Stretch Goals: How to Motivate Yourself & Others to Success

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We’ve been talking a lot about SMART goals around here lately, so I’m hoping by now you have had a chance to set a SMART goal, follow through with it, and achieve the outcome that you had wished for.

When talking about these goals, we often mention things like consistency, starting small, thinking realistically, and pacing yourself. But as you celebrate the small wins and recognize your incremental improvements, do you feel like you’re truly taking risks and reaching for the stars?

If you’re on a slow and steady track to success, you may be hesitant to create a seemingly far-fetched second goal that could elevate your success. In fact, research printed in the Harvard Business Review found that success often creates risk aversion.

This means that because you’re so happy about your recent accomplishments, you don’t want to risk failing when trying to further amplify your outcome. You’ve attained success, so you may consider your job to be done.

I know when I was raising money for a local family who desperately needed a wheelchair-accessible vehicle, I reached my goal with two weeks to spare. But I always had in the back of my mind how amazing it would be to actually surprise them with a wheelchair-accessible van with an automatic ramp.

This seemed unrealistic when I started my fundraising efforts, but I kept the idea around as my stretch goal. As I approached my original goal, I was able to push ahead with the momentum of my donors and ultimately raise enough money to help the family buy this upgraded vehicle.

Going above and beyond what I had originally would have considered to be “success” allowed me to meet my stretch goal. I felt engaged and motivated by my initial success and I was inspired to commit myself even more to helping this family by coming up with unique fundraising efforts and staying enthusiastic about my goal.

Just as I did, you can achieve positive results beyond what you define in your original SMART goals by taking it a step further and setting stretch goals.

Many companies do this in order to boost the performance of their staff, motivate their employees, increase focus, and encourage people to successfully prioritize their time spent at work. 

In this article, I will go into detail about what a stretch goal is and how organizations use them to boost their success. Then, I will show you how you can apply this principle to your personal life and offer examples that you will likely be able to relate to.

Finally, I will walk you through creating stretch goals for yourself–or, if you’re a manager–creating stretch goals for your organization.

What Is a Stretch Goal?

Stretch goals are targets that are set with the intention of pushing a team or individual further than they’ve ever gone before.

The purpose is to motivate people to go outside of their comfort zone to create new methods or come up with innovative ideas that have not yet been explored to accomplish a seemingly unattainable level of success.

When setting stretch goals, you’re essentially using your dreams to create your target of success without really knowing how you can hit that target. These goals should inspire you to think big and remind you to zero in on the big picture.

A stretch goal isn’t made by just increasing your target. Stretch goals are different in that they’re impossible to achieve by simply ramping up your existing efforts. Reaching stretch goals requires you to be willing to face extreme difficulty that requires you to exceed your current potential.

You have to be able to develop new methods and approaches to achieve a new level of success. When you set your expectations at seemingly impossible levels, using the same old techniques and routines isn’t enough. Rather, you have to employ creative approaches and new methods of learning.

Stretch goals are often used by managers as a way to ignite action from a team who has become content with the status quo. This is often done with the hope that stretch goals will initiate a boost in the staff’s productivity through the innovation of unique ideas and processes that have not yet been explored.

Let’s look at an example of a stretch goal that was successfully implemented by Southwest Airlines.

When this company was facing the possibility of going out of business, they determined that they would have to offer ten-minute turnaround times at the gates in order to operate at the efficiency that they needed to stay afloat.

Most people believed this goal was impossible to achieve, but Southwest Airlines implemented an original approach that was modeled after race car pit crews to famously achieve this seemingly unreachable goal.

How You Can Apply Stretch Goals to Your Personal Life

A stretch goal in your personal life could be any potential achievement that demands a significant amount of time, energy, effort, and skills to gain something that you wouldn’t be able to have by paying another person to do it for you.

Your stretch goals are things that you have to do for yourself, although they may require collaboration or connection with other people. Your SMART goals should lay the foundation for making your stretch goals achievable.

While stretch goals may seem impossible when you initially make them, it’s important to remember that this doesn’t mean they’re unrealistic. Studies show that effective goals should be challenging, but it’s also critical that they’re realistic.

When considering challenging goals, it’s easy to set limits for yourself, but all this does is limit your potential for success. If there is something you want to accomplish in your life that is in the realm of possibilities of human capabilities, this can be your stretch goal.

Personal growth will occur when you push yourself outside of your comfort zone and beyond what you believe to be your limits. By applying stretch goals to your personal life, you can achieve personal development and self-improvement in a way that you once believed to be unattainable.

Let’s look at some examples of stretch goals that you could make in your personal life.

7 Examples of Stretch Goals For Your Personal Life

1. Run a Marathon

If you’re not a runner, the thought of running a marathon may seem unimaginable. You may not believe you could run a mile without stopping, much less 26.2 miles in one day.

While setting the goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon within the next four weeks may, in fact, be unattainable, setting the goal of running a marathon is not.

