What's the Difference Between Goals, Aims and Objectives?

SMART Goals | By Duncan Haughey | Read time minutes

Wooden scrabble pieces on a white background spelling out aim high

In any endeavour, being able to distinguish between your goals, aims and objectives is crucial to your success. What's the difference between the three? In simple terms, a goal is long term, so it's something you work towards. Your goals may thus be some way off in the future and thus take time to achieve, even years in some cases! An aim is a single statement of your purpose. Meanwhile, your aim says why you're doing the things you're doing right now. And finally, your objectives are a series of tasks that you complete to achieve your aim.

Let's dive into each aspect in more detail to really define the difference between goals, aims and objectives.

Goals

Setting goals in life is essential. Otherwise, you aimlessly drift around, hoping for the best to happen. You can avoid that by using the SMART framework to help you think about and craft highly effective, achievable goals in a way that ensures you'll recognise the moment you've achieved whatever goals you've set. If you've spent any time on this website, you're probably familiar with SMART goals. But if not, I've put a link below to my SMART Goals article.

So me years ago, I had a life goal to work for a blue-chip company. It took me several years – and a lot of hard work – to achieve that goal. I eventually joined Unilever, the consumer goods giant, in 1998 and spent 23 glorious years working in their IT department.

I reached that goal by never taking my eyes off the ultimate prize. I was determined to succeed, working and studying for a postgraduate Master of Business Administration (MBA), building my professional network and IT knowledge until the day came when I achieved my goal, my vision.

Often, the secret to achieving any goal is stickability – to stick to it. Many capable people fail simply because they give up too soon. The lesson here? Keep going even when all may seem lost – if you've set SMART goals, you'll know exactly what it'll take for you to achieve them.

Now, suppose you've defined a goal and made it SMART. Let's look at aims and how they work, including in conjunction with your goal.

Large silver letters reading never give up on top of a black box

Aims

An aim is a single statement of purpose and a stepping stone towards your overall goal. For instance, as part of my goal to work for a blue-chip company, I had the aim to complete an MBA. Without a higher qualification, I believed that I wouldn't clear the first hurdle of being offered an interview. This aim became my focus for 3 years, culminating in my graduation ceremony and that all-important certificate. And if you're wondering, my MBA was indeed the decisive factor in getting an interview at Unilever's corporate headquarters.

Of course, you may be simultaneously working on more than one aim – which is just fine – but don't lose sight of your overall goal. Ask yourself whether your aims are driving you closer to that goal. If the aims aren't still relevant, stop to reassess and recalibrate your aims to help get back on track.

Now that you've got a better understanding of aims, what about your objectives? How do they work?

Objectives

Your objectives describe a series of tasks and activities that, if completed, enable you to achieve an aim. Objectives not only map directly onto an aim but also have a start and end date. In my case, my objectives were studying in the evenings and completing the dozens of time-based assignments for my MBA. Each assignment I completed moved me one step closer to my aim.

But there was another benefit as well: over the 3 years of earning my MBA, a lot of the work helped hone my skills in the workplace. I became better at strategy development, budget management, project management, statistical analysis, research and reporting. I knew that if the blue-chip goal failed, I still wanted to be the best in my current employment. Even if I never reached my goal, I was gaining many new skills along the way.

A Final Thought

As someone who has achieved many of my life goals, I would say this: please don’t think it's always the most intelligent or clever people who succeed. Often, those of average intelligence succeed by being better organised and prepared to put in the hard yards.

So just be prepared to put in the work, and remember that all goals, aims and objectives should ultimately be time-limited. While the SMART approach already establishes that all goals should be time-based, this notion also applies to aims and objectives. It's not effective to have open-ended goals, aims and objectives – you're far more likely to fail.

Renowned American philosopher and writer Elbert Hubbard once said, Many people fail in life, not for lack of ability or brains or even courage, but simply because they have never organised their energies around a goal.

In other words, look to establish structure within your goals, aims and objectives. And then achieve balance by making your deadlines achievable – neither too ambitious nor too relaxed. When you can do that, you've got a realistic structure that, when combined with perseverance, will help you find success in achieving all your goals, aims and objectives.

Do you have any tips on achieving life goals that might help or inspire others? What would you advise your younger self?


Duncan Haughey is a project manager and blogger with decades of experience in private organisations, both large and small.


Recommended read: How to Drive Project Success Using SMART Goals, by Duncan Haughey.

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