Do long-term goals scare or motivate you as a freelancer?

I’m about to share a secret with you.

Something you probably don’t know (or expect) about me:

Long-term goals scare me.

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Yep. I’m a huge proponent of short-term goals. I wake up every morning reviewing my short term goals in my mind. I live and die by them. And I (mostly) rock my short-term goals.

Why I’m afraid of long-term goals

I know, I know. It’s crazy talk. How can any entrepreneur, blogger, freelancer, whatever be afraid of long-term goals?

Here’s why they scare me. I could use your help in getting over this, so please leave a comment and let me know what you do to use long-term goals as a motivator instead of a demotivator.

Fear 1: What if I don’t reach it?
Short term goals feel less life-altering…probably because they are. But since they’re smaller, more reachable goals, I stress about them less. After all, if I don’t quite reach the goal I’m shooting for, there’s always tomorrow’s short term goals.

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But if I work hard for 10 years and then don’t reach my long-term goals, I’m worried I will feel like the last 10 years were a waste. So I work hard to reach my short-term goals and hide from the long-term ones.

Fear 2: What if I change my mind?
One of the things I enjoy most about life is the spontaneity. I like not knowing what’s coming. I like waking up one morning with a crazy business idea and spending the whole day running the scenario through my mind.

I like not knowing what’s coming for me in 5 years or 10 years.

Is that so bad?

Is it bad that I’m happy with life the way it is right now? That I don’t want to be constantly looking ahead to something I may or may not want once I get there?

You’ve heard this expression by Stephen Covey:

If [your] ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.

So, I choose to stay on the ground, examine what’s coming and throw a grappling hook when the time is right instead of climbing a ladder to a place I may not want to end up anyway.

Am I completely crazy?

Fear 3: Who will I disappoint with my long-term goals?
The other day someone asked me where I want to be in 5 years. What they wanted me to say was something like “I want to be making (insert desired income here) and be a (place ideal title here).”

What I wanted to say was “I want my family to be happy. I want to be happy at work. And I want to work less and focus on what really matters in life.”

But of course, no one ever pats you on the back in the business world for wanting to stay on the corporate rung you’re already on.

No one smiles and says, “I’m glad to see you don’t want to climb the ladder over the next five years.”


They ask you questions like “Where do you want to be in five years” and expect you to want to work more hours, bring home a bigger paycheck, spend more time away from your family, go into more debt to buy things you can’t afford and lay awake at night wondering how you’re going to manage it all.

All under the guise of “setting long-term goals.”

Have I gone off the deep end?

Well, what do you think? Have I gone off the deep end? Have I completely lost it? Should I be actively setting more long-term goals?

Comment here. And, as always, thanks for your help.

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  1. I find your goals refreshing and very similar to mine. My family is so very important to me and there is something to be said for spending time building relationships with them and happy memories to last well into the twilight years ahead. I enjoy my work and the fact that I can earn a decent living because of my skillset and talents is a blessing to be sure… but I am not out to conquer the world. Just make a modest mark with creativity, enjoy my husband, children and grandchild and spend my most valuable possession with them – TIME. Money ill-spent can be refunded, money lost can be recovered, but time is not ever able to be regained. With that being said, you are on the right track my friend. Maybe not according to the ‘success’ mongers of this world, but among the wise who choose the better portion, the simpler happier one, you are definitely on the right track.

  2. Hi Preston,
    Just read this article and am surprised at the lack of comments. Seems like a hugely important set of questions you’ve asked. Dare I say the most important? Strikes at the heart of why any of us do anything, and what our values are.

    Leo Babauta from Zen Habits, in his post “Achieving without Goals” says… “Each moment, don’t ask “am I doing something to move me to my goal?” but instead ask, “Am I doing something right now that’s based on one of my values or principles?”

    Thank you for all your posts, I find them useful.

