The Gap Between Your Goals and Your Actions

For me, the biggest challenge of any major life change, whether it’s financial in nature or health-oriented or something else, is handling the gap between your goals and your actions.

Let’s say you’ve decided that you’re now going to turn your finances around. You’ve sat down with a good personal finance book or two, read through them, dived deep into the archives of The Simple Dollar (and perhaps some other personal finance sites), and you deeply understand the value of turning your finances around. You’re deeply committed to this goal. Let’s do this!

Yet, just a few days later, you take actions in your daily life that head in the exact opposite direction of that goal. You go out with friends and spend a bunch of money. You stop for a sugary coffee drink or for takeout or buy another Kindle book.

And then, a few hours later, you’re wondering why on earth you just did something so blatantly in opposition to your big goal.

Why did I buy that? Why did I spend that money? Why did I eat that?

You might feel stupid. You might feel like a failure. You might even just give up on your goals.


The reason there’s a gap between your goals and your actions is because the principles and goals that guide your actions in the short term aren’t lined up with your long term principles and goals.

I’ll give you an example.

In the long term, my goal is to build financial independence by spending significantly less than I earn and doing something smart with the rest. That’s a great goal with a good principle to guide me there.

The problem is that, in the short term, that principle stands along a big mix of other principles and desires and goals. Yes, I want to spend less than I earn and be frugal with my money, but I also want this new board game to play with my family and friends because I enjoy playing those games, having fun, and cementing a bond with my family and friends, and I see that game as a route to those goals. “Hey, buying this game checks off these three boxes, but not buying it only checks one box… I’ll buy it!” is basically the thought process of my subconscious mind.

Don’t feel bad when something similar happens to you with whatever long term goals you have. It’s a natural response.

The catch is that you have to treat it as a sign that there’s a lot more to work on regarding making progress on your goal. It’s not a sign of failure of yourself or of your goals. It’s a sign that you haven’t quite put all of the pieces for success into place yet.

There are four things in my life that I’ve found that offer real help with shrinking the gap between my big long term goals and my daily actions.

First, I try to keep my long term goals present in my mind as much as possible. I actually wrote about the power of long term thinking and how to encourage it very recently, and everything I said in that article rings true here.

You have to have your long term goals as front and center in your mind as you possibly can. The most effective method I’ve found for this is to just build up some daily, weekly, and monthly routines that force me to think about the longer term future and what I want out of it. I regularly write out detailed pictures of what I want my future to look like at different times – a year, five years, ten years, and so on. I consciously plant lots of seeds for the future. I spend time when I’m driving thinking about very specific long term goals, like “how can I improve my core strength over the next year” or “how can I maximize my children’s college savings by the time they go off to school.”

The more you do this, the more you nudge yourself to take the long term into account with all of your decisions. Your long term goals start to loom larger in your mind and thus you naturally consider it when making choices.

Second, I try to seek out routines that match my short term desires and my long term goals. I will go to great lengths to find things that match what I want in the short term (usually immediate enjoyment or time saving) with what I want in the long term and then add them to my routine.

I’m constantly trying out new foods because I want to find a wide roster of healthy foods I like so that I can eat a healthy diet without just repeating the same four or five things over and over again. I’m constantly trying out new low cost or free activities or hobbies because I want to find a wide repertoire of enjoyable things to do that don’t cost anything. I’m constantly trying out new fitness ideas because I want to find exercise that I enjoy doing in the moment that also improves my long term health.

Just try new things that match your long term goals and might click with your short term desires. If you find something that clicks, add it to your repertoire; if it doesn’t click, discard it and move on to something else.

Eventually, you’ll find that you have tons of options that fulfill your short term desires and your long term goals, thus drastically shrinking or even eliminating the gap between your goals and your actions.

Third, I try to find friends who have similar long term goals as myself and accentuate those friendships. My closest friends in the world – the people I enjoy spending time with – are all committed to pretty frugal lifestyles in an effort to eventually become financially independent. Most of them are really into keeping their spending low. Thus, it feels comfortable to do low cost or free things with them, and they often suggest low cost or free activities to do together.

This is true for almost every long term goal you have. If you want to eat a healthier diet, accentuate your relationships with people in your life who are healthy eaters. If you want to get more fit, accentuate your relationships with people in your life who are fit. If you want to quit smoking, accentuate your relationship with people in your life who don’t smoke.

If you don’t have friends or family members who meet these criteria, seek them out by going to community events or getting involved in civic groups or meet ups that would attract such people. See what your town really has to offer, then use those opportunities to build relationships.

Finally, I do at least one detailed “after action review” each day. An after action review simply means that I take something I did recently – a choice I made or some action I took – and I tear it apart in detail, deciding for myself with more detailed thought whether it was really the right choice to make considering my long term goals and other factors that I might not have considered in that moment.

For me, an after action review is simple. I think about a recent event that I’m not sure I handled well, and I start asking myself questions about it. What was the situation? Who was there? What exactly happened? How was I feeling? How were the other players involved actually feeling? What did I want? What did they want? How should I have ideally handled it? What can I do to make sure the next time this happens, my reaction is closer to the ideal?

For example, I was at the store and I bought a box of a particular kind of tea because I’d read a few articles about it and heard a podcast episode on it. I’ll break that down – should I really have bought that tea at all? Why did I buy it? Could I have bought it elsewhere? Did I really think it through at the store?

It takes me a little while to think through those thoughts. Sometimes, I’ll write it out in a journal. At other times, I’ll just think it through in my head while driving somewhere.

Often, I do after action reviews on little things that might seem like they don’t really deserve a second thought. However, what they reveal is my principles and instincts in action, and it’s a good way to check my principles and instincts and make sure they’re really working for me in the way I want them to work, in the service of my long term goals.

The thing to remember is this: the closer your everyday actions are to being in alignment with your long term goals, the easier it becomes to just march straight to those goals. That sounds easy, but it isn’t – we’re often driven by short term impulses that aren’t in alignment with our goals, and there’s sometimes a really big gap there. The challenge is to figure out how to massage that gap by considering our goals and our short term impulses and nudge them closer together so that our short term actions and impulses are much closer to our long term goals. This makes it far easier to march toward whatever big goals we have for ourselves.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.