Lauren Galvan always knew she wanted to be a doctor.
But the 18-year-old also knows she wants to graduate medical school by 2020, have her career up and running by 2022 and be settled in a suburb with a husband and kids by age 30.
And as a member of an eight-year program from which she’ll graduate with both a bachelor’s and a medical degree, she is already well on her way.
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For people like Galvan, the future is a detailed blueprint with a timetable for completion. For others, it may be a general idea of where they’ll be in 10 or 20 years, or even a blank slate.
What motivates some of us to set goals for ourselves? And is there a line where ambition crosses into obsession? We took a look inside the minds of super-planners, like Galvan, and asked experts to weigh in on the best way to set goals that may help improve our health, wealth and long-term happiness.
How Do You Know If You're Over-Planning?
Making life plans “helps us think concretely about our future—our wants and needs and the steps to get there,” says Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis, a professor of psychology at Pepperdine University. “But there is such a thing as over-planning.”
Healthy planning, she says, is about creating general goals that reflect what you want and making conscious choices that will bring you closer to realizing them. Over-planners, on the other hand, focus too much on specific details, she adds, sticking to a timeline even when it no longer makes sense. For example, while a planner may decide he wants to be married by a certain age, an over-planner may stay in a relationship past its expiration date in order to achieve that goal, a phenomenon also known as a sunk cost.
“Over-planning comes from anxiety. It’s a way of dealing with worry and can give people a false sense of control,” explains Bryant-Davis. “It can go too far when a person loses flexibility, when they have set goals that are unrealistic or too rigid.”
Over-planning, Bryant-Davis adds, can also result in never feeling satisfied and be a way for people to avoid actively pursuing their goals by getting caught up in the dream rather than the reality.
So, who tends to over-plan? Those with their whole lives still ahead of them. "Younger people are more apt to set rigid goals when it comes to family expectations and careers," says Bryant-Davis.
Sarah Dewan* aspired to attend Harvard from an early age. After being waitlisted, she quickly readjusted—to attending Yale.
“I’m overscheduled on a day-to-day or month-to-month basis,” the 24-year-old says. Working an office job as a reporter during the day, Dewan juggles three other jobs on the side in order to afford the kind of lifestyle (and retirement savings plan) she wants. When friends want to grab dinner or drinks, they usually have to schedule two or even three weeks in advance.
“It’s just my personality,” Dewan says. “I’ve always been type-A.” She doesn’t envision ever wanting to pare down her hours, even though she aspires to work a single job with a higher salary in her current field.
People who have more experience—read: those who are a little bit older—"tend to be more flexible because they’ve had time to realize that we have a limited amount of control," Bryant-Davis says.
In fact, she's seen plenty of would-be retirees who, instead of hanging up their hats, join the master's program she teaches—some after a life-long career in another field. The message: Don't get overly caught up in doing things in the "right order," or by a "certain time." While goal-setting is helpful, getting bogged down in a self-made timeline won't serve your aims in the end.
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What Types of Goals Should You Set?
So how do we draw a line in the sand between being goal-oriented and becoming goal-obsessed? Because, after all, experts agree that setting goals is good for us.
"When a client has a target he or she can reach each month or year, his or her motivation to continue with his or her financial plan is much higher than those who don't," says Elizabeth Sklaver, a certified financial planner™ with LearnVest Planning Services.
"Having a goal makes all of the day-to-day decisions easier, because you know the tradeoff of spending now versus meeting your goal sooner or later." In other words, you're less likely to fritter away $20 on a lunchtime impulse buy if you know it will mean raiding your "down payment" fund on your future dream house.
“I really do think it’s incredibly important to do a certain amount of planning. If you don’t, things just end up falling through the cracks and slipping away,” says Kate White, former editor in chief of Cosmopolitan and author of the new career manual “I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This: Success Secrets Every Gutsy Girl Should Know.” “But I think you have to allow a certain amount of room, really save room, for that magic ‘x factor' that really does happen all the time.”
And ambitious goal-setting may actually be a key to happiness. According to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, the harder the goal you set for yourself, the happier you'll be when you achieve it. Meanwhile, setting all-too-easy-to-reach goals—much like writing an item you've already done on your to-do-list, just for the pleasure of crossing it off—produces far less euphoria.
And some of us start off single-minded, but find that achieving one goal is the secret to unlocking the next. After stumbling upon a passion for computers in the third grade, Jonah Harris soon hatched a dream of starting his own software company like his idols Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. By the time he entered high school, he was writing custom software for local businesses and started working for a friend’s parents who had a new internet provider company.
That's when Harris set his first goal: raking in a six-figure income as soon as possible. “When I was younger, everything was about money," the 32-year-old says. By age 20, he'd already achieved that goal and started looking to pursue other aspirations. “I always have a plan for something that’s next,” he says. “My plans aren't so much positions as things I want to do. It's more like becoming an expert in something and founding my own company."
In other words, while he has ambitions, Harris is also letting his life unfold.
The thing to remember, cautions Bryant-Davis, is that there may be multiple paths to achieving the same goal, and you have to be open to the possibility of change. Think not only of your specific goals, she suggests, but "in the larger scheme of things, what will make you happy?"
*Some names have been changed.
LearnVest Planning Services is a registered investment adviser and subsidiary of LearnVest, Inc. that provides financial plans for its clients. Information shown is for illustrative purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Please consult a financial adviser for advice specific to your financial situation.