

If laid out properly, your goals will ensure that you reach your full potential and achieve the success that you want in life because they will maximize your performance and give you the ability to evaluate your progress along the way.

Without goals, you’re essentially wandering aimlessly through your life. And without taking concrete steps to reach your goals, you’re awaiting dumb luck to get you to where you want to be.

Those who are successful in life understand the power of creating goals and breaking them down into a series of smaller objectives that will help you maintain focus and motivation.

Quotes about Goals, Getting Started, and Investing Time in Your Dreams - “No desired achievement is gained without any goal setting.” – Wayne Chirisa | achievement quotes | inspirational quotes | motivational quotes

That said, having only short-term goals without any long-term goals is not an effective way to become successful. Without having long-term goals to give you a clear sense of direction, your short-term accomplishments won’t really add up to anything significant. 

Knowing the difference between short- and long-term goals can help you navigate from where you are now to where you want to be in the future, illustrating marked progress along the way.

Part of being a great visionary is knowing how to establish and work toward specific short- and long-term goals in order to live your life on your own terms. 

In this article, we will look at the distinction between short- and long-term goals by defining each, looking at some differences between the two, and then analyzing why it is important to have both in order to be successful.

What Is a Short-Term Goal?

A short-term goal is something you want to accomplish relatively soon–anywhere from finishing the task by the end of the day to completing it several months from now.

These goals bridge the gap in a specific and measurable way from your current situation to the next step toward achieving something bigger.

Most of your short-term goals are stepping stones to reaching a long-term goal much further down the road. These smaller, manageable goals help you make continuous progress toward those life-changing visions that you want to reach. 

You need to have short-term goals to make headway in your life, whether it’s just one or several of these smaller goals that build on each other to bring you closer to your vision for the future.

In other words, your short-term goals will work together to make considerably larger and more complicated goals workable as they provide a step-by-step plan to be successful. 

Some examples of short-term goals include:

  • Lose 5 pounds in the next 5 weeks
  • Complete an ongoing work project at least 24 hours before its deadline
  • Earn an A- or better on an upcoming exam at school

To see more examples, read our article on short term fitness goals to help you achieve the level of health you want.

What Is a Long-Term Goal?

Long-term goals are those that you envision achieving in the distant future. They can’t be accomplished by tomorrow–or even by next week. Your long-term goals are your big dreams that give you a sense of direction and purpose in life.

They often define your values and intentions for the future. (Future self journaling can help you visualize your long-term goals better.)

A good way to identify a long-term goal is to analyze whether or not it will require any of the following:

  • Deliberate planning
  • Commitment
  • Hard work
  • A significant amount of time

Long-term goals are not easy to accomplish, rather, they require a balance of careful planning and steadfast perseverance. These goals customarily involve multiple steps, which is why having short-term goals is intrinsically necessary to realize your long-term goals. 

Because your long-term goals aim to ensure you reach your full potential, they often take several aspects of your life into account such as your personal life, relationships, and financial factors.

Do you have the money you need to gain the necessary resources to meet your goal? Do you have the responsibility of having a family that may be impacted by your goal? All of these things must be considered.

When setting your long-term goals, it’s perfectly fine to make them grandiose. As a matter of fact, some people think “the bigger, the better.” The only issue is that, at face value, your long-term goals probably seem overwhelming.

For example, let’s say your goal is to lose 100 pounds. Where do you start? How do you get from where you are now to this ideal state? The answer is the same for any goal: one step at a time. Your short-term goals determine how you initiate making your aspirations become a reality. 

Some examples of long-term goals include:

  • Lose 75 pounds by this time next year
  • Earn a promotion to a management position in the next 18 months 
  • Get accepted into my #1 choice of universities in March of my senior year of high school

For more examples, the video below provides a quick overview of SMART goals and then show three examples for each of the seven areas of your life.

5 Differences Between Short- and Long-Term Goals?

In short, the difference between these two types of goals is the amount of time and resources it takes to accomplish each. While a short-term goal could be completed within days, a long-term goal could take several years to achieve. 

For example, your long-term goal may be to run a marathon, while your short-term goal could be to simply run one mile without stopping, which would be considered to be a stepping stone to realizing your long-term goal.

Let’s look at some more specific differences between these two types of goals that can help you further understand how each is important in its own way. 

