How Long Are Short-Term Goals?

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You’ve heard you should eat an elephant one bite at a time. But how big should those bites be? 

Breaking your goals into smaller pieces makes accomplishing them so much easier and boosts your chances of finishing. You know you need to do it, but what’s the right way to break down these big ambitions? 

If you’re wondering how long you should make your short-term goals, you’re in the right place.

Word Math

Long: measuring a great distance from end to end, lasting or taking a great amount of time.

Short: measuring a small distance from end to end, lasting or taking a small amount of time.

Term: a fixed or limited period for which something… is intended to last.

Goals: the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result.

Definitions come from Google.

How Long Are Short-Term Goals?


How [great distances or amounts of time] are [small distance or amount of time]-[limited period for which something is intended to last] [the object of a person’s ambition or effort]

And to make it more understandable we can say:

How do you break long periods for which ambitions toward aims are intended to last into smaller periods?

Simplifying our word equation we get:

What size should the pieces be that you cut your elephant-sized goals into? 

Every way you can break down your goals is a short-term goal if you think about it

To start, let’s look at the different levels of goal-setting. I like to categorize them into the following time periods:

  • Long-term
  • Yearly
  • Quarterly
  • Monthly
  • Weekly
  • Daily
  • Hourly

That last one I know is a little bit of a stretch, but on some days it isn’t. 

There have been many days I’ve gotten up late and the only thing that saved the day from being a total disaster was me planning and setting hourly goals for the rest of the day. 

Identifying any way of breaking your long-term goals into shorter pieces can have the same effect no matter what length of time you’re working with.

So already we have an example of how powerful short-term goals can be, and we’re going to get to that more in a minute. First, let’s look at the possible ways you can break down these seven goal-setting time periods into shorter terms. 

Each division is just a short-term version of the previous one, as follows:

  • Yearly goals are short-term for long-term goals.
  • Quarterly goals are short-term for yearly.
  • Monthly goals are short-term for quarterly.
  • Weekly goals are short-term for monthly.
  • Daily goals are short-term for weekly.
  • Hourly goals are short-term for daily.

It seems now like we’ve taken our problem of not knowing how long to track our short-term goals and made it messier, but this is just part of breaking down problems so that we can solve them. 

In other words, if you want to eat an elephant one bite at a time, things have to get messy before you can complete your task. 

By breaking our problem down, we’ve set ourselves up to narrow down a more powerful and understandable solution.

How I define my time period for short-term goals

The sweet spot for breaking long-term goals down into manageable short-term pieces, I’ve discovered, is quarterly

Think about it, each January you set big huge goals and try your hardest to accomplish them. But by February, you’ve already given up. 

By July or August, you begin to think “there’s enough left of the year that I can start in a couple of months.” And before long those “months” become the rest of the year and you’re starting all over again. 

Anything shorter than weeks is unreasonable. And you don’t want to use weeks because there are too many of those in a year. 

Even if you were to use monthly goals, that’s 12 time periods that you have to consider. That’s too short of a time period to get much accomplished and too frequent to get much information about how you’re really doing.

What if, instead, you had that same January motivation four times each year? That’s what setting quarterly goals is like. 

Here’s how I break it down:

  • There are 52 weeks in the year.
  • Dividing it into 4 quarters gives 13 weeks for each quarter. 
  • I track my long-term goals in 12-week cycles (4*12 = 48).
  • And then I take a week off at the end of each quarter (48+4 = 52).

So how long should your short-term goals be? The best results I’ve seen personally have come when I use a quarterly timeline.

Why quarterly short-term goals are so powerful

I recommend using quarterly short-term goals for continuous motivation, as I’ve mentioned, but also for how well it lets you keep track of your progress. 

Each quarter I can see my progress toward my yearly and more long-term goals and make adjustments as needed. 

What’s even better is that I can determine whether or not a goal is worth working toward. That gives me the power to quit to give myself room for better opportunities when they come up!

If you set up the same quarterly system, your likelihood of reaching your goals and of finding the right ones you should be working on will skyrocket. I know it works because I’ve seen it myself!