How To Track and Progress On Long-Term Goals

Mondays are productivity days at SimpleProductivity blog.

Photo by Iain Farrell

Reader Leonid emailed me to ask “how do you manage your annual goals and track progress?”

It’s a good question, because yearly goals are so long-reaching that it is easy to put them off, get sidetracked, or simply lose track of what you are working toward. But it isn’t just yearly goals that can have this problem; it is anything that has a large scope or long timeline.

Here are some strategies to keep you on track and making progress.

Is It Do-able?

The first thing you will have to do is look at the goal itself. Is what you are trying to achieve actually do-able in the time frame you are attempting? There are two questions here: is the task achievable, and is it achievable in the time you have set forth?

Laid out like this, it will seem like common sense, but honestly, many people set goals without stopping to consider if they are achievable in the time frames or at all.

Tackling The Simple Goal In A Long Time Frame

Let’s get the first case out of the way, where you have a fairly simple goal and a long time frame to do it. The danger here is procrastinating, and then having to rush to get it done.

In order to keep these type of goals from slipping through the cracks, they need to have visibility in your weekly planning. Putting them on a list that you check every week will keep them forefront to your planning. It also helps to note the due date that has been set for these projects, and also the amount of effort you think it will take to complete.

(Or you could just do as my mother suggests and get them done as soon as possible so you don’t have to worry about them. But what fun is that?)

The Long-Term Complex Goal

So now we are faced with a more complicated and long term goal, one that is likely to take time to complete. Here is my method for planning it out.

What is “Done”?

The first thing I decide is how I will know when something is done. This is crucial; without having a point where I can turn the task off, it can go on indefinitely, sapping my motivation. There are several ways that “done” can be achieved:

  • A date. A goal will be re-evaluated at a given date. For example: try Weight Watchers for 6 months.
  • A benchmark. A goal would be considered complete when a certain amount has been accomplished. For example: lose 10 pounds.
  • A finishing point that you judge. This is a tough one for perfectionists, but it means you decide what “done” looks like. For example: when the front door is repainted.
  • An external finishing point. The easiest of the done measurements, someone presents you with your indicator. For example: when I have my certificate for passing the certification exam.

Decide When It Is Due

Next you will need to know by when you need to accomplish this goal. Even if your “done” indicator is a date, you need to put a calendar date down for this project. Be very specific on this date, because you will use it to calculate benchmarks and other dates.

Contingency Planning

Very few of us exist in a vacuum. What would happen if something out of your control would seriously derail your progress? How could you get back on track? Jot down a few ideas.

Break Down The Goal

Each large project is going to be split into various pieces. Each one should be SMART (specific, measurable. actionable, relevant and timely).

Repeat Steps As Needed

For large projects, apply the above four steps until you have pieces that can be done right now, today.

Revisiting Your Progress

This step is crucial to remaining on track. Project managers would term these milestones of the project. You will need to revisit your project at at least four points during its duration and make sure that you are making progress. If you are not, you will need to either evaluate if this project is still something you want, or adjust the schedule.

I like to pick quarters to visit the progress. That would mean I would take the overall duration of the project, and mark on my task list an evaluation. I need to look at if I have fallen behind, and why, or perhaps if I am working faster than anticipated. Each requires an adjustment to the schedule. If I am on track, then I can give myself a reward.

Example of Large Project Planning

Let’s say that for my goal, I want to learn a new programming language, which for the sake of fiction I will call Tea. I have done my research, and I know the best way for me to learn this language is by taking a self-paced hands-on course, consisting of 26 lessons. I want to have this done in 6 months

Is this do-able? Perhaps it is an aggressive schedule, but at the same time I know I will have time to complete it.
What is done?
Having completed the final exam of the course.
Due date? Overall, by 10/24/2012
Contingencies? It’s a tight schedule, so I need to have ways to access the online materials for the weeks when I am offline. Therefore, I will print to PDF the first three weeks’ worth of classes during the first week, and having a rolling window of offline material I can work from.

From here on, I will break each lesson down into a weekly lesson. I know that each lesson requires reading, some online exercises, and a hands-on project. Therefore, I determine that for each week I will:

  • Complete the reading
  • Do the online exercises (on paper if necessary)
  • Add on to the on-going project
  • Print to PDF the lesson for three weeks from now

Depending on my weekly schedule, these things might get done on different days. I can target certain days; for instance, I can complete the reading on Sundays, do the on-line exercises on Tuesdays, and the programming on Thursdays. But I won’t lock myself into these, as they should be able to fit in my life as necessary.

For my milestones, I will choose every 4 weeks. This puts me at more than quarters, but hey, I didn’t put a whole lot of thought into making the due date divisible by four during this example. :) Every four weeks I will look at my progress, knowing what lesson I should be on, and comparing to where I actually am.

I hope this gives a good overview of how I track a long-term goal. Are there things you do that are helpful? Share below!

Photo by Iain Farrell


  1. Bhushan says

    Hi LJ,

    I like how you’ve broken down the parts of long term planning. I personally use some tips from Tony Robbins that keep me focused on my goals. His RPM – decide what RESULTS you want, what the PURPOSE of achieving it is (the why – which is the biggest motivator!)and the M – set up a MASSIVE ACTION PLAN (try many different things to achieve it) This allows you to see the big picture during planning and increases the chance of achieving your goals. Organizing your to-dos in this manner helps!


  2. says

    I like to think Beeminder is pretty good at this sort of thing, SMART-focused, etc. Of course there’s the crazy “getting charged money when you go off track” part of it that is certainly not for everyone. But if you’re into lifehacks like that, it can be pretty awesome.