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Difference between Wishes, Dreams & Goals

While developing the Achieve Planner goal setting software system, we decided to use the distinct concepts of wishes, dreams and goals to represent what most people usually clump together as just "goals."

This distinction is also valuable in personal life coaching, where it's important to distinguish between things you just might want to do and things you are committed to doing.

Wishes

In Achieve Planner, we use the concept of wishes to capture things that you potentially desire or want without having to commit to actually doing them. This is an important distinction because it allows you to brainstorm freely about the things you want without your judgments regarding how/when to accomplish them getting in the way.

Use a Wish List

Your wish list is the list of everything that you may need, want or desire someday, but that you are not actively pursuing at this time. You can build your wish list first, and then prioritize and decide which of these wishes to pursue further.

When you find a wish that you really want to accomplish, you simply convert it into a dream or goal. If you find a wish that you no longer need or want, simply demote it (give it a low priority) and choose something else instead.

Difference Between Dreams and Goals

The difference between dreams and goals is a bit more subtle. In the end, a goal is nothing more than a well-defined target. While doing our research, we found that there are two major types of targets used in goal setting.

The first type of target is what is commonly called a SMART goal. SMART is an acronym used to describe "good" goal statements. It stands for Specific, Measurable, Action-Oriented, Realistic/Relevant and Time-Specific.

The best SMART goals are focused, specific, short-term targets that involve things that are under your direct control. This is what makes goals such powerful achievement tools, but it is also what can limit them.

If you only use SMART goals, you run the risk of losing sight of the big picture, the reasons why you are setting goals in the first place. SMART goals can help you climb the ladder of success step-by-step, only to find that it is leaning against the wrong wall!

That's where the concept of dreams comes in to play to help bridge the gap. A dream is also a type of target: it is the ultimate realization of your desire or wish, and it is not limited by the SMART constraints.

In executive coaching, dreams may not be an appropriate term. You can use strategic objectives or long-term goals instead to represent these long-term objectives.

Dreams can be big and seem unrealistic at first glance. They also don't have to be as focused or specific as goals. Some dreams could look five to ten years into your future; others could even span your entire lifetime.

Dreams are your ultimate destination, while goals are the intermediate stops along the way. Dreams represent what you want and why, while goals represent your plan to get you there.

Goals and dreams complement each other. If you only have dreams without any goals to support them, you can easily feel overwhelmed by the enormity of your dream. The shorter-term goals provide achievable intermediate targets that serve as stepping stones toward your dream.

If you only have goals but no dreams, you can easily fall into the trap of focusing so much on the steps that you lose sight of your destination. You run the risk of forgetting "why" you are pursuing these goals in the first place. Specific short-term goals are not terribly motivating by themselves either; their power comes from their connection to a big inspiring dream.

When you focus only on the next steps, you might also fail to notice wonderful opportunities that would allow you to leapfrog several steps ahead. Dreams allow you to be on the look for these golden opportunities that may not be in line with your current goals, but that are strongly aligned with your dream.

Dreams also help you evaluate whether your overall strategy and associated goals are working or not. Without the dream, you can accomplish goal after goal and not really make any progress. If you focus only on moving from one step to the next and never look up at your destination, you may not notice you are walking around in circles.

We decided to make a distinction between dreams and goals in the Achieve Planner goal setting software system because the planning process is different for each of them. In general, goals require more detail than dreams, but they are also more shortsighted because they represent specific and focused targets.

Dream vs. Goal Example

A simple example may help to clarify the difference between dreams and goals. One of your dreams in the health & fitness area might look something like this: "I have a healthy and fit body that gives me energy and allows me to enjoy my life."

Based on the SMART formula, this would not be a very good goal statement. It is not specific enough, it's difficult to measure, it contains elements outside your control, and it doesn't have a clear timeline. Smarter goals derived from this dream statement might look something like this:

  • I weigh a healthy XXX pounds

  • I take 20-minute jogs 3 to 5 times a week

  • I eat a reasonable and healthy diet

  • I have eliminated my habit (take your pick) that negatively impacted my health

  • I keep myself informed by researching a health related topic once a month

You may even want to break down the goal of eating a reasonable and healthy diet into smarter goals since it is not very specific or measurable. For instance, you might decide on the following goals:

  • I eat 3 to 5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day

  • I limit deserts and pastries to no more than one serving a week

  • I eat half a portion when going out and save the rest for later

  • I limit myself to at most one soft-drink each day

As you can see, the goals are much more specific and focused than the dream that inspired them. However, having the dream allows you to keep sight of the big picture and periodically evaluate the goals to determine if they are still helping you move towards your dream.

If they are no longer working for you, or you find an even better alternative, you can change your strategy and try something else.

For example, you might get an invitation to join a basketball team with your colleagues at work. If that is something that you would really enjoy, the activity would more than make up for the 20-minute jogs.

Knowing that the basketball would promote your overall dream, not to mention adding social interactions and fun, you can replace the 20-minute jog goal with the basketball. Remember that goals are simply means to an end, and not the ends in and of themselves.

If you don't like the word "dream" for this type of target, use something else like objective or long-term goal instead.

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