Global conservation targets to reverse biodiversity declines and halt species extinctions are not being met despite decades of conservation action. However, a lack of measurable change in biodiversity indicators towards these targets is not necessarily a sign that conservation has failed; instead, temporal lags in species’ responses to conservation action could be masking our ability to observe progress towards conservation success. Here we present our perspective on the influence of ecological time lags on the assessment of conservation success and review the principles of time lags and their ecological drivers. We illustrate how a number of conceptual species may respond to change in a theoretical landscape and evaluate how these responses might influence our interpretation of conservation success. We then investigate a time lag in a real biodiversity indicator using empirical data and explore alternative approaches to understand the mechanisms that drive time lags. Our proposal for setting and evaluating conservation targets is to use milestones, or interim targets linked to specific ecological mechanisms at key points in time, to assess whether conservation actions are likely to be working. Accounting for ecological time lags in biodiversity targets and indicators will greatly improve the way that we evaluate conservation successes.