Goal setting is just one of those things that we are all aware of, but most of us don’t understand.
Sure, we THINK we know how to set a goal, but every day we see people making the same mistakes.
A new trainee will enter a gym and book a consultation with a trainer and at the start of that consultation he will be handed a small questionnaire to fill in. Amongst the questions about his blood pressure, his eating habits and whether or not he is pregnant, he will be asked what his goals are, and at this point he will stumble.
The average Joe (or Jane, or course) will put something along the lines of ‘lose weight’, ‘lose fat’, ‘tone up’ or ‘get fitter’, and this is what they will strive to do. They think about these things, dream about them, and then they talk about them whilst they slowly but surely continue to *NOT HAPPEN*. In fact, the average Joe or Jane will be dreaming about these goals for years, even their entire life, whilst they go from gym to PT to bootcamp and diet to diet to diet on a never ending cycle of disappointment.
So why DO people struggle to achieve what they want to? We can talk about their goals not fitting the SMART model if we want, but honestly that article has been done a million times and we do try our best not to be boring.
- A goal needs to be Specific and Measurable (Lose, say, 14lbs rather than lose weight)
- A goal needs to be Achievable and Realistic (If you currently don’t train, a 300kg squat might be a bit of a stretch)
- A goal needs to be time constrained (Set a date and stick to it. Goals without an end will not be achieved – you need pressure!)
But you know all that, so there’s little point in flogging that horse. We’ve got three better reasons, and we’ll start with the most important.
It’s not really your goal
I see this all the time. I’ll ask someone what their goal is, what they want to ACHIEVE and they will tell me their answer with a straight face, a monotone voice and a dead stare into middle distance. I can tell immediately that this person will fail. Why? Because they don’t actually give a crap about whether they succeed or not.
Goals should ignite passion in you, be something that gets you out of bed in the morning and be something which you go to bed thinking about. If you don’t really want to squat over double your bodyweight, or run a marathon, or get down to your university dress size, then what are the chances that you will continue working towards it when it starts to be hard?
You won’t, because it doesn’t matter to you.
We have these dreams, maybe we write them down and we look at them, but they just remain that - ‘dreams’. It’s a list of things that would be ‘nice to have’. It would be nice to have abs, or a 6 figure salary, or a 700kg powerlifting total, it would, but it would also take a hell of a lot of work and the cost:benefit ratio just isn’t there for you. To make a goal worthwhile, the pain of achieving it needs to be outweighed by the pain of not doing so.
Basically, you have to perceive yourself to be be more uncomfortable not having the thing you want, than you will be during the process of getting it.
So here’s what we do. Forget the future, and forget all of those things far away that would be nice if we had them. Think now. What is part of your reality NOW that you want rid of?
- Get out of breath chasing the kids around the park?
- Watch other guys warm up with your max?
- Tired of wearing baggy sweatpants?
These things hold an emotional attachment to you because you live with them every day. Rather than it being an intangible thing you kinda sorta want and which may or may not make you happy, having it your goal to remove these things from your world is incredibly motivating because you KNOW you’ll be happier when you have done what you’re setting out to do.
You are uncomfortable NOW, so changing the source of your discomfort for a while and putting in the work to change your reality is a far smaller ask.
Make changing these things your goal and you are a long way further down the road.
It’s outcome based
Tying in with the above, people tend to think of outcomes as their goals. They want abs by Christmas, they want an extra 50kg on their total by their next meet, they want to earn 100k next year...but these things often seem hugely daunting. Not only are they daunting because it’s going to be a huge task to achieve, but it’s daunting because of all of the work it represents.
Think about it, dropping three dress sizes will require patience, determination and consistency. You will have to change your diet, your exercise regime, likely your sleep, maybe social behaviour (no, drinking a bottle of wine or three every weekend is not a great idea) and general outlook on life.
That’s going to seem an impossible task!
What I advise people do, in training or in life, is that they make their goal behaviour based.
Follow the same rules about SMART goal setting, but make it a behaviour change instead. Say someone told me that their goal was to compete in a physique show, but they had only just started and were overweight, we would break that down into steps.
- Lose a bunch of fat.
- Gain a bunch of lean tissue.
