It’s time for a pop quiz. If you could only achieve one of these goals, which one would give you a greater sense of accomplishment?

  • Goal A: One that you knew was perfectly reasonable and attainable.
  • Goal B: One that was extra challenging and seemed just slightly out of the realm of possibility.

Goal B, right? While that ambitious target will undoubtedly involve quite a bit more work than a “gimme” goal (and maybe a bit more stress too), there’s nothing quite like that feeling of pride you get when you actually reach the finish line—as if you managed to achieve the impossible. 

Well, that’s exactly the concept and motivating factor behind stretch goals. 

What Exactly Are Stretch Goals?

A stretch goal is an objective that’s intentionally challenging to achieve. It’s designed that way to push (or, you know, stretch) you beyond your current capabilities. 

Stretch goals can be self-imposed and set by individuals who want to motivate themselves to do more and go further. But, they can also be set by managers for entire companies, departments, or individual employees. 

Typically, these aggressive targets don’t stand on their own—they’re most frequently established in conjunction with more reasonable goals. So, you’d have your “normal” goal (the one you know is realistically within reach) and your stretch goal (the one that you’d really like to push to achieve). 

Let’s clear this up with a stretch goals example: 

  • Goal: Reduce our current customer response time from 24 hours to 12 hours by the end of the year.
  • Stretch Goal: Reduce our current customer response time from 24 hours to 10 minutes by the end of the year.

See how that stretch goal strives for a way loftier target than the normal goal? Rest assured, not hitting the stretch goal isn’t necessarily a failure or a red flag of poor performance. But, it does provide an opportunity to evaluate how you can work more effectively to make that objective a reality. 

Why Bother Setting Stretch Goals?

Let’s face it—reaching any type of goal (yep, sometimes even the “easy” ones) is hard work. It’s why approximately only 12% of us will actually achieve our New Year’s resolutions by the end of a given year. The rest of us drop them like hot potatoes.

So, if sticking with any sort of goal is already such an uphill battle, what’s the point of setting even more towering objectives? Aren’t you just setting yourself up for failure and disappointment?

There’s a little bit of truth to that, and plenty of experts and researchers have debated the merit of these ambitious targets and whether or not organizations are actually served by striving for the impossible. And, it’s important to note that stretch goals do come with some inherent risk—the biggest being that you might totally miss the mark.

But even with that threat of defeat looming in the background, there are a few compelling reasons why stretch goals could still be worth setting. 

1. Stretch Goals Prevent Coasting 

Let’s revisit our stretch goal example of reducing customer response time. Maybe a month or so into working toward that goal, you and your team reach your original intention—you’re now getting back to customers within 12 hours.

So…uhh…now what? If that was your only goal, you and your team now have passive permission to coast. You’ve checked that box so now you can kick up your feet and call that one a win. 

But, if you also have a stretch goal ready in your back pocket, you and your team know the next steps you can take to push yourselves even further. You’re able to immediately set your sights on that next mark and work toward that. 

Even if you don’t quite hit the 10-minute metric of your stretch goal, you’re bound to still reduce response times below 12 hours—an achievement you never would’ve reached without the stretch goal lighting a fire under you. 

2. Stretch Goals Boost Our Satisfaction

One of the biggest arguments against stretch goals is that you’re simply priming yourself for disappointment, especially since most of us know firsthand that not achieving a goal can be a disheartening experience.

However, science highlights a flipside. One study out of the University of California-Riverside discovered that people who set highly-ambitious goals experience greater satisfaction than people who set attainable ones.

The kicker? Those far-reaching people felt increased satisfaction even if they had super similar final outcomes to the people who set conservative goals. It wasn’t necessarily the result that mattered—it was the fact that they were working toward a challenging and highly-motivating end goal.

3. Stretch Goals Increase Motivation (Even When We Fail)

If you’re still worried about the inevitable disappointment when you fail to reach a stretch goal, there’s even more promising news ahead: falling short of that goal can actually increase your motivation even further.

It’s something coined the “Hemingway Effect” after writer Ernest Hemingway, who would stop writing when he was in a good groove—something that’s pretty counterintuitive for most of us who want to capitalize on our peak focus. 

Here’s why it works: We feel extra motivation to finish something that’s almost but not quite complete. And the closer we think we are to finishing? The more energized we are to keep going. 

It’s proof that stretch goals can fuel this natural inclination and keep you striving for more—even if you don’t smash your target on the first swing. 

How To Set Stretch Goals That Actually Motivate You

Alright, so some of the research behind stretch goals is compelling. But, there’s a fine line you need to walk here. 

Setting a goal that’s flat-out impossible won’t help anyone (in fact, it’ll likely only breed frustration and resentment). Yet, setting one that’s completely feasible completely defeats the purpose. So, how do you strike the right balance?

Well, there’s no perfect formula here—and any blanket advice that tells you to simply pump up your goals by a flat percentage (or some other templated approach) is misleading. Your targets are unique and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all equation to create the perfect stretch goal. 

Instead, it’s smart to consider some of the different levers you could pull to make your existing objectives even more ambitious. Here are a few to think about:

  • Adjust a quantifiable metric: The best goals are measurable and whatever metric you’ve included is an easy adjustment to make to increase the difficulty of your original goal.
    • Goal: Bring on 800 new customers during Q1 of 2022. 
    • Stretch Goal: Bring on 2,000 new customers during Q1 of 2022. 
  • Adjust a deadline: It doesn’t necessarily have to be about doing more—you could also do it faster. Shortening your goal’s timeline also makes it more ambitious.
    • Goal: Revamp and relaunch our employee onboarding process by the end of July. 
    • Stretch Goal: Revamp and relaunch our employee onboarding process by the end of March. 
  • Adjust complexity: You could also tweak the scope of your goal to make it that much more ambitious. 
    • Goal: Roll out a redesign of our blog by April of 2022. 
    • Stretch Goal: Roll out a redesign of our entire website by April of 2022. 

There’s no shortage of ways that you can amp up your targets and transform them into stretch goals. If you still feel stuck, ask yourself this simple question: What’s the best possible outcome you could imagine? 

Even if you don’t end up aiming for that exact dream scenario, it will give you a starting point to think outside of the box of your current limitations. 

Make Your Stretch Goals A (Super Motivational) Reality

Of course, setting stretch goals is only part of the process—next you need to figure out how to actually reach them. 

Like any other goal, there’s no way to guarantee that you’ll soar across the finish line in a blaze of glory (and remember, even if you don’t, the process of working toward that challenging objective is still motivational in and of itself). 

But, there are a few steps you can take to increase your chances of completing even your most ambitious missions:

  • Write your goals down: It seems like an inconsequential step, but writing down your goals can be powerful. One study found that people are 42% more likely to achieve their goals when they write them down on a daily basis.
  • Find an accountability buddy: If your stretch goal is set for your entire team, then you have some built-in support and accountability. But if you’ve set an individual goal? Loop somebody else in who can help keep you on track. It can make you up to 65% more likely to reach your objective.
  • Set smaller milestones: The thing about stretch goals is that they’re, well, intimidating. You can make them feel more manageable by breaking them into smaller milestones or mini goals. Not only does that help you avoid feeling like you’re quite literally climbing Mt. Everest, but it also keeps you motivated through more frequent hits of dopamine—your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitter. 

Beyond that? Invest the necessary hard work to make progress toward whatever finish line you’ve set. Combining the above strategies with a little bit of good ol’ fashion elbow grease can help you transform your own stretch goals from daunting to “done.”

What are stretch goals? How do you reach them?