Stretch Goals: How to Do Better Than Your Best

Worksheets and a planner filled out with goals.

“You should set goals beyond your reach so you always have something to live for.” —Ted Turner

Imagine what life would be like if people didn’t set seemingly outlandish goals. We wouldn’t have life-saving medicine, lightning-fast technology or even, perhaps, our favorite works of art. 

The world around us would be quite different if we never set doubt aside and embarked on a journey we weren’t sure would lead us to accomplishment. It can be scary, but setting big goals can be beneficial. These little pushes just beyond what you think is likely or possible are called stretch goals.

And they can work for you.

Stretch goals take everything we’ve learned about goal-setting and turn it on its head. Just like the name implies, you’ll have to stretch to succeed. While difficult, they can change your approach, the way you think, and possibly how you even define success.

A personal stretch goal might be:

  • Running a marathon
  • Becoming debt-free
  • Making a big purchase, like a house
  • Getting a new job at your dream company

Stretch goals are about asking for more from yourself than you normally would. Can you do it? It will stretch your current comfort zone and routines, but the rewards could be huge.

Why set a stretch goal?

You might wonder why you’d want to set a stretch goal, especially when so much advice surrounding goal-making revolves around being realistic. Typically, setting a goal outside of your capability is a recipe for failure — have you ever given up on a fitness goal because you set unrealistic expectations? 

Stretch goals are a bit different for a few different reasons. They’re perfect in scenarios where you have no expectations, perhaps in areas where you haven’t set goals before or where you need to shake things up.

Stretch goals aren't about perfection; they're about stretching your imagination and your abilities. Not every goal should be a stretch goal; in fact, stretch goals should be used sparingly so that you don't burn out.

Here's how to set a really good stretch goal.

Go big: Most often, we hear about successful stretch goals from the world’s most successful companies. For example, Southwest Airline’s goal of a 10-minute turnaround at its airport gates or Google’s attempt to improve Gmail early on was built on a stretch goal.

This was Google’s corporate philosophy: “More often than not, [daring] goals can tend to attract the best people and create the most exciting work environments…stretch goals are the building blocks for remarkable achievements in the long term.” 

These goals are big and complicated and overall pretty tough. These goals require big thinking and big actions. Maybe you want to change careers or move to a new city. Both require some pretty big changes and might be perfect candidates for stretch goals because, even if you don't hit the goal 100%, the work you do towards a big goal like those expands your thinking, your network, and your life.

Innovation: Not all goals require you to make radical changes, but that’s pretty much the core of stretch goals. Setting lofty goals often requires thinking creatively — that’s how you’ll attain them. 

You may have to develop a new process or start thinking in a new way. If your goal isn’t forging new pathways, then it’s probably not a stretch goal. When you set a stretch goal, you may not know how you’re going to accomplish it at first, and that’s okay! It’ll force you to think in new ways in order to get there.

How to not fail

Setting a big goal, perhaps something you’re not even sure if you’re capable of reaching, can be really intimidating. The unknown is scary! With stretch goals, you’re taking a big step, but you don’t have to be doing it blindly.

Start on a positive note

“A great deal of other anecdotal evidence from sports, business, and government, as well as systematic evidence from the fields of psychology and organizational science, suggests that organizations should take bold, risky actions when they are strong rather than weak,” the Harvard Business Review advises. 

Businesses, athletes, and organizations that don’t heed this advice tend to do worse in accomplishing big goals, and research proves it.

So a good time to set a stretch goal is when you're feeling up, not down. When you sit down to write out a goal plan, make sure to take note of all of your strengths that will contribute to your success. Even if you’re venturing into unknown territory, you'll know you have a solid foundation.

Look ahead

If you’re working toward a goal and you’re not completely sure of all the steps, take some time to create a roadmap.  

You won’t know every twist and turn along the way, but you can start thinking about an action plan, what resources you’ll need, potential obstacles, and mini-goals you can hit along the way. A general plan is better than flying blind; remember, plans can always change and adapt.

SMART goals can act as a foundation to the really big things we want to accomplish, so don’t be afraid to start with the basics. They can help keep you grounded even when you’re feeling like your goal is a little (or a lot) risky.

Make sure you have the resources

For the most part, a company that’s taking a big risk tends to be more successful if they have the resources to pull it off. Google’s Gmail wouldn’t be the number one email service if it weren’t for the company’s existing talent, revenue, and past achievements.

Timing can be everything when you’re setting a stretch goal. You don’t want to do it on a whim.

If you need some time to prepare for your journey, take it. Stretch goals are hardly ever quick goals. They require you to be agile a little bit of intuition. Give yourself a head start if necessary.

Keep up your motivation

A stretch goal might come with a lot of little defeats, so it’s important to keep perspective. Don’t let roadblocks defeat you. Instead, keep up with regular check-ins that account for both wins and losses. Tracking your success (which tends not to stick in our memories as firmly as failures) will give you proof of your progress.

When you have a setback, remember that you’re charting new waters. Unlike smaller goals, you may have no context for the work you’re doing. Patience and persistence are everything. Keep going, don't be afraid to adapt or slow down if you need to, and remember why you started.

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