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Why long term goals don’t work but short term goals drive results

on 22 September 2016


Posted by Jacqui Hogan
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When planning any important activities, projects or the future of our organisations, the historic approach has always been to set long term goals. We determine where we want to be in say, 3 or 5 years’ time, and set our plans accordingly.

The problem with this approach is that the pace of change is increasing, meaning that many of these goals will become obsolete well before that timescale is reached. This is particularly true when it comes to plans utilizing new approaches and new technologies like online collaboration. This is an area where even a year may be too short a timescale. According to Kevin Appleby, author of the 90 day achievement engine, taking a shorter term approach is the most effective approach available today.

The problem with long term goals

“Goals beyond 90 days increase the level of procrastination” USC Mind & Society Centre.

The problem with long term goals is that they encourage you to focus on how far away those goals are! They make you think about how much work and time you still have to get there. This is not very motivating and, from an action point of view – static, as they tend not to change even when it is very apparent that the point has long gone (This is especially true for long term technology projects.)

The great thing about taking a short term approach is that it focusses your mind on immediate action, which tends to be more motivating, deliver more immediate results and to encourage creative thinking. And, if the goal turns out to be the wrong goal e.g. because the business or political environment has changed, and you can change it easily and with little long term pain. So your activity becomes current, agile and dynamic. You think about how far you’ve come, not how far you still have to go.

What worked in the past will not work in the future

Trying to fit old thinking into new situations is discouraging, stressful and demotivating. And it slows you down.

Over the past 30 years, the world has changed radically, and the pace of change is increasing. Approaches that worked even 5 years ago are no longer relevant. In the world of information management, for example we now have computing everywhere, advanced analytics and cloud computing. Few organisations rely only on paper stored in a cupboard anymore. Data is everywhere, so assumptions from the past about how to manage it are obsolete.

New thinking, new methodologies and new ways of exploiting what exists now are essential components to determining what your goals should be. Because you don’t know what will be around the corner, short term goal setting allows you to think and act at the same speed as these changes.

Thinking strategically is still essential

We are surprisingly bad at strategy. According to a recent study by Harvard Business School, 61% of business owners fail because of poor strategy and execution.

A lot of this is down to using SMART goals; defined Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-focused, and Time- bound. The problem with SMART goals is that they tend to be too simplistic. Because SMART goals aim to be ‘measurable’, they may define outcomes that will be irrelevant in 3 years’ time.

The new approach is to have a long term ‘vision’, but short term goals.

However, just because your timeframe is short, it doesn’t mean you are only acting tactically; you still need to think strategically. So you take your long term vision and identify the strategic short term goal that will move you in the right direction over the next 90 days (or whatever you choose your short term horizon to be). For example while you might have the vision to move all your information to a cloud e-collaboration system, your short term goal might be to identify the complexity of your current information environment. Or to take one area and do a short pilot that will identify your issues to be addressed.

Focus on one current short term goal

Do you have a problem with projects over-running? Is your productivity below what you think it could be? It isn’t because your team is not working hard – they probably are. If you are trying to do lots of things at once, working towards a long term vision/goal., you are suffering from the cost of context switching.

While we might like to think we are good at multitasking, we really aren’t. The reason? Context switching.

Context switching is the time lost to reacquaint yourself with the next project or task. Gerald Wineberg, in Quality Software Management: Systems Thinking calculated the waste caused by switching between projects as follows.


Number of projects  Time available per project Loss to context switching
1 100% 0%
2 40% 20%
3 20% 40%
4 10% 60%


Context switching also applies to switching between tasks, meetings and other activities, but applies particularly to any significant piece of work, like working towards a goal. This is just a snapshot of why short term goals are more effective than long term goals. If you would like to know more please add a comment below.

Glasscubes is a user-friendly online collaboration platform for businesses. It increases productivity by improving the way teams share files, manage projects and communicate with each other. For more information please contact us by calling +44 (0)20 3274 2310 or email us at


About this author: Jacqui Hogan

With over 30 years technical and management experience in the IT industry, Jacqui has mentored many individuals and business owners to greater success with helping improve communication, technology project management, change management, and innovation.
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