You can dream big for the future and then reign yourself back in to thinking about what changes you need to make on a daily basis to help you cross that finish line.

In this example, if you’re used to waking up ten minutes before you have to leave for work, grabbing fast food on-the-go, and filling your evenings up with social plans, you will have a hard time reaching your stretch goal.

This is where the challenge and novelty part come in. You will need to revamp your schedule to make time for training, research training tips or get a training coach, and change your diet so you’re fueling your body with the nutrients it needs to stay active.

You can use your knowledge of SMART goals here to lay the foundation to ultimately achieving your stretch goal:

“I will be able to run one mile without stopping by the end of four weeks.”

“I will make half of my dinner plate consist of vegetables every night while I am training.”

“Within two weeks, I will draft a training schedule that will offer me a realistic timeline for reaching my stretch goal.”

“By the end of the weekend, I will make my bedroom into a conducive environment for sleep by eliminating all electronics, buying a white noise machine, and installing a bedside fan so I can be sure to get the rest my body needs.”

Following these SMART goals will push you past the first step to achieving your stretch goal of running a marathon.

2. Pay Off Debt

Paying off a car loan, credit card debt, student loans, or anything else that you’re paying interest on every month may seem daunting, which makes this is a potential stretch goal for most Americans.

Research has found that many Americans admit that they will be paying off debt for the rest of their lives, but what if you could be part of the minority that is debt-free?

Paying down your debt will require some lifestyle changes–maybe you will need to take up a second job or go without some of life’s non-essential items that you are accustomed to having.

But by doing some personal research, you can find places in your budget where there is an opportunity to have extra cash. By focusing on some expenditures that you can cut out, you can start to save money to put toward paying down your debt.

3. Get a Promotion

You may think that you’re stuck in your current role, but if you feel like you’re making a positive impact to your organization, you could start working toward a promotion.

Meet with your supervisor to discuss the value that you’re adding to the company and what opportunities may become available to you in the future.

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If you start to think that there is no room for you to move up at your current position, start to look around at other jobs to which you can apply.

If you still need to hit some milestones at work to prove your worth, ask your supervisor what you can accomplish specifically to help show that you deserve to move up in the ranks.

Pay attention to what your supervisor says and make sure to follow up on a regular basis to make sure you are still on track to earning a promotion. I

f you start to think that there is no room for you to move up at your current position, start to look around at other jobs to which you can apply. Switching jobs could be the fastest way to increase your earning potential.

4. Become Fluent in Another Language

This task certainly sounds like you could be biting off more than you can chew, as it is a huge endeavor and will take a lot of time and practice.

Becoming fluent in another language requires interdisciplinary learning through reading, writing, having conversations, and doing activities to help your brain absorb the information in a variety of ways.

When you first start to learn a new language, the idea of becoming fluent likely seems very out of reach. However, by doing things like putting yourself in immersive situations and maintaining a daily habit of practicing your new language, you may find that this goal isn’t as unattainable as you once believed.

5. Purge Your Environment

Take a quick look around your work space or living space and notice all of the things lying around that you don’t have a use for anymore or don’t derive some sort of joy from. I bet you will notice a significant amount of things.

Now think of what your space would be like if it was free from all excess clutter and you only had items around you that were either useful or meaningful.

While this probably seems like a tall order once you recognize all of the excess stuff you have accumulated, it can be done by breaking this stretch goal down into smaller SMART goals.

Set goals for purging each room in your house or decluttering every drawer in your office and keep working until all of your spaces are free and clear of a mess. Use tools that you’ve never tried before and dedicate the time that is required to achieve this (possibly inconceivable) goal.

6. Lose 40 Pounds

Losing just five pounds takes a huge amount of commitment and willpower, so losing 35 more after that probably seems daunting. And, if you keep doing what you’re doing, you’re likely to hit a plateau.

If your stretch goal is to lose a significant amount of weight, consider some SMART goals for planning and prepping your meals ahead of time, exercising, and making positive lifestyle changes.

This isn’t easy, as it takes time to build healthy habits. Change is difficult, and maintaining physical wellness is difficult–but living an unhealthy lifestyle is also hard and living with health issues is tough. You have to pick the battle that you want to fight.

7. Go Back to School

If you’re comfortable in your current career, it might seem impractical to quit, apply to graduate programs, and then spend 2+years working toward a degree while not having the income that you’ve become accustomed to. And, it’s true that staying in your job is probably the easiest thing to do.

But is it fulfilling? Are you in the position that you want to retire from? Or do you have career aspirations that require an advanced degree?

Going back to school is definitely a scary thing to consider if you’re content with your routine. It is something that takes a lot of time, money, and effort to pursue. However, obtaining this stretch goal comes with countless benefits that can continue to compound with time. 

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Going back to school might be scary especially if you're content with your routine, however this goal comes with countless benefits that can continue to compound with time.

You can make this stretch goal into a reality by setting a few SMART goals for the time being. For example:

“I will research graduate programs I am interested in within the next two weeks.”

