Stay Woke: Dreams And Goals Are Different (And Why It Matters)


Most of us have long-range plans: things we want to accomplish, places we want to go, money we want to make. Many of these things are attainable goals, while others fall by the wayside as dreams, or even fantasy. And many people, especially in business, seem to associate goals as an acceptable strategy for achieving success and dreams as an idealistic waste of time. But there’s value in both dreams and goals. It’s important to know the difference, but they both matter.

So what’s the difference between goals and dreams? In short, dreams are the visions of our life that we aspire to have. And goals provide the practical actions we can take to make our visions become reality (assuming we’ve set and planned our goals effectively).

The Main Difference between
Dreams and Goals

Image Quote: "The dream is free, but the hustle is sold separately." by Tyrese Gibson (singer)

There’s a popular saying, “The dream is free, but the hustle is sold separately.” (by singer Tyrese Gibson). 

This sums up the main distinction between dreams and goals. Dreaming is essentially free. Having a vision about what I want to be in life, the things I aspire to have, or the type of life I want to live is effortless. I can have these thoughts and wishes while I’m driving to the grocery store, while my husband is blabbing about the latest basketball game, or while sitting in a boring meeting at the office.

But making our dreams come true is a whole ‘nother thing and it’s going to require more than just having a vision about something. Making dreams come to life will require action. And action is just the minimum. It may also require money, skills & education, tools & resources and considerable time.

In summary:
  • Dream = visions of things we want in life
  • Goals = action to make our visions a reality

Dreams Don’t Become Reality
Without Action

So, why does this even matter? You might be saying to yourself, “Ok, I got it...they are not the same. Dreams are dreams. And goals are goals. Who cares?”

Image Quote: "There’s a lot of motivational and self-help advice encouraging us to dream, but often little guidance on how to make those dreams become reality."

It’s important because there’s a lot of motivational and self-help advice encouraging us to dream, but often little guidance on how to make those dreams become reality. Or virtually no acknowledgement that it’s not the dream getting you to where you want to go, but the action. You’ve heard it before:

  • Dream big
  • Aim for the stars
  • Set the bar high for yourself
  • Make vision boards
  • Visualize your life in 10 years
I’ve done all of the visionary advice above. And I think there’s value in doing all of the things above. But I also know the visionary advice in the statements above does a disservice if it leads us to believe that merely having big dreams is all we need for success.

And I know too many people- smart, hard-working, logical people -who think the 4 hours they spent making their vision board on New Year’s Eve is the key to achieving their life’s goals. Me, and almost all of my friends have created a vision board and attended vision board making events. Yet, I know few people who have created specific goals or planned for how to achieve the visions they’ve dreamed about.

And I totally understand this phenomenon.

I’ve written before about how goal planning can feel overwhelming. It can be a tedious and unexciting process. The thought of taking time to strategically map out all of the steps needed to reach my dreams is daunting, overwhelming and seems anything but fun. In contrast, I get so much more pleasure dreaming about the fabulous lifestyle I want to live and gluing a photo of Oprah to my poster board while envisioning how awesome it would be to have her choose one of my products on her annual favorite things list.

The euphoric feelings I get from dreaming is a beautiful thing to experience. It lifts my spirits, makes me feel powerful and capable of achieving anything. I need that in my life from time to time.

But what I don’t need is the disappointment of thinking about my dreams 12 months down the line and realizing the only thing manifested on my vision board is dust. Which is why I make the effort to distinguish between dreams and goals, and take additional steps to plan out my goals. (And I usually realize planning goals is not that difficult if I allow myself to not overthink it and not require perfection.)

Because it’s one thing to have visions about owning a house in the hills next to Beyonce’ or having a business like Bill Gates-- certainly nothing wrong with having big visions that validate life's possibilities while also making me smile, feel happy and giving me hope. But if I’m serious about those visions coming to life in some form or fashion, then I need to start acting like it by making plans and taking action.

Don’t get caught up into buying just the dream. The hustle may be sold separately, but it’s not optional if we want our dreams to come true.