  3. Short-term goals are specific; long-term goals should be more nebulous and subject to revision from time to time. Then long-term goals are reached by fulfilling a series of short-term goals.
    For instance, if your long-term goal is to visit all the national parks before your fortieth birthday, you start with the short-term goal of a specific park for this year’s vacation, and another the next year, etc. Then perhaps you experience some life-change; you marry or have children. Your spouse doesn’t like mountains or hiking but loves surfing and scuba. Your daughter is allergic to pine needles or something. So your long-term goal shifts to “visit all the great beaches” before you are forty.
    Long-term goals aren’t scary when broken up into a series of short-term goals, because you realize your can change the choice of your final destination at the completion of each step, by re-examining and maybe redefining your long-term goal each time you achieve a short-term one.

  4. Brave confession Preston. It must take a lot of guts to write a post like that. Thank you.

    I dont see why “I want my family to be happy. I want to be happy at work. And I want to work less and focus on what really matters in life.” isn’t a valid long term goal.

    There are three different targets in there to shoot for, and the second two absolutely rely on you taking positive action in your career: to concentrate on the work you enjoy doing and to build a reputation that creates higher demand and better pay for that work.

    I think those are spot-on goals for any freelancer.

    Other people rely on their salaries or their job title to buoy up their self-esteem it doesn’t mean you have to. Instead of leaning your ladder against a wall, build the wall.

    Good luck in achieveing your goals.

  5. Yeah, long-term goals when seen as a whole are scary, but what I find helps is breaking up those long-term goals into manageable short-term goals, which offers a sense of achievement and progress towards the bigger picture.

  6. I became a freelancer to spend more time with my son, not to make a lot of money too. 🙂 If I can’t fit the work into the 7 hours he spends at school I don’t take the work.

  7. Preston,
    I personally cheer for this take on life. If we are constantly setting short-term goals and working to achieve them, I think we end up achieving more in the long run with less stress.
    Great post. Thanks

  8. I believe you have already reached your long term goals (ie. happy family, happy with work). You just need to focus on maintaining it. I think reaching a higher salary, awards or prestigious title could cause you to lose the goals you have already reached. Life is too short and our goal isn’t to follow everyone else idea of “long term” goals. (Matthew 6:19) I’m not a great risk taker, but I also feel the pressure that I’m not doing enough. So, this post helped me to be content where I’m at, whether that was the intent or not. Thanks.

  9. In my 11 years as a freelance designer I learned a lot. If you don’t do what you’re afraid of then you will never know and more importantly you will never learn. So what if it didn’t work out the way you planned. You DID learn some very key lessons along the way. I chalk that up to experience and that is priceless. I wouldn’t be where I am today without many long term goals that either did or did not go as planned but those experiences play a huge role in my position today. And today I couldn’t be any happier doing what I love, Graphic Design, being surrounded by people and making a good living. Good luck!

  10. That’s your long term goal! It’s mine too. And while I completely understand not wanting to say that direct to clients, you should certainly not expect to come up with any other plan. I tend to say “continue on my awesome path” in those situations. I have a great business and consider myself lucky, but I am a mum and I do want to be there more as I have certainly done enough 60+ hours weeks in my time to get to this position. Why can’t we plan to do less? I want to have others do some of my work so I can be with my family. With your help I know I am on the path to getting there. Thanks Preston.

  11. Thank you for the honest point of view – it’s actually rather rare, as most people just say they have and follow long term goals, though regularly breaking their promises to themselves – and its far worse. I think in tody so quickly changing world its not easy to make too long-term goal, especially for those working in tech industry, developers, designers, as the technology chages even faster, and you can not even say wha you will do in a year

  12. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying you want to make more money by working less. There’s something to be said for finding a way to do your job more efficiently and better so that you earn the right to make more money yet with this efficiency you also can manage your time to spend it where it makes the most sense for you. And I also don’t think it’s wrong to actually like your job and want to continue working and climb the ladder so so speak, as long as it doesn’t interfere with other goals like spending quality time with your family. Long term balance is my long term goal.

  13. A simple 5-year goal:
    I have a chum who is a CPA in the USA. Quite a few years ago, when he went freelance, his 5-year goal was to specialise. He loves food, so he wanted to become the Accounting Go-to Guy for all the best restaurants in his city. He has long since achieved that goal and has gone on to built more 5-year goals over the years and now has an enviable lifestyle of playing golf and eating fine food(!).

