The Value of Short-Term Goals

A couple weeks ago I ran the Sundown Marathon in Singapore. I last ran that race in 2014, and had figured I probably wouldn’t run it again. Only about 6 weeks beforehand, though, I decided to go run 42.195km through Singapore, starting at 1am. Why would I do that?

Sundown Marathon

For the last ten years I have been running 2-3 marathons per year, a habit I expect to continue until I can’t any longer. This year I only had two races planned: one in Kyoto in February, and one in Melbourne in October. I have a lot of things happening in between them — I’ll be traveling out of Asia for much of June, for example — and so it didn’t make sense to schedule my favorite mid-year marathon on Australia’s Gold Coast (plus, I already have an Australia race planned). So, I expected to have about 8 months between races.

But about a month after Kyoto’s event, when I would normally get back to my regular running routine, I found I was having a lot of trouble getting myself out of bed for the long training runs I do to keep my endurance up. The reason I was so unmotivated quickly became clear: without a race in front of me, I did not have an immediate goal I was trying to achieve.

My whole reason for running is to stay healthy, but that’s kind of a vague concept; how do you define “healthy?” I started running marathons as a way to give myself a specific goal, something I could plan for and that would allow me to measure my progress. Having those clearly defined goals makes it easier to stay focused, and I find I do better when one of those goals is right in front of me rather than a long time in the future.

In business we often hear people complain that we focus so much on short-term results that we lose sight of our long-term goals. Publicly-traded companies, for example, may seem a lot more focused on what they are going to tell shareholders at the end of the quarter than they are on where the company will be in five years. That’s a valid concern, and leaders should try to make sure the steps they take are contributing to longer-term goals. Still, there’s something to be said for working on short-term objectives, too.

The feeling that comes from achieving a goal helps sustain you as you strive for the next one. Each success reminds you that success is possible, and boosts your confidence going forward. Failing to achieve a short-term goal can also be useful, as it points out where you need to make a change; if you need to make corrections along the way, it’s best to know that early rather than only recognizing a problem after a few years of effort.

So as you create your strategic plan and point your team toward some major goals, make sure you have some minor ones in there as well. If you have new people onboard, maybe set them up to achieve some quick wins as they get started. Try to have opportunities for people to check their progress. so they know if they are on the right track or if they need to make a change. The closer the deadline, the more “real” it seems, and the more likely your employees will be to work hard toward meeting it.

Don’t keep your goals so far in the future that your people don’t feel like getting up early in the morning; give them a good reason instead.