If I was to offer you $100 today or $120 a week from now, which would you choose? If you’re like most people, you’d choose the hundred bucks now. That’s the conclusion of a classic study that found that, when it comes to decision-making, most of us opt for immediate gratification.
Why does this matter? Well, making progress toward our goals is all about balancing short-term and long-term rewards, and clearly prioritizing our time and attention toward what matters most to us.
For example, most people understand the benefits of long-term investing. By leveraging compounding returns, like Warren Buffett, it’s possible to build wealth, even if each incremental investment is small. In most cases, the rational thing to do is to adopt a slow and steady approach to investing.
Of course, no one is purely rational, which is why so many of us (myself certainly included) make suboptimal decisions, whether it be what to eat at lunch, or how to invest a windfall of unexpected cash. We’re all affected by cognitive biases that lead us astray. While we all prefer big rewards over smaller ones, most of us have an even stronger preference for present rewards over future ones—even when the future ones are much bigger. This concept, or cognitive bias, is called “hyperbolic discounting.” In short, the farther away a reward is in the future, the smaller the immediate motivation to achieve it.
Because it’s hard to stay focused on the long term, objectives and transformations that take long periods of time to cultivate often remain out of reach.
The Disconnect Between Goals and Everyday Action
Preference for short-term rewards over long-term ones isn’t the only reason people get stuck. Most of us are flooded with demands, from work, to parenting, to social pressures that cloud and overwhelm our ability to focus on important, but not necessarily urgent, long-term priorities.
Like waves crashing on shore, tasks and obligations flood our minds and our calendars. We find ourselves in a position of focusing on other people’s priorities and not our own. Be it learning a new skill, starting a business, reading more books, or merely indulging in a hobby, we keep deferring what we want in the belief that there will be more time later.
But there never is. What is temporary often becomes permanent. Once you expand your boundaries to accommodate the urgency of the moment, it’s very hard to redraw them to create space and time to focus on what really matters over the long term. Things will never go “back to normal”—normal just gets redefined—that is, unless you take back control.
At the root of this problem is the fact that, while most people have long-term goals in mind, they never reduce those goals to everyday action. It isn’t nearly enough to want something in the future. You need to have a clear plan in place and, most importantly, act on it. A goal without action is merely a dream. Goals determine the direction you want to head in but action determines your progress.
I recently had the pleasure of having an up-close-and-personal view of someone putting this principle into action. My wife, business partner, and the real brains and muscle behind Life and Whim brought months of strategic planning and concerted action to a splendid conclusion on June 2 with the execution of Fairy Fest 2019-Believe—an event that brought together thousands of people in our community.
As a mom of three young girls, a partner in our marketing agency, and the designer of all Life and Whim apparel and accessories (including our new summer 2019 collection), Heather hardly has time to pull off a big event such as Fairy Fest—but she did.
How did she do it? She got really clear on her goal and then scheduled the time to work toward it. She didn’t try to “find” the time—indeed, you can’t find time. We all have the same 168 hours in the week to work with. She carved out time with the full understanding that devoting time to her goal would require her to accept the trade-offs.
You can achieve your goals, too, no matter how big, ambitious, and audacious they may be. But it won’t happen by accident. Achieving big things starts with getting really clear on what you want.
Turn Goals Into Reality
To make goal-setting more effective, here are some principles to keep in mind:
Make it specific: To be useful, a goal must be specific. “I want to start a business” is too loose. “I will launch my business in 12 months” is better.
Don’t have too many: If you have one clear goal, your direction is defined. Your actions can all be directed toward achieving a single outcome. Have too many goals and you may find yourself going in circles (or never get started in the first place).
Understand its component parts: A big goal in the future is really a series of smaller, interim goals.
By keeping these principles in mind, it will allow you to achieve far more, over the long term, than you ever thought possible through a process called deconstructive goal setting. Deconstructive goal setting, like all goal-setting exercises, involves envisioning a big, ambitious objective. But it doesn’t stop there. It forces you to work backward from your goal to determine and define all the steps necessary to get there.
Let’s say you want to have a successful, thriving business in five years. Through a process of deconstructive goal setting, you’d first take the time to understand what it takes to have a successful business. In most cases, this means having a compelling product or service that appeals to a specific customer or client base. With this understanding in mind, it’s all about deconstructing these objectives into specific action steps within the constraints of the allotted time.
You have five years to work with. This means that to be on track for your five-year goal, you will need to progress to a certain point in one year. To be where you need to be in one year, you’ll have to take action this month. A month passes quickly, so you better have a plan in place this week. And if you’re going to make progress this week, you probably need to be focused on your long-term priorities today.
See how this works? You’re capable of achieving extraordinary results way out in the future. But actually doing so is contingent upon taking everyday action. Don’t procrastinate. Don’t merely plan and hold loosely formed beliefs about what the future holds in your head. Put the work in now to make it happen.
1. Define your goal: Think clearly about what you want. Write it down. This will allow you to understand what it takes. Don’t fixate on the result (e.g., having a successful business). Focus on the underlying skills, qualities, and attributes that will allow you to achieve the result. There are lots of sacrifices and trade-offs that you’ll have to make to achieve what you want, so it’s important that you understand them from the start.
2. Deconstruct your goal to everyday action: Work backward to understand the component parts of your big goal and set a series of smaller goals that will keep you working on a linear path within the time you have available. You should deconstruct your big goal to the point where you have a clear understanding of the appropriate action you should be taking today to be on the right path.
3. Block Time: You’re going to have all kinds of externalities, from urgent work demands to personal issues, attempting to derail you from making progress on your goals. Your calendar, which is likely filled with other people’s priorities, will be one of your biggest impediments to progress. But it can be your best friend. If you have the courage and discipline to schedule time with yourself, even if it’s just 15 or 30 minutes per day, you’ll create the space and time necessary to stay on track. Block time to work on your goals every day—otherwise, you’ll never get where you want to go.
Your ideal future depends on what you do today. It’s not going to be any easier tomorrow, so just start. You’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish if you commit to small, incremental improvement every day.
Jay Harrington is an author, lawyer-turned-entrepreneur, and runs a northern Michigan-inspired lifestyle brand called Life and Whim. He lives with his wife and three young girls in a small town and writes about living a purposeful, outdoor-oriented life.