According to Dr. Benjamin Hardy, PhD and the psychological concept of “prospection”, long-term goals define us, give us a sense of purpose, direction, and provide us with motivation and drive. I’m talking 20-30 year plans. I’m talking, what do you want to be known for when you die.
From personal experience, I know that a lack of direction can be incredibly detrimental to our mental health and enjoyment of life. And I agree that that large scale direction can help us make decisions in the present that are in line with our values, but long-term goals aren’t always enough.
Everyone has a natural focal point when it comes to thinking about the future. Dr. Hardy and David Allen (author of Getting Things Done) both maintain that we can improve our ability to dream and plan further ahead, but while we get there we still need something to focus on, something to motivate us. That’s where Mid-Point Goals come in.
The Natural Focal Point
I like to think about it in terms of being either nearsighted or farsighted.
Some people are able to clearly imagine those far-off goals. They are able to rely on that far-off vision to help them make decisions about their lives, motivate them to push through the hard times, and help them navigate obstacles and distractions. They may have blurry short-term goals but that works for them because they know where they’re headed on a larger scale.
Others (like me), have blurry long-term goals, but much clearer short-term goals. For us, decisions are best made according to the goals that are more clearly “visible”. The goals in focus are what provide motivation and drive. There are too many undefined aspects of the long-term goals to rely on them as a compass, but some of those short-term goals are meant to slowly clarify the long-term. We’re able to gradually build that image of the future as we move along.
The Key is Definition
They key is having enough future definition to keep us motivated and focused. When we lack that definition we are filled with doubt which drains our energy. We lose motivation, we forget why we’re doing what we’re doing, or even forget what we’re doing. Even if the goal is to become more skilled at defining long-term goals, we still need the motivation and drive now to get us there. That’s why we have to start with whatever scale is easiest for us to focus on.
I am near-sighted (both literally and figuratively). Long-term goals do give me a sense of excitement and motivation, but that energy doesn’t last. It’s too easy to lose sight of far away goals that I can’t see clearly to begin with, and doing the work to find that blurry figure in the horizon every time is just too time and energy consuming. For me, long-term goals are hard to connect to my everyday life in a way that generates the level of “pull” I need to keep moving. I need something else.
I need mid-point goals to latch on to, something to achieve within 1 to 5 years. Like project benchmarks, these break down the long-term goal into something I can focus on. For me, 1 year goals currently work best. They’re small enough for me to grasp how I can get from here to there, and large enough to see how they fit in my larger plan. They connect the now to the far off future, and give me the focus I need to move in the direction I want, without overwhelming me with the image of an entirely different (albeit desirable) life that’s hard to relate to.
Expanding our Horizons
I still think it’s important to think about that far off future. To review it regularly. Especially to make sure we’re still on the right track, and to evaluate whether it’s still is the path we even want to be on. But, in order to focus on the tasks in front of us and actually get things done, we need to narrow our focus in the short term.
GTD (Getting Things Done) methodology advises us to work from the bottom up. Only by clearing up and gaining control over the immediate and short-term can we shift our focus to the long term. That means we must first clarify and weed out the tasks in front of us, then move on to clarifying and weeding out projects, and so on until we’re ready to ask ourselves questions about our career paths, our long-term health, our relationships, etc. We’ll still spend most of our time on completing tasks and looking at short-term goals and projects, but we’ll be able to look at the big picture and understand why we’re doing it.
We start where we are. I can currently “see” one year ahead and plan accordingly to get to where I want to be in 2022. By the time I get there I hope to be planning 3 to 5 years ahead. And maybe by then, that 30 year future will look just a little clearer.
As always, feel free to ask questions in the comments and make requests for future posts here or via my Ko-Fi page.