Difference between goals and projects. Explanation with examples.

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One day I opened a paper planner and I had to fill in a list with projects and a list of goals. Easy stuff…  and then I realized I am not so sure I know the difference between goals and projects.

So I started to research and think about the subject. Here are my findings after several years of practicing goal setting.

But first, I would like to tell you a quick story.

It’s a story (I think I read it from Steven Covey) about leadership and management.

There was a group of workers cutting trees in the jungle to reach a place.

They were working for weeks and they were really tired.

When you are in the jungle, you don’t have the overall view where you are heading.

So the leader saw a tall tree and climbed at the top. He looked around and yelled:

“Hey! We are going in the wrong direction”.

Then the managers of the teams yelled back at him:

“Shut up! We are making progress.”

So… just like you need a leader to show the direction, you need goals to provide the vision and direction for you. Just like you need managers to work efficiently, you use projects to make progress on your goals.

The leaders (visions) and the managers (projects) have to work together to reach the desired outcomes.

Another metaphor I like is “You use projects to climb the ladder. You use visions to make sure the ladder is on the right wall”.

You may notice that we use “action goals” instead of projects here at goal buddy, because of the emphasis on taking action. But only for the purpose of this article, I will use projects.

Just a quick warning!

This is my take on the subject. You are free to use this information as you wish. The usage is not defined by a law or something…

But this is a “ready to use framework”. I’ve done the work for you – the research, the thinking and putting all together.

If you like it, just start using it.

Let’s look in with some more detailed examples.

So, is there really a difference between goals and projects?

Yes, there is a difference. You will not call your work related “Website redesign” a goal, it looks more or less like a project. And you will rarely call “Loose 7 kilograms in 2 months” a project. (you would usually refer to it as a goal).

To tell the truth, you can call everything you like it and nobody can forbid it- dreams, goals, projects, objectives… It’s your choice.

But If you have clear definitions what is a goal and what is a project, you can organize and prioritize your goals much better and thus achieve them easier.

So, let’s look what goals and projects really are.

The goal is more the dream outcome you would like to experience

The goal or the vision has to answer the two big questions “what” you want to achieve “why” you want to achieve it.

You usually have to answer questions like: Where am I heading? Why do I want to achieve this? What is the experience I am looking for?

Here are a few examples of goals:

  • Career goal – Become a licensed attorney by next August;
  • Fitness goal – Gain 3 kg lean muscle mass in 3 months;
  • Financial goal – Eliminate all credit card debt by next September (just after becoming a highly paid attorney; 🙂
  • Corporate goal – Achieve a 90% customer satisfaction rating for X product by the end of this year.

By the way, these are just sample goals, not my goals. And yes, I know you can make them much better and SMARTer.

The projects would be the detailed plan with clear next action steps how to do it.

Now that you know what you want to achieve, the next step is to decide how you want to achieve it.

And you would like to create either simple tasks or a project to achieve the goal.

Let’s take the fitness goal – “Gain 3 kg lean muscle mass in 3 months”.

You may decide to create a project – “Go to the gym 3x weekly”, but you may also decide to create a project “Hire a fitness coach” or “Purchase a customized meal plan from a food expert”.

It’s the same with the corporate goal – you can achieve customer satisfaction in many different ways and can execute a variety of projects for achieving this goal.

Projects also may be very short.

I have worked at 3 year construction projects and yes, I know projects duration may be relatively long. Back then we were even using very complex Gantt charts to plan these projects.

But I like David Allen’s definition that a project is when more then one step is required to get a desired outcome.

I like shorter projects, even projects with as few as 6-7 tasks. Ticking them off feels great and boosts your confidence like nothing else.

The project is the exact blueprint you plan to follow. By the end of the blueprint you achieve your goal.

The goal is “bigger” than the project

Let’s clarify more the difference between goals and projects.

If you put this in hierarchical order, you need to have a clear goal in order to plan your project.

So it looks like this:

Otherwise, your managers (projects) will cut trees in the wrong direction and often in contrary directions.

Here you may want to create projects and sub-projects or tasks and sub-tasks. But I urge you to resists that temptation. This will only over complicate things. If it’s complicated, your chances of success are decreasing.

If you like the idea that a project may consist only of two or three tasks, then …

To achieve a goal you may have to complete several projects

Having a big goal that drives your enthusiasm is great. But in order to achieve it, you may need to complete many different tasks.

Let’s look at this goal: “Start living in a dream home for the whole family until the end of this year”.

This goal may require the following projects:

  1. Research living area and hire real estate agent;
  2. Get approval for bank loan and purchase the dream home;
  3. Hire interior designer and approve design;
  4. Renovate & furnish our home.
  5. Move from current flat to new home

This is just one quick example and of course, the project may benefit from becoming SMART Projects, but that’s another article you can expect here at Goal Buddy 🙂

This chart may help you better understand the difference between goals and projects if you are more of a visual learner:

difference between goals and projects

The goal provides the leadership (the vision), the project provides the management (how to do it)

I’ve done the mistake of writing down projects and naming them goals in the past and it creates chaos.

For example, I defined a goal, but it was really a project. Then I saw that even if I completed “the goal” the outcome would not be what I wanted. So I abandoned or changed the goal.

Abandoning or changing a goal is never a good thing. This ruined the confidence that you can achieve your goals.

The following concept is very important…

You would rarely change a goal. This is your vision for your life and you would change it only after huge or dramatic changes in your life.

But you may want to change the projects much more often.

This happens all the time. You have the goal, you know the outcome you are looking for and set up the projects to achieve them.

Projects are the best guess you can make at the time how to complete your goal.

But just a few weeks in and you see that something is wrong and you cannot complete the project or by completing the project you would not achieve your goal.

You have to be flexible and be able to adjust or change projects to achieve your goal.

And finally… The difference between goals and projects is:

The goal is your vision for better and brighter future.

The projects are your best plans how to achieve your goal.

6 thoughts on “Difference between goals and projects. Explanation with examples.

  • December 1, 2017 at 01:50

    This is very helpful. Thank you tons!

  • September 25, 2018 at 21:19

    This is an excellent article for myself. I’ve read several articles in the past on the subject. I’m struggling currently trying to get some goals and things set up in my life and this article just framed it well for me. Thank you very much!

    • September 27, 2018 at 15:29

      Hi Riley, thanks for the feedback! Wish you success on achieving your goals!

  • January 6, 2021 at 06:24

    This article is very helpful. Thank you very much!

  • September 11, 2021 at 02:56

    This is very helpful & explicit. Now I understand the difference between goals and projects! Thank you!

  • September 17, 2021 at 10:15

    I have read a lot of articles about goals and projects. Here I got it in a very simple way. Thanks


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