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Should I Set Realistic Goals or Dream Big? Actually, There’s a Third Option.

Updated: May 20, 2022

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Realistic Goals vs. Big Resolutions

2022 is here! Everyone has a clean planner, new multicolored pens, and a fresh vision board. I love this moment.

But for anyone saddled with memories of last year’s vision board - you know, the one that turned into a shame board by February - this moment can feel a little haunted.

Yes, I’m talking about the holiday version of goal setting - New Year's Resolutions. Everyone makes them. Few of us stick to them. But still, we go back to the same process every 365 days like moths to a bug zapper.

In my experience, resolutions go one of two ways. They’re either giant or microscopic. Either it’s “climb Everest” or “clean out the junk drawer.” There are no medium-sized resolutions.

So as we all stand here with our dry erase pens poised, ready to sketch out the future year, I think we should pause a moment and ask one question.

Is it better to dream big or set realistic goals?

Are you going to double your income? Or get better about flossing your teeth?

Will you finally write that novel? Or get the car inspected on time?

Do you pay off your mortgage? Or call your mom once a week?

Basically, are you going epic or teeny-tiny?

I only ask because dreaming on the right scale might be a key to your success. So let’s consider it.

Should we go big or small? What’s better? What really works?

The Problem with “Pie in the Sky” Dreaming

I’m gonna be upfront with you. Dreaming big? That’s my thing. I looooove big goals. They get me going. But I can’t ignore how many good, serious sources say that “realistic goals” are the way to go.

I mean, yeah, realistic goals may not sound as sexy as dreaming big, but there’s a real disadvantage to goals that are so hard to grab that you spend most of your days chasing after them.

When you have big goals you live more or less in “a failure state” for a long time. Psychologist Adam Alter told Business Insider, “Even if you ultimately reach your goal…you’ve still spent most of your time not hitting the target.”1

And that’s a horrible feeling. In fact, it’s lethal to a lot of dreamers.

Most of us can’t go for long with that level of emotional starvation. It’s easy to mistake a long-term pursuit for a hopeless one.

Realistic goals are different. The turnaround time can feel rocket fast. You get a steady stream of change, growth, and re-invention when you work with realistic goals.

As you hit each realistic goal - success after success piles up on your plate. Completion starts to feel like a habit. Eventually, you'll see yourself as someone who knows how to set goals and achieve them.

So...realistic goals it is.

But wait.

The Problem with Setting Realistic Goals

Okay, here’s my problem with a phrase like “realistic goals” - it can be a bit of a cheat.

See, people use realistic goals more often to hide from their potential than anything else. They cling to realistic goals as a smokescreen for not facing their fears.

Yes, if you dream big you might be setting yourself up to fail. But realistic goals might set you up to succeed at things that don’t really matter to you.

In my experience, most people undervalue their potential. To step out on a ledge and try for something “too big” is often just what they need to break out of a destructive pattern.

Sounds scary? Yeah, that’s kind of the point.

Realistic goals live safely inside your Comfort Zone. And, ironically, it’s what makes life soooo uncomfortable over time.

Sticking religiously to realistic goals can hold you down. And it can leave you, ultimately, with the nagging sensation of a life unlived.

So…Wait. I’m Confused. What Do I Do?

What are we saying then? Which is right? Do we set realistic goals or dream big?

The answer is…both.

I’m sorry. I’d love to give you a straight yes or no answer. But it’s not that simple.

You’re going to have to dance with your goals a little.

You need to dream big and set realistic goals.

Here. Try this:

First, Go Big.

Yaaaaas! Do it.

Dream your big dreams guys. Ignore the entire concept of realistic goals. Set aside a lot of time to brainstorm and give yourself permission to imagine anything…anything. Don’t consider how you’re going to do it. Just. Go. Nuts.

  • Go for Inspiration - Write down ideas that really get your motor going. Don’t think of what other people value, just the stuff that matters to you. Ridiculous stuff. Stuff you're embarrassed to say out loud. Don’t say “I can’t” or “that’s dumb.” Just let your mind go where it goes.

  • Streeeeeeeetch - Allow your brain to get a little uncomfortable too. Write down, not just exciting stuff, but scary stuff too. Put down all your humiliating dreams. Doesn’t matter if they’re exhausting, impossible, or expensive. Write them down.

  • Go for Something Life-Changing - If you’re going to dream big, go ahead and make noticeable life changes. Do you want to move to a different continent? Change your gender? Quit your current job? Write things that would make people say, “Whoa! What happened?!”

  • Dream with Detail - Before moving on, be sure to write out your big dreams in super-fine detail. Make them real. Describe them. Add colors, sights, sensations - really paint a picture.

Once you go big you’ll probably feel elated, excited, maybe even a little scared.

Terrific. Now…it’s time to get small.

Go Small.

When you’re driving to another city, you go bit by bit. You get in the car. You pull out of your driveway. You go to the end of your block, out of the neighborhood, to the onramp. Finally, you’re flying down the highway.

That’s how you leave the comfort zone too. Bit by bit.

  • Break Your Picture Up - Take a few of your big goals. Break each down into smaller steps. Then break those steps into even smaller steps. And so on and so on and so on.

  • Put Away Your Big Dreams - WHAT?! I know. I know. But you need to set aside your big goals for a second. Don’t worry. It’s just for now. And you can pull them out whenever you need a boost of inspiration.

  • Elevate the Small Steps - Take the small steps from above and elevate their status. They are no longer “small steps.” These are your “goals” now. To be more precise, these are your “realistic goals.”

  • Take a Free Sample - One more important thing. Don’t delay all gratification until the end. Enjoy a bit of your big dream today, right now.

If your long-term goal is to sail around the world in your own boat, do some sailing this weekend. If your dream is to own a cabin in the mountains, rent one for the weekend.

Studies suggest that “immediate benefits are a stronger predictor of persistence than delayed benefits…” It may feel indulgent, but putting some of your big dreams into your daily life will pull you more inevitably toward that big conclusion. 2

Rebranding Your Goals

Rebranding your little steps as “realistic goals” is sort of like hacking your own brain. But that’s okay, isn’t it?

If you transform enough of these small steps into realistic goals, you could find yourself on the pathway out of your comfort zone. You could find yourself face to face with some of your biggest, most audacious dreams.

Are we buds on Instagram? No? For the love of holy hippogriffs, what are you doing!?


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