“I will fill out at least one application within the next two months to get myself familiar with the process.”

“I will research financial aid options and consider what I would need to do in order to stay financially secure while in school within the next month.”

You may be able to relate to some of these examples, but if not, you surely understand the idea of how a stretch goal could be applied to your personal life. Now let’s look at what you need to do in order to set one for yourself.

How to Create a Stretch Goal for Your Personal Life

Figure Out Your Goal

Do some self-reflection to consider your goals and dreams. Write down anything that seems impossible but you know you want it.

Where do you want to be in ten years?

What have you always wanted to do but have been afraid to try?

Think about these things in all areas of your life–your career, relationships, health, family, etc.

Look at your list and decide which of the items would have the greatest benefit on your life. This can be a stretch goal that you begin with.


Next, you will want to start setting smaller goals that will be required for you to reach before reaching your ultimate stretch goal. Plan your mini goals and put time limits on them to keep you motivated.

Planning is important, and you will want to write out every step that you will need to take to complete each smaller goal.

However, it’s ok if you don’t know every step, as long as you know where to start–even if your starting place is doing research to find out what other steps you will need to take to accomplish your sub-goal.

This is a great place to break out your SMART goals. Make a planned filled with several SMART goals that will lead you to meet your stretch goal. Having a specific plan will help you succeed.

Take Action

Once you’re equipped with your plan, it’s time to act on it.

Review Your Plan

Every so often, you will want to take a step back and look at the big picture again. Think about if you goals still make sense and make sure your “why” is still relevant. 

If you start feeling lost, it means you haven’t broken down your stretch goal into steps that are reasonably actionable yet. In this case, go back to the planning phase.

How to Create a Stretch Goal as a Manager

Take Time to Brainstorm

As a manager, one of your sometimes-unspoken role is to motivate the people you work with.

When trying to come up with stretch goals in a professional, team environment, consult with another manager or supervisor to brainstorm some thoughts and ideas of what your team could accomplish to go above and beyond expectations.

What are some of the unmet needs of your organization and what could possibly fill those gaps?

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Brainstorming some ideas and thoughts with your teams can help you go above and beyond expectations.

However, it is important to know when creating stretch goals for your team that it isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer for boosting an organization’s performance.

Come up with clear guidelines to assess risk, because you need to be able to determine when stretch goals make sense as opposed to when they don’t. You have to thoroughly plan your goals and consider ways in which a stretch goal could produce a negative result, which leads to…


When planned effectively, stretch goals can help improve employees’ performance and inspire them to put forth their greatest efforts.

However, when stretch goals aren’t thought through, they can lead to employees partaking in unethical behaviors, putting too much focus on one area of the business and letting the rest fall through the cracks, a decreased level of intrinsic motivation, and the breakdown of your organizational culture.

Before putting a stretch goal out there to your team, make sure you have a clear plan of how you want to start the process of achieving the goal. Once the plan gets implemented, revisit it to ensure you’re staying on track.

As you’re planning, you will want to align the needs of the people on your team with the organization’s needs. Stretch goals are difficult and often go unmet, so it’s best to have a team who already has the momentum from a recent success to continue on that upswing.

Further, it is best to identify your organization’s resources (if any) that will allow your team to experiment with new ideas. Well-resourced organizations are able to be more resilient in the face of failure than those who have very few resources. 

Set Expectations

If the conditions seem right and your team is ready to take on a stretch goal, make sure you can provide a clear vision for them on how to begin.

This way, everyone will be working toward a common goal and collaborate in hopes of achieving it. As the work evolves, you have to keep up with setting new expectations and keeping everyone on the same path to success.

If your team fails to meet the stretch goal, it’s important to regroup and learn from the experience and consider adjustments that could be made, rather than finding a particular person to blame.

Final Thoughts on Stretch Goals

Whether you’re making stretch goals as a manager or you’re making them for your personal life, they should intimidate you. You should have doubts that you can actually achieve it. Otherwise, if you know it’s something you can definitely accomplish, it isn’t much of a stretch.

But the point of making these goals that seem so far-fetched isn’t to just set yourself up for failure. The process that you will go through when trying to achieve your stretch goal will help you move closer to personal excellence, even if you ultimately fail.

Don’t consider failure to not be an option. Instead, create an avenue for learning that will help you grow in whatever area you’re focusing on.

You will experience personal development in some way regardless of your outcome. And, you may find that you don’t have to be completely successful with your stretch goal to gain the benefits from setting it in the first place.

Think big, revisit your daily habits, commit to a plan, and figure out how you can live in a way that will help bring you closer to achieving your stretch goals.

And if you're looking for more goal ideas to stretch, be sure to check out these articles:

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 Stemmle is a professional editor, freelance writer and ghostwriter. She holds a BS in Marketing and a Master’s Degree in Social Work. When she is not writing, Connie is either spending time with her 4-year-old daughter, running, or making efforts in her community to promote social justice.

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