1. Strategy

Long-term goals are intrinsically strategic, which is why they shape the direction of your life. They take a lot of strategizing and planning in different areas of your life in order to achieve.

Your success in meeting your long-term goals is a reflection of how well you’ve been able to live in line with your values and abide by your personal mission.

On the other hand, while short-term goals also require some strategizing, they’re more of a reflection of your current performance. This means that your strategy is largely based upon how close you are to realizing your ultimate goal.

Where are you right now on your journey? Are you trying to finish that first mile without stopping or have you already qualified and signed up for a half-marathon?

Once you meet a long-term goal, you will be able to easily look back and recognize the importance of establishing and surveying your short-term goals to make progress.

2. You Can Work on Multiple Short-term Goals Simultaneously

While you may possibly have two long-term goals in mind, one personal and one professional, you can be working on several short-term goals at the same time.

While the short-term goals you’re working on may overlap or have something to do with each other, they may also not be connected at all.

For example, your long-term goal is to pay off your mortgage in the next seven years. Some short-term goals that you could be working on at the same time could be:

  • Putting 10% of every paycheck toward the principal of your mortgage
  • Save money on frivolous items such as coffee from the cafe in the morning by making your own at home
  • Researching methods of making some extra money in addition to your main source of income
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Many struggle with maintaining motivation and staying focused on their long-term goals.

And, if you also have a goal of meeting your spouse in the next 18 months, a short-term goal that you could be working on may be to create an online dating profile. This has nothing to do with paying off your mortgage, but you can focus on both simultaneously.

3. Motivation

Many struggle with maintaining motivation and staying focused on their long-term goals because achieving them seems so far off into the future.

On the contrary, it can be easy to stay motivated while working toward a short-term goal because you can see quick progress, which can help you stay driven until the goal has been completed.

This is why having short-term goals is so important–it helps give you the sense of gratification that you need to keep going, so you’re not left feeling like you’re not making progress or you’re lost on your journey. 

4. Flexibility

Your short-term goals should be created with a finite deadline and should be the easiest to accomplish as they require the shortest amount of time to complete. Because of this, they’re fairly inflexible.

If you have a short-term goal of achieving an A- on an exam, you’re unlikely to change that to a B- somewhere along your journey of preparing for the test. 

Alternatively, sometimes you have to roll with the punches with your long-term goals. As your life circumstances change, your goals may change as well.

For example, let’s say your #1 choice university is on the other side of the country and at the start of your senior year of high school, one of your parents is diagnosed with a terminal illness. This may change your goal so you can be closer to home while getting your college education. 

You may also find as you’re completing your short-term goals that your passion or vision for your life is changing. Many people start with one career only to realize it actually isn’t right for them, sending them back to square one.

In this regard, having short-term goals is beneficial to recognize whether or not you’re still enthusiastic about where you’re heading.

5. Time

By definition, your long-term goals are going to require more time to complete than your short-term goals. Depending on your goal, “short” and “long” can be relative.

A long-term goal could take a year (get a promotion) or several years (get married and start a family). But no matter what your ultimate goal is, your short-term goals will take a fraction of the time that it will take to reach your long-term goal.

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Your long-term goals are going to require more time to complete than your short-term goals.

Why Do You Need Both Short- and Long-Term Goals?

We’re clear that on your journey to reaching your long-term goals you will have to complete many short-term goals. In addition, in order to reach your short-term goals, you will need to break things down even smaller by creating objectives

For example, if your short-term goal is to lose 5 pounds in the next 5 weeks, some daily objectives may be to drink only water, replace your normal dessert of ice cream with some fresh fruit, and bring a salad to work to eat for lunch instead of going out to eat with your co-workers.

These objectives that act as daily goals will lead you to success, and if you follow your plan closely, you’re almost guaranteed to accomplish your long-term goal.

Final Thoughts on Short- vs. Long-Term Goals

Having both short- and long-term goals will help you be successful in your personal and professional life. Your short-term goals help you manage your time as you consider the things that you can do right now, and while they may seem small, completing them accumulates to much bigger accomplishments. 

A great way to prioritize your goals is to establish your long-term goals to define your purpose and then create your short-term goals to provide you with a roadmap to fulfilling this purpose.

If you focus on your short-term goals and complete them in a timely manner, it will help you maintain the momentum you need to achieve your long-term dreams.

If you're not sure if a goal is for the short or long term, learn more about creating intermediate goals or medium-term goals.

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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