Why Short-term Goals Make Long-term Business Sense
This year, the travel industry experienced turbulence unlike ever before. With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, international mobility hit record lows, leaving many wanderlusts abruptly stationary. While recent research shows that our appetites for travel have bounced back, our booking windows are smaller than ever — meaning we’re solidifying our plans just before leaving. Should anyone be surprised?
It’s tricky to make long-term plans when the world seems so unpredictable. The same is true of setting goals. With all of the uncertainty, it can feel overambitious, futile even, to set far-reaching objectives — kind of like paying for a vacation we’re not sure we can take.
But for entrepreneurs, goal-setting is as important as ever. As authors Dorie Clark and Patricia Carl explain in Harvard Business Review:
“[S]etting goals and planning for the future is an essential aspect of our sense of well-being, because it can help combat the sense of helplessness and loss of control you’re likely feeling in the current environment.”
But rather than setting huge, audacious goals for your business, I’d recommend starting small. Here’s why.
1. You’re more likely to get started
If you’re a runner — or better still, if you’re not a runner – the idea of training for a marathon can be intimidating. So much so that you might throw in the towel before race day. But set your sights on a 5k, instead, and I bet you’ll feel more confident.
Because sometimes, when goals are too ambitious, we lose motivation.
Sonia Thompson, founder of TRY Business School, explains: “Setting the bar too high can serve to de-motivate and discourage you from ever getting started.”
Decide on a more palatable goal and you’re less likely to set yourself up for failure. And by “small” goals, I mean both in terms of scope and timeframe.
Take it from Sam Altman, chairman of Y Combinator and CEO of OpenAI:
“Annual goals are hard. Try monthly ones! Not so daunting and 12x the feeling of accomplishment. Amazing what you can get done in 12 small pieces.”
My company JotForm recently released JotForm Tables, a spreadsheet tool for managing data and collaborating. It was three years in the making and if that sounds like a long time, that’s because: it is.
Had we embarked knowing how long the project would take, we might have been daunted. But instead, we set small goals, and continually tweaked, tested and improved until we developed a product that we were sure our users would love.
Don’t set out to run a marathon or create the perfect final project. Begin with a shorter-term goal, lace up your sneakers, and hit the ground running.
2. Compounded benefits — and motivation
But wait, you might be thinking, aren’t we supposed to swing for the fences?
Setting shorter-term goals doesn’t mean lowering your ambitions. As Corey Fradin, founder of QuickBooost, writes:
“[T]he small goal-setters could be selling themselves short but also might see the incredible compounding benefits of getting 1% better every day.”
Those short-term goals add up to long-term achievement. What’s more, they help you to build momentum. Harvard Business Review researchers explained how the power of even the most incremental progress really does work.
“Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run.”
Related: The 5 Golden Rules of Goal-Setting
That’s one of the reasons why our teams at JotForm constantly release their work. They might tackle a new project on Monday, then by Friday (our demo day), they’re already sharing what they’ve created and any lessons learned.
Accomplishments, even minor ones, provide an instant motivational boost.
3. You’re less likely to fail
There’s truth to the saying: You don’t know what you don’t know. Sometimes we overestimate our ability to accomplish a task or project — in fact, there’s a classic psychology finding called the Dunning-Kruger effect, which holds that poor performers are prone to overestimate their ability than good performers. Why?
Art Markman explains in Harvard Business Review:
“Poor performers are unaware of the many elements that go into expert performance, and thus they are overly confident in their ability to carry out all of the tasks necessary to succeed."
So, why is this relevant to goal setting?
Because of our tendency to overestimate our abilities in areas where we might have insufficient knowledge or experience, which may ultimately lead us to fail on large goals.
To battle this tendency, try thinking more short-term. With this approach, you can learn and refine as you go — which deflates any hidden overconfidence — and hit one benchmark at a time while staying the course for long-term success.
Where do we go from here?
Looking forward, as we entrepreneurs continue to navigate these turbulent waters, we can focus on creating what Thrive Global calls “microgoals” — break down your long-term ambitions into shorter-term, more manageable parts.
As QuickBooost founder Corey Fradin highlights, “The key factors of a small goal are that they’re achievable and flexible. That last part is especially important, as our goals often change over time.”
In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, your business’s goal may very well evolve in the next year. So stay flexible and don’t forget the final destination — the reason you launched your business to begin with — but keep your attention on your next desired stop.