Every Sunday morning for the next few months, I’m going to “riff” on a chapter from my book, The Simple Dollar: How One Man Wiped Out His Debts and Achieved the Life of His Dreams by reflecting on particular pieces of it that I’ve had further reflections on or particularly excite me, including some elements that were removed from the final draft. You can find out more about the book by reading some of the life-changing experiences the book has given readers or reading the Amazon reviews.
Last week, I discussed the third chapter of my book, which focused on the randomness of our lives and how our minds make our life paths seem much more smooth than they actually are.
Most of the time, this “smoothing” is a good thing, but it has some bad effects, too. It discourages an emergency fund. It keeps us from viewing contingency plans as important. Interestingly, though, it also makes us relatively poor at defining, setting, and achieving goals, and people often overlook them in favor of what needs to be taken care of today. I argue that the “today” goals and the long term goals work perfectly hand-in-hand.
I go down this path a bit on pages 40 and 41:
So why set long-term goals at all? To put it simply, long term goals put short term goals in an appropriate context. A long term goal is often just a sequence of short term goals leading toward a greater good. Long-term goals add a powerful transformative sense to short-term goals – going on four runs this week won’t change your life, but committing to going from being a couch potato to running a marathon in two years certainly can change your life. Short-term goals become the stepping stones for getting there.
In other words, if you set a big goal for yourself, you’re going to have to take lots of little steps to get there. Those little steps might be difficult – like getting up off the couch or making some frugal choices in your life – but those little steps are things you actually can accomplish today. If you have those little steps in the context of a big goal – like running a marathon or being debt-free – those seemingly impossible big goals seem a lot more reachable.
You can run a marathon soon if you just lace up your shoes and head outside today.
You can be debt free soon if you choose to eat at home tonight.
You can be self-employed soon if you focus on writing a great blog post instead of watching The Big Bang Theory.
Yes, sometimes our large goals change, but the steps taken to reach that large goal almost always are a positive in your life. You might decide that the marathon goal isn’t right for you in a few months, but it’s not a bad thing to be in better shape. You might give up on the self-employment goal, but you do have a website out there that earns a trickle of income and you’ve improved your writing skills.
In other words, the real building blocks for success are short term goals.
So what makes for a good short term goal? From page 45:
First, it’s clear. There’s no ambiguity about whether you’ve achieved it or not. Usually, this means using a numerical metric, such as “I’ll take four thirty-minute walks this week” or “I’ll only spend $20 on unnecessary things this week.”
Second, it fits in the context of a big audacious goal. If you achieve your short-term goal, it actually helps with a larger goal in your life. Your exercise moves you a bit closer to that marathon. Your reduction in spending moves you closer to financial freedom.
Third, it contributes to something transferable. If you achieve the goal, either your product or something gained along the way is helpful to you in a broader scale. Your exercise slightly improves your physical shape and appearance. Your reduction in spending teaches you self-discipline and gives you financial freedom no matter what you might do.
In early drafts of the book, I talked about some of the long term goals in my own life and how the short term goals were helping me to achieve them. Here’s where I wrote about my ongoing piano lessons, for example.
My long term goal with my piano lessons is to learn how to play the instrument well with the ability to pick up most sheet music and piece through it. Of course, that’s difficult to translate to a practice session. Yet, I recognize that I do gain things from those small practices that translate away from the piano. I have better hand-eye coordination. I’m improving my logic and pattern-matching skills. I have a better ear for music. I improve my tolerance for deliberate practice. All of these things are built not out of the large goal, but out of each small goal that makes up the large goal.
The theme here is the same. Long term goals are powerful motivators and can result in big changes in your life, but they’re most powerful in that they set a context for short term goals. Quite often, our lives change and we don’t meet our big goals, but the benefits gained from the short term goals we achieved on our path stick with us no matter where we go.