I've been reading the book "Smarter Faster Better" by Charles Duhigg and in it, he gives a perspective on goal-setting that I found interesting.
You may already know about SMART goals, which is an awesome format to set your goals in. It does have a subtle pitfall though: cognitive closure.
Cognitive closure (psychology), the human desire to eliminate ambiguity and arrive at definite conclusions (sometimes irrationally) - Wikipedia
You know that nice feeling of crossing things off your to-do list? Closure. Which is great, for the most part. It only gets bad when we end up expending more effort to get immediate results, when we are so focused on small daily "wins" that we lose focus on the larger picture.
“You get into this mindset where crossing things off your to-do list becomes more important that asking yourself if you're doing the right things. - The book
"To-do lists are great if you're using them correctly. But when people say things like 'I sometimes write down easy items I can cross off right away, because it makes me feel good', that's exactly the wrong way to create a to-do list. That signals you're using it for mood repair, rather than to become productive." - Timothy Pychyl, quoted in the book
I think it's easier to fall into this trap than most of us would like to admit.
Combining SMART goals with Stretch goals
Stretch goals are goals that may be considered audacious, but achievable. These are the kind of goals you may think about when asked to "dream big". The point is to have one major goal that is not immediately achievable, then use the SMART strategy to form sub-goals that move you closer to achieving the main goal. Here's an example from the book:
Stretch goal: run a marathon
Specific sub-goal: run 7 miles without stopping
Measurable: run twice around the park, no walking
Achievable?: yes, if I run 3 times a week
Realistic?: yes, if I wake up early on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays
Timeline: run 3 miles this week, 4 miles next week, 5 miles…
Setting goals in this format ensures that we do get those small daily wins, and always stay focused on the big picture.