Everyone’s journey in life is different. You probably know someone who meanders through life with frequent stops to smell the roses — and someone else who rushes around at breakneck speed, knocking things off their task priority list and hardly pausing to take a breath.
Whether you’re the wanderer, the whirlwind, or somewhere in between, you can benefit from thinking about your life goals. If you go with the flow, clarifying your goals can help you dig in and fight for what’s important. And if you rush from one short-term goal to the next, setting life goals can help you stand back and use your energy more strategically.
Why you should set life goals
Most children have clear life goals. Take Toby, David, and Alina, three kindergarteners who were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up.
Toby said he wanted to be “a veterinarian so I can help pets get better.” David said, “a fireman since I like explosions and fire.” And Alina said, “I want to be a customer in a store. I will buy broccoli, tomatoes, and carrots. When I get home, I will make soup.”
Whether you’re a go-getter like David or more in Alina’s speed, your life goals might feel less concrete as you age. It’s easy to let financial imperatives and seemingly urgent tasks distract you from more important objectives.
But communicating your life goals (even just to yourself) has surprising health benefits. One study found that journaling about life goals for 20 minutes on four consecutive days reduced physical illness five months later. Another found that students who either wrote or talked about their life goals were less likely to visit the health center due to illness.
Setting your overarching priorities also offers you a sense of purpose in everything you do, so you don’t wake up one day wondering what you have to show for the time that’s passed.
9 examples of meaningful life goals
Here are nine life goal examples you can adapt to suit your interests and personal values.
1. Challenge yourself every day
Getting out of your comfort zone is a great way to develop new skills, conquer your fear of failure, and stay humble. It also helps you cultivate a growth mindset — the understanding that you can improve your skills immeasurably through constant learning, determination, and hard work.
You could challenge yourself to grow personally by doing something that scares you (public speaking, skydiving, or networking). But this goal isn’t about going bungee jumping every day. Instead, it’s about getting comfortable being uncomfortable.
For you, that might look like steadily working toward a fitness or health goal, taking steps to achieve a professional goal, or taking social risks while pursuing a friendship goal.
2. Become more mindful
Practicing mindfulness, or slowing down and paying attention to the present moment, has impressive benefits. Mindfulness reduces stress, improves memory and focus, makes you a better problem-solver, and improves your relationships, to name only a few.
Setting a mindfulness-related personal goal might look like developing a regular yoga or meditation practice, cultivating a healthier relationship with food through mindful eating, or committing to manage stress and improve your well-being through mindful breathing.
3. Fulfill your professional dream
Whatever it is, saying it out loud and turning it into a concrete goal sets you on the path toward achieving it. Defining success means you can start planning the small steps you must take to get there.
4. Gain financial freedom
Deciding to work toward financial security is a powerful way to focus your attention on what you need to do to get there. Potential financial life goals include:
- Handling your debt
- Buying a home
- Setting up a passive income stream
- Investing a certain amount of your paycheck each month
Choose the financial goal that motivates you most and then break it into milestones you can work toward and celebrate along the way.
5. Look after yourself or others
Balancing the needs of self and others is one of life’s most challenging and gratifying tasks. If you tend to care for everyone else and put yourself last, set a life goal to fill your own cup first through self-care practices, asking for help, and carving out time for yourself.
6. Learn something new
Learning something new puts you on a fast track to personal growth by cultivating humility, critical thinking skills, and mental clarity. If you’ve wanted to dive into a new skill but haven’t found the time, turning it into a life goal might motivate you to pursue it more seriously.
It doesn’t matter what your new skill is — you just need to feel excited about it. Here are some suggestions:
Whenever you learn a new skill, you’re also learning how to learn, which sets you up to learn new skills in the future.
7. Expand your family
For most people, adding a new family member is both exciting and intimidating. While you can never fully prepare for a birth, adoption, foster child, or even pet adoption, setting family goals can help you consider any financial, emotional, and professional conditions you’d like to satisfy before welcoming the new arrival.
Setting a goal to expand your family may affect other big life decisions. If you plan to start a family in the next few years, you might want to structure your job searches to prioritize paid parental leave and benefits like flexible paid time off.
8. Start (and finish) a big creative project
If you have a book, poetry collection, or album of original songs locked inside you, maybe now’s the time to pursue this creative dream. It’s far too easy to put creative projects on the back burner when you’re just trying to make it through your workday. But for many, it’s these projects that make them feel most alive.
Stories abound of creative people who were working normal jobs before they got their big break. Harper Lee started off as an airline clerk, Anne Rice was an insurance claims examiner, and Art Garfunkel was a math teacher. Maybe you’ll be next. If you don’t set this meaningful creative goal, you’ll never know.
9. Give back
Giving back to your community or the world in general makes you happier, healthier, and more connected. Research even shows that life goals that focus on improving life for others make you happier than goals where you’re the only one who benefits.
Here are some ways to give back:
- Making financial donations to causes you care about
- Planting trees or picking up litter
- Supporting local small businesses
- Entering local politics
- Writing a memoir or a book about something you’d like to share
How to motivate yourself to achieve life goals: 4 tips
The sheer magnitude of most life goals can make them feel overwhelming. It’s important to break them down into smaller, more manageable pieces that support your achievement of larger long-term goals.
Here are a few ways to stay motivated as you transform important life goals into action.
1. Create a vision board
A vision board is a visual representation of a goal. To create a vision board, find photos, quotes, and other objects (get creative!) that inspire you and put them together. Then put the board above your desk or in a place where you’ll pass by it frequently.
2. Set SMART goals
The SMART goal framework adds helpful structure to goals that are too vague or abstract. According to this framework, goals should be:
If your goal is to learn to cook, a SMART version might be: “Learn to cook five different healthy dinners that the whole family enjoys by the end of this year.”
Some life goals better suit the SMART goal framework than others, so experiment to find out what works.
3. Mark milestones
Breaking big goals into more manageable steps keeps you on track and prevents you from becoming overwhelmed. If your goal is to learn Arabic, you could break that into the following milestones:
- First month: Learn the alphabet
- Second month: Have a simple conversation
- Third month: Increase vocabulary to 500 words
Milestones encourage you to measure — and, more importantly, celebrate — your progress regularly.
4. Create an action plan
An action plan is a map of the steps you’ll take to realize your goal. A good action plan describes the tasks and subtasks involved in achieving your goal and sets a target date for each.
Creating an action plan is an excellent way to avoid becoming stymied by what programmers call “yak shaving”: the seemingly endless series of preliminary tasks you have to do before you can start the real task.
If you want to learn self-defense, you might realize you need to research a local self-defense school. And before you do that, you need to learn about different self-defense methods to find the right one.
Figuring out these sub-tasks and writing them down as action steps with deadlines will help you make steady progress and stop procrastination in its tracks.
Turn your goals into reality
It’s important to fight for goals you really care about. But if your priorities change, there’s no shame in dropping one life goal and picking up another. You’re not the same person you were five years ago, and you won’t be the same person five years from now.
The best goals are those you revisit periodically and adapt to changing circumstances.
You might find, for example, that buying your dream car no longer seems like the best path to a fulfilling life. Instead, like Alina, you just want to make a great vegetable soup.