- Start contest prep and get really, really lean.
- Learn to pose.
That’s a lot of work, and will take years. No surprises just about every beginner (or relative beginner) who has this goal never ends up doing it.
So we break it RIGHT down into habits that are achievable and will contribute to each step. Rather than making it our goal to compete, make it our goal that by next week we will be eating protein at every meal. This is specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time constrained. The client can complete this goal, then we add another habit which will be done across the board – let’s make it veggies at each meal, then drink 2l water per day, sleep at least 7 hours as a priority and so on until we have a whole load of healthy habits which have formed into a full-on healthy lifestyle.
All of a sudden our wannabe competitor is losing fat like nobody’s business because he has automatically reduced his caloric intake, and increased his activity levels, and when he DOES lose the fat he will keep it off because he has the skills to do so. That, you see, is the MAIN problem with outcome-based goals: They leave room for a ‘what now?’ moment.
Make it your goal to lose fat, buy Herbalife and live on that for 6 months, you lost fat. Now what?
Or, it’s your aim to lose fat so you make it your goal to eat protein at each meal, then to cook for yourself 90% of the time, then to eat veggies at every meal which take up half of the plate, then to eat mindfully and focus on your food, stopping when satisfied, then to order a black coffee rather than a Caramel Latte, then to…
Once all this is done, some minor fine tuning is all it takes to get to the finish line.
Suddenly the fat is gone and you barely know how it happened. Suddenly you’re in a better position to move forward. Suddenly your goals are taking you towards your overall aim.
Setting goals that we can achieve keeps us focused and stops us from procrastinating
You tell people about it
If you set a goal, you should tell everyone about it, right?
Actually, in my opinion, you shouldn't tell anyone about your goals - at least not right away.
Kinda counter-intuitive, isn’t it? Surely by telling others you make yourself accountable, and you then receive either support or peer pressure which spurs you on to reach your goals?
In 1933, W. Mahler discovered a strange phenomenon(1). What he found is that if a problem is presented and someone provides a solution, as soon as people agree that said solution will solve the issue, the person who worked it out stops working because they feel like they have accomplished something.
Following this research, Peter Gollwitzer of New York University published some results (2) which indicated that the same thing happens when someone intends to do something. That is, a study of 63 people indicated that telling someone what you plan to do gives you a ‘premature sense of completeness’ which is satisfying enough to stop you ACTUALLY doing what you set out to do.
It feels awesome to talk about the future and your goals, but that is itself a problem. If you’re always talking about making your fortune you start to feel so good about your proactive-ness and productivity that you get distracted and don’t actually try to do it.
Tell people you’re going to go to the gym every day? You probably wont, because people will think you’re awesome for saying you’ll go and that’s enough. Talking about dieting? It may make you feel good but it won’t make your clothes any looser.
As a final consideration, setting a goal publicly is kinda scary. You're putting yourself out there and ultimately making yourself vulnerable. If you don't manage it, you feel like you'll appear to be a failure.
What's worse, is that setting a goal (especially a muscle gain or fat loss one) means that you're setting a goal which will take AGES to accomplish. Losing a fair amount of fat safely can take months, and building appreciable muscle will take years.
So when you feel great and have made progress, but you don't look like a different person after 4 weeks, you start to question yourself, second guess, and wonder if you're actually doing all that well at all.
This creates fear, which breeds apprehension, which leads to any sane person to avoid the situation altogether. This fear can legitimately lead to people not starting out in the first place, and it's TOTALLY justified.
So make goals, because goals are awesome, but don't feel that you need to tell anyone. Just go and be awesome then wait for them to ask you how you did it.
I love goal setting. I do it every day myself in the form of a To Do list. Setting goals that we can achieve keeps us focused and stops us from procrastinating as soon as one task is finished, even though we think we have earned a break.
Make it your goal today to work on one habit which matches the habits of those who have succeeded where you want to succeed. Do that, and you’re one step closer already.
- Mahler, W. (1933). Ersatzhandlungen verschiedenen Realitatsgrades. Psychologische Forschung, 18, 27–89
- Gollwitzer Sheeran Seifert Michalski When Intentions (PDF)
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