End Goals vs. Means Goals

A common goal-setting mistake (in my opinion) is to confuse end goals with means goals. End goals define outcomes where you’re unwilling to compromise — they describe exactly what you want. Means goals, on the other hand, define one of many paths to reach your end goals.

Here’s a simple example:

Let’s say you want to see your favorite music group perform live in concert. That’s an end goal — it defines your outcome. You want to be there in person and enjoy that particular experience. It’s not a stepping stone to anything greater, and no substitute experience would produce the same result.

Now suppose a radio station is having a contest where the prize is two tickets to that concert, and you decide you want to win that contest. That’s a means goal. Winning the contest is not the final outcome you’re after. It’s only one of many ways that could lead to you sitting at that concert.

But if you don’t win those tickets and fail at your means goal, you may still be able to achieve your end goal. You just need to find another way to get to that concert.

Begin with the end in mind.

Sometimes we get blocked on the path to our goals. But many times it’s just the means goals that trap us, and if we stay flexible, we can plot an alternative route to the same ends.

If you’re a goal setter like me, take some time to review your list of goals and separate the end goals from the means goals. I keep my end goals on a separate list. My end goals don’t change much at all — they represent outcomes I’m working towards. But I often revise my means goals in order to best fit my current situation.

Before I separated my means goals from my end goals, I’d treat them both the same way. This would lead to unnecessary frustration when I couldn’t meet a particular means goal. It’s like getting really upset that I couldn’t win those concert tickets in the radio contest. I’d get too attached to something that didn’t matter. And while I was frustrated, I’d miss seeing other paths to achieve my end goals.

It’s so important to clarify your end goals and avoid confusing them with the means to get there. With good reason the second habit in Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is “begin with the end in mind.” Notice it doesn’t say, “begin with the means in mind.”

I have numerous means goals, but I only have about ten end goals for my entire life. And most of my end goals have to do with living a certain kind of life and/or being a certain kind of person. My end goals describe the kind of life I want to lead. They provide a sense of direction more than a final destination. For example, one of my end goals is to be a man of integrity, honor, honesty, and courage. But as you can imagine, there are countless ways to get there. Most of my end goals represent ideals I wish to manifest in my life as much as possible. In a way my end goals are mainly a reflection of my values. Courage, for example, is a value I’ve held for many years. It is an ideal I strive to manifest each day.

My means goals are far more specific. My means goals are there to help me manifest my end goals. My means goals bring precision and clarity to my end goals. For example, if becoming more courageous is an end goal, then a means goal would be to do something specific I’d be hesitant to do because of fear, such as getting up in front of an audience and doing extemporaneous humor (which I successfully did a few weeks ago). One more thing to be unafraid of….

If I meet unyielding resistance in trying to achieve my means goal, I remind myself to step back and look at the big picture — the end goal. What am I trying to achieve and why?

Become unstoppable.

My end goals are such that I feel unstoppable in pursuing them. I can always find new ways to build courage, to meet new people, to learn and grow, and to contribute. If one path is blocked, there are plenty of others to choose from.

If you take away my voice so I can’t speak, I’ll just do more blogging. Take away my blog, and I’ll write offline. Take away my ability to write, and I’ll find someone else to help me get the message out. The means are not nearly as important as the outcome. Writing, blogging, and speaking are merely means to an end — that of helping people grow.

By having flexible end goals that connect with the manifestation and expression of your ultimate potential, it’s nearly impossible to fail except by choice.

Don’t get so caught up in the pursuit of your means goals that you lose sight of the person you wish to become. Create and hold a vision of your ideal self in your mind. That vision then becomes the basis of all your end goals, from which your means goals derive.

Clarification: The means goals can be set using a system like S.M.A.R.T. (specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, time-bound). The end goals don’t fit this type of system, however. End goals work as ideals to move towards, and one of the reasons they must transcend the limits of a system like S.M.A.R.T. is that they must be expansive enough that you can pursue them for a lifetime. Ironically, you’ll never actually achieve your end goals in the sense that you achieve something specific and measurable and time-bound. The end goals are there not to behave as “to do” items to be checked off — rather they define the direction and scope of your life. They help define and shape your life path, not your final destination. The means goals are merely stops you choose to make along that path.