Whether you realize it or not, you probably already set quite a few short-term goals for yourself.

You want to sort your to-do list before your morning meeting. You want to go for a walk over lunch at least three days this week. You want to land five speaking opportunities this quarter. 

Throughout your day, week, month, or year, you set small-in-scope, attainable finish lines that give you a little boost of forward momentum. Those are short-term goals. But what exactly makes these bite-sized objectives so helpful? 

Let’s explore the power behind short-term goal-setting – and how you can hack these goals to boost your own motivation and sense of satisfaction.

What is a short-term goal?

A short-term goal is exactly what it sounds like: it’s something that you want to accomplish in the relatively near future. 

Simple enough, but it’s worth digging a little further into the mechanics of this type of goal. A short-term goal:

  • Can be accomplished in a short timeframe (most experts say within a year or less)
  • Details a specific action to take or target to accomplish
  • Supports a broader vision for your career or life

Here are a few short-term goals – both personal and professional – to get your own wheels turning: 

Short-term career goal examples

  • Complete company’s three-month leadership training program
  • Lead a cross-functional project this quarter
  • Provide praise and positive feedback to at least one employee per week this month

Short-term personal goal examples

  • Stretch every day this week
  • Read two books this month
  • Pay off car loan by the end of the year

Long-term goals vs. short-term goals: What’s the difference? 

So how do short-term goals stack up against long-term counterparts? It’s easy to think about them in terms of duration – short-term goals impact the near future and long-term goals look further out. But to get a more nuanced handle on the difference between short-term and long-term goals, it’s better to think about their intent:

  • Long-term goals reflect your overall values, beliefs, and desires.
  • Short-term goals are the specific actions you take to pursue those broader ambitions.

If your short-term goal is to complete your company’s leadership training program, that might feed your long-term goal of moving into a management position. Or your short-term goal might be to pay off your car loan because your long-term goal is to be debt-free.

Why bother setting short-term goals?

If you have your sights set on a faraway finish line anyway (whether that’s a promotion, financial independence, or something else), what’s the point of making pit stops along the way? Short-term goal setting is beneficial for a few important reasons. 

1. Short-term goals are more motivating

Use motivation theory to inspire your team’s best work

Anybody who’s ever set a New Year’s resolution (and then kissed it goodbye come February) will admit that it’s tough to muster the gumption to actually achieve a goal. Fortunately, short-term ambitions can give your motivation a much-needed boost.

You can thank the neurotransmitter dopamine for that. While it’s typically thought of as the feel-good brain chemical that’s released in response to a reward, research shows that it’s actually closely tied to motivation too. Dopamine is what pushes us to seek the reward in the first place.

Your brain knows that it feels good to accomplish things – it wants to cross that finish line. So, you’ll not only get a dopamine spike when you set the goal, but also when you’re close to achieving it

Basically, your brain would much prefer an immediate celebration over delayed gratification, and short-term goals offer a more instant reward. 

2. Short-term goals make the process feel more manageable

What feels easier? Going for a 30-minute walk today or training for an entire marathon? Even elite runners will likely admit that the walk requires a lot less sweat (both literally and figuratively).

Pursuing our goals often requires changing our behavior, whether that’s in big or small ways. And even on a good day, altering our habits, attitudes, and actions is tough. Short-term goals make it all feel a little more doable, not by changing your lofty and intimidating goals, but by dividing them into more attainable guideposts. 

3. Short-term goals give you an action plan

It’s easy to figure out where you want to go – getting there is the hard part. While setting a long-term goal pinpoints the target, it doesn’t actually fuel your journey.

That’s why you need short-term goals too. They detail the smaller behaviors and actions you need to take to move toward your long-term objectives. 

If long-term goals are the destination, short-term goals are the roadmap. 

4. Short-term goals allow for regular reflection and adjustments

Much like your desires and values, your goals will change over time. In addition to short-term goals serving as milestones when you can celebrate your progress, they also provide an opportunity for reflection.

How do you feel accomplishing this goal? Is it as rewarding as you thought it would be? Why or why not? Does it still align with your overarching vision?  

That’s not to say you need to sit yourself down for in-depth self-analysis every time you check something off your list. Sometimes it’s just a gut check that occurs naturally. 

If you finish that leadership program and feel drained rather than energized? That’s an indicator that you should reevaluate if you want to move into a management position at all, or if perhaps your aspirations have shifted somewhere along the way.

Better to change course now than when you’re at the end of the road.

How to set motivating short-term goals

How to write SMART goals

Short-term goals are more action-oriented than your longer-term objectives. But then what separates them from all of the tasks that you frantically scribble on your daily to-do list?

Short-term goal setting requires a little more thought and intentionality than jotting down every task you need to check off that day. One of the best ways to ensure you’re investing the right amount of planning is by using the SMART goal framework.

In case you haven’t heard of SMART before, it’s an acronym to help you remember that your goals should be: 

  • Specific: Be clear about what exactly needs to be accomplished. In the case of short-term goals, this should be an explicit action you want to take.
  • Measurable: Include a quantifiable benchmark so you’ll know when you’re successful.
  • Achievable: Especially since your short-term goals don’t stretch on forever, you need to confirm that they’re realistically attainable in a shorter time frame.
  • Relevant: Remember that your short-term goals are intended to support something bigger, so they need to be relevant to your overall vision.
  • Time-bound: Every goal needs a deadline—and that’s especially true for short-term goals. What’s the end date for when you need to take that action?

Most of the short-term goal examples we listed above already incorporate elements of the SMART framework, but we can expand on them further to provide more helpful details. Here’s what that could look like: 

SMART short-term career goal examples

  • Complete company’s three-month leadership training program this May
  • Kick off a cross-functional project involving at least three teams by the end of the quarter
  • Provide praise and positive feedback in-person or in writing to at least one employee per week this month

SMART short-term personal goal examples

  • Stretch for at least 10 minutes every day this week
  • Read two books (one fiction and one non-fiction) by the end of the month
  • Pay off remaining $4,000 balance on car loan by the end of the year

Short-term goals might not look years down the line, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of some careful thought and planning. The SMART goal framework will help you set meaningful targets, rather than hollow or trivial to-dos. 

Short-term goals: So much more than quick wins

Yes, short-term goals are objectives you set for the near future – but they’re so much more than low-hanging fruit you can grab for some instant gratification and a quick hit of dopamine.

Short-term goals give you a detailed action plan to realize your bigger ambitions and values. And they give you plenty of opportunities to reflect on whether the path you’re on is the one you actually want to stay on. 

That’s a pretty big impact for a supposedly small goal.

Don’t underestimate the outsized impact of short-term goals