    I think the question of having a long-term goals is actually CENTRAL to the freelance ‘lifestyle’.

    Employment vs freelancing goals.
    Full-time employment is usually thought of in terms of a ‘career’ rather than simply “a job” – you may have a few ‘jobs’ over the years but you follow a career ‘path’ of sorts. The goal is of course to mature and grow into bigger, more interesting challenges as you go – and, yes, bigger pay cheques with bigger debt etc (sigh). The point is that people don’t want to be a “junior” all their working life! In fact, with being an employee, working towards the long-term comes so much with the territory that most people don’t really “plan” for the long term anyway – it’s just a given that if you work hard enough, promotion and pay rises will eventually happen over time and you won’t remain on the first rung for ever. It’s just the way it is (isn’t it?).

    But when you change to freelance, the INEVITABILITY of Growth no longer exists. “Growth” (that is: more interesting professional challenges, more income and more general ‘success’) will only happen if YOU do something about it. There is no Boss to promote you anymore. Success is not a default setting. So having some idea of where you want to be in 5 years needs to central to everything you do otherwise you’ll still be doing the same thing in 5 years time (and heck, if that’s the case, you might as well just go get a job!).

    The good news?
    In fact, a 5-year goal needs to be one of the top three things you think about – every day. It needs to be the signal amongst the noise of day-to-day workload. But freelancing gives greater freedom and agility to change and adapt to the evolving world around you. So the good news is that this freedom and agility actually makes it quite easy to work towards a long-term goal. Your goal can (and will) change over time as new opportunities arise and your circumstances shift but… YOU HAVE TO KEEP WORKING AT IT.

  14. You’re not the only one, Preston. I barely know what I will be doing next week, let alone in five years.
    The furthest I plan out to is 6-12 months. I set 2 or 3 income targets, the first being very easy and attainable and two higher ones to see how much I can stretch. I’ve created an excel spreadsheet which has graphs which show my progress toward these targets – every time I add in income, the graph goes a little bit closer and this is very satisfying.
    Since the targets are tiered it mitigates the fear of not making it, while motivating me to do a little better.

  15. Not only are you not crazy, but you just articulated my fears better than I’ve ever been able to do myself! I forwarded a link to my husband and said, “yeah! What he said!”

  16. I love were your head is at Preston! I fell the same way 🙂 Stoked to have came across this website the other day!

  17. My opinion is that long term goals are not for everyone. Sure, it helps some people to have them but if you find a system that works for you, then stick to it. Everyone is different and we need different things to get along with our lives. Seems to me that you’ve got your system pretty well figured out and you’re happy with the way it works, that’s awesome! Keep doing what you’re doing. no one can predict the future and it’s good to be flexible so you can change with the tides…

  18. I don’t do well with long term goals either. Mainly because I could never solidify what it was I wanted that would take that long. Trivial things like, “I want a new car” are more realistic to me than say “I want an anniversary edition canary-yellow Corvette.” I have a goal in mind, but the specifics aren’t hashed out. But I’ve always been more comfortable like that.

    Time changes my goals and further shape the end result. So I’ve grown accustom to not setting solid restraints on what I’m aiming for. I just shoot in the general direction and then take another step forward. Eventually, I’ll hit my target with the greatest accuracy and satisfaction.

  19. I wouldn’t say you’ve gone off the deep end, but I wouldn’t say to completely abandon long-term goals just yet.

    I’ve had some of the exact same thoughts and fears as you (and frankly I still do), but here’s what I’ve decided. I do great with short-term goals, but it’s my long-term goals that help me decide on the right short-term goals to set. If half way up the ladder I decide I don’t want to reach the top of that wall, that’s ok because I’ve learned a lot during that climb. And sometimes, I’ve got to start the climb to get a better view of what’s really possible in order to even decide if that’s the right wall or not.

    Only I can decide if I failed or not. So if I change my mind down the road, that doesn’t mean I failed, it just means I changed my long-term goal and I’m now headed in a different direction.

