How to Create Long-Term Impact With Short-Term Goals

For all my blathering about only focusing on the essential things and skipping everything else, one could hardly fault you for thinking that I’m a big snooty grumpypants about simple, short-term goals.

I’ve written many posts about the dangers of getting distracted from your goals.

But here’s the rub: deliberate short-term goals are the opposite of a distraction. As much as I love talking about big, long-term goals that can change one’s whole trajectory, I also love setting smaller, more immediate goals. If used wisely, short-term goals can be a powerful tool for creating a positive long-term impact on your life!

The Purpose of Short-Term Goals

The key to using short-term goals effectively is understanding how and when to use them. There are several benefits to having smaller goals right alongside your big ones:

  • Breaking down larger goals into components makes them much more attainable
  • Having a single straightforward task ahead of you contributes to a sense of calm and focus
  • Regularly achieving small wins builds long term motivation and resilience

Keeping track of specific short-term goals and focusing on them does not mean forgoing your big life dreams. Instead, it is a tool that pairs with them. Small objectives fuel the big ones.

We have to be careful here, though, because stacking up countless short-term goals isn’t automatically a good thing.

If you become too focused on the immediate emotional reward of “getting things done” while losing sight of the larger mission, your short-term goals can become “busy” work that isn’t productive.

quote - using short-term goals to work with big goals

Little goals work best when they are helping us stay on track to our bigger goals rather than distracting us from them.

Goals Vs. Objectives

The distinction between short-term and long-term goals primarily comes down to the difference between a goal and an objective. Think of it like this: If a goal is a recipe, then an objective is a single step in that recipe.

Some recipes (long-term goals) are complex and need many individual steps (objectives) to complete. Other recipes (short-term goals) are nearly effortless and only involve one or two steps.

Keeping with the metaphor, the recipe for a lovely baked mac and cheese is like a long-term goal. It has many components that go into it, plus a series of separate but interconnected objectives.

The recipe for a glass of chocolate milk, on the other hand, is more like a short-term goal. The recipe “make chocolate milk” is nearly synonymous with the single objective, “mix chocolate syrup into milk.” 

Short-term goals should look like chocolate milk, focused on a straightforward objective that is relatively quick to complete.

Types of Short-Term Goals

There’s no one system to define the different types of short-term goals. For example, you could categorize them by areas of your life: financial, health, professional, etc. 

I like to split them up by the intention of the goal. What is the purpose of each goal? How does it help? In that sense, there are three types of short term goals:

  • TODOs
  • Kickstart Goals
  • Component Goals

Each is helpful in its own way. But they are different in the type of value they add and how we can best use them. So let’s dive into each one below.


TODOs are simple tasks in your life that, for lack of a better term, “just need to get done.” These include chores around the house, errands, and other “life logistics” like paperwork.

Generally, completing one of your TODOs won’t significantly improve your life. Usually, it’s more about preventing a problem that would arise if you DIDN’T do that thing. E.g., running out of food, getting a fine for not paying a bill on time, having a nasty house, etc.

Most of the benefit of a TODO is checking that thing off the list. This accomplishment creates a small surge of pride and relief.

So there is some emotional reward in turning your TODOs into TO-DONEs. But try not to accumulate tasks like these just for the sake of getting a lot done. The best way to handle short-term goals like these is to figure out which ones you truly need to do, complete them in batches, and ignore the rest.

Kickstart Goals

A kickstart goal is an objective that is relatively small and simple but sets a more extensive process in motion. It’s a simple step that starts the fire, sets the ball rolling down the hill, and flips the switch from “off” to “on” – do you want me to keep going? Because I’ve got metaphors all day for this.

quote - moving from big complex goals to short-term goals

The reason I have so many metaphors for it is because of how important this topic is to me. I think about it constantly. Understanding how important it is to take the first step has been one of the biggest revelations in my life. And still, not nearly enough people see what a big deal it can be.

The biggest thing that holds us back from completing crucial life goals is that we never start. Therefore, switching your attention away from the giant, intimidating, life-changing goal and toward a short, simple kickstart goal to get things in motion is one of the most valuable shifts you can make.

Component Goals

Small goals can help you kick off big ones, but they can also help you follow through and execute on those bigger goals. Remember, the most challenging thing about significant life goals is that they are intimidating. When we’re intimidated, we get overwhelmed. And when we’re overwhelmed, working on our goals is uphill all the way.

That means the trick to achieving big goals is to break them down into parts that we can manage. Component goals are those manageable parts.

Rather than trying to change your life all at once, look for the individual components of the big thing. Pick something that you understand and know you can achieve, and then do it. And like that, your big goal just got a little bit smaller.

Don’t Lose the Forest for the Trees

Short-term goals help you to live a happier and more frictionless life. But like anything that makes life easier and more content, we ought to be mindful not to overdo it.

If we only focus on the quickest tasks to complete, we’re following a path based on what’s easiest rather than what is most impactful. The trick is to keep your sights on what you really want while looking for the simplest, most manageable path to achieve it.

That means breaking down big goals to make them more attainable. It means focusing intently on what is most important right now and building momentum by collecting small wins. 

Thinking intentionally about our objectives helps us steer away from little distractions and toward tremendous, walloping achievements.

Use your short-term goals wisely, and not only will you find your life steadily getting on track, but you’ll also see that nothing can stand in the way of you and all that you want to accomplish.

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Hey, I’m Sam. I created Smarter and Harder to explore big ideas, both old and new, about building a better life. My mission is to evolve the conversation about personal growth and have fun doing it.

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