Comparison between a dream statement
and a goal statement

Consider these two statements:
  • One of these days, I’m going to start a business.
  • I will start an online business by August 31, that generates an average of $100/month in income within the first year so I can test the feasibility of my product idea and start my way to financial freedom.

The first statement sounds nice and hopeful, but it’s vague. We have no idea if this person intends to start their business next month, or 20 years from now. We don’t know why they want to start a business or what type of business they aspire to have. This type of statement is a dream.

In contrast, the second statement is much more specific. It answers all of the 5 "W" questions many of us learned in grade school: who, what, when, why and where.

  • WHO: the person making the statement
  • WHAT: will start a business selling a product that makes an average of $100/month
  • WHEN: by August 31 to start the business; within 1 year to meet the monthly income goal
  • WHY: because they want to test the feasibility of their product idea and have financial freedom
  • WHERE: They plan to start their business online.

Comparison between a goal statement
and a goal plan

The above goal statement is ideal because it’s specific and measurable with dates and a financial benchmark. An actionable goal has been set. Now what?

Author Brian Tracy says, “a goal without a plan is just a dream.”

This means even when we’ve set a specific and measurable goal, we’re still not out of the dream phase until we have a plan for that goal. Setting a specific goal is not the same as making a plan for how to accomplish the goal.

To make an effective plan for our goals, we need to consider several factors which, together, will outline how we can achieve the goal.

  • How: What’s the first step I need to take? And the step after that, and so on.
  • Time Estimates: How much time will each step take? How much time will it take overall?
  • Obstacles Assessment: Do I need additional skills, education, money, help from people or other resources?
  • Daily Commitment: Will I be able to work on this goal consistently? Can I commit to spend time on it every day?
  • Accountability: How will I hold myself accountable and ensure I stick to my plans?
  • Evaluation: How will I assess my progress? When should I stop to reflect on whether my plan is working or if it needs revision?

When we consider all of these factors, the path to reach our dreams and goals will be clearer. We’ll have a better idea of whether the goal we’ve set is possible and realistic, or improbable and unreasonable. And, we’ll end up with instructions we can follow, like a roadmap, to reach our goal.

If you’re looking for additional guidance, I discuss these factors more thoroughly in my blog post about Goal Planning. And I’ve created the Ultimate Goal Planning Guide to help you develop a great plan for your own goals.

But the key takeaway here is this: effective goals require both goal setting and goal planning. If you’ve set a goal, but not made plans on how to accomplish it, then you’re likely still in the dreaming phase.

Image Quote: "Effective goals require both goal setting and planning goals."

Let’s recap:

Dream = visions of things you want in life
Goals = action to make your visions a reality

  • Goal Setting = a specific statement to describe what you want to achieve
  • Goal Planning = a detailed roadmap of the actions and steps you need to take to achieve your goal.

Final Thoughts

Dreams are important too. I’m sure there are positive scientific and psychological reasons for why you should dream and have big dreams. Dreamers are not just people who have their head in the clouds. There’s value to dreaming. We need dreams to inspire us to greater things.

However, a lot of self-help advice makes it too easy to think having a dream is enough. Or, that having a dream is the same as having a goal. Yes, there’s value in having both. But there’s also value in knowing the difference. And, in knowing the best way to chase our dreams is with a specific goal plan.

So yes, please continue to dream, and dream big. Please continue to set the bar high for yourself and express your desires on your vision boards. Afterall, this part of dream chasing is free so splurge on it if you want.

And remember there’s another phase to dream chasing. It’s a separate phase and will cost you in the form of making a plan and taking action. Take time to make specific goal statements and goal plans.

Then, start doing and you'll experience the satisfaction of your dreams coming true.


Photo of Blog Author

About the Author

Hi, I'm Shenetta. I'm an e-commerce store owner and business consultant. I'm on a mission to help busy solopreneurs, like me, develop practical productivity habits that put the most meaningful goals in the forefront of their daily hustle.

Grab my Daily One Planner, which has been featured in Entrepreneur. And sign up for my FREE Goal Planning Guide so you can start crushing your goals today.