    But for me, I’ve got to have a long-term goal in order to move at all, or else I feel like I’m just spinning my wheels.

    — I enjoy the posts, keep up the good work

  20. Hi Preston,

    I definitely understand how you feel. Making more short-term goals allows me to feel more satisfied that I accomplished something for the day / week / month rather than one giant goal for the next 5 years.

    However I feel there is a way to achieve a long-term goal by working backwards to creating short-term goals. This helps me achieve those long-term goals without the stress or worry that I won’t make it.

    For example:
    Long-term goal: To have a healthier life-style
    Short-term goals to achieve long-term goal:
    – Take 15 min out of everyday to go for a walk
    – Cook something for myself 5 out of 7 days a week
    – Take a day off away from work and spend time with family

    I find this style works for me. I don’t have a quantitative long-term goal (like losing 20 pounds as an example for above) but a qualitative goal. Then I create short-term goals for myself that will apply to the long-term goal.

    Hope that makes sense! Anyways that’s something for readers to try if they struggle with this as well! Thanks for sharing =)

  21. Hi Preston, I can’t say I am afraid of long term goals, I have had them but just in my mind never in writing. Very recently I found out with the help of a coach, how important it is to have goals, short term and long term and write them in a piece of paper. Something simple but very useful, I remember them as much as possible, specially if I am feeling a bit less motivated, so I remind myself why I have to work.
    So I have a 12 month plan for my work. How much I would like to have as a annual salary, I am sure you have an idea for yourself or you will not know your hourly rate. I have personal and business goals. Could be a holiday, or having more time at some point, or work less hours…but you need to have goals. Short term, I have weekly and monthly, mostly they are about doing new connections or getting more leads. Then annual goals, I revise them at each stage and if I change my mind I can always change them or adapt them. But having goals gives me control on my numbers and I know where I am.
    What if I don’t reach it? Well you have a reason to think about them even more so for the next year you will try to reach them again. Get motivation from something you want to do or achieve in your work or in your personal life or you leave your boat in the middle of the ocean without direction… Long term ones, I have for 5-10 years, but I know they wil; probably have to be flexible.

  22. I was just thinking that long term goals are never really attainable unless you break them down into doable short-term goals. Long or short term, it’s about breaking things down into small steps that you can take action on. It’s all about taking that first step and doing what comes next.

    Being happier in 5 years may mean today you’ll decide you’ll work on not getting angry when your child does something you’re not happy with. Tomorrow maybe it’s giving your wife your full attention when she’s talking to you (I work on this a lot!)

  23. I totally agree. I’m not afraid of long term goals. I just never saw much point in them. Things change. New, unexpected opportunities arise. Who really knows what they’re going to want 5 years from now anyway?

  24. Not sure what your age is, but I am a 55 year old designer that has been in the business over 30 years and probably will be in it awhile longer. I used to be very goal-oriented in my 30s, and had a great time reaching all the dreams that I had set for myself. It looks like you too have done a lot of things already and good for you. What I can tell you now is to RELAX, enjoy your life, and allow some surprises too. As much as you would like to control the future…ha ha good luck! I think the fact that you care enough goes a long ways. And guess what…now that I am in my 50s, I find a new freedom from goal-setting (which is often outward projecting) to inner happiness and satisfaction-setting. I still have to work, but I am open to other ways besides the obvious. Please enjoy this time with your family and your youth and creativity, and trust me, it will only get better with age.

  25. I’ve been in business for about 3 and a half years – I thought starting out that I’d be in a better place at this point, but never really set any long term goals, come to think of it, I don’t have a whole lot of short term goals. And yes, when I think of the future, the possibility does excite me and, for the most part, motivates me to work hard at building my business. Yes, I fear not making it and yes, I have thought about seeking employment other than my freelance business. I guess, for me, it’s less of setting long term goals but having a mental picture of where you’re going and where you’d like to be eventually. Goals, particularly long term ones can be both lofty and restrictive, causing doubt and fear of their attainment. Maybe try breaking down your long term goals into short term goals might feel like you’re reaching your long term goals and seem less daunting.

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