It’s no secret that goal setting is a hot topic in today’s world. And not just in fitness, but in many other areas including finances, career, and health.
Everywhere you look, there seems to be yet another article or video trying to get you on board and show you how to set and achieve your desired goals effectively.
Most of us never take the time to truly appreciate what we’ve achieved so far because we are always preoccupied with the next milestone.
But, as we’ll cover in a bit, too much of a good thing can be harmful, and this fully applies to goal setting.
To keep things fair, we’ll also go over how to set goals effectively, what common mistakes to avoid, and most importantly, how to achieve your objectives every time.
But First, Why Are Goals Important to Have?
“If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there.”Lewis Carroll
I like this quote because it speaks a lot of truth. The fact is, while goals can sometimes get in the way and lead us to fail, they are also important. Goals give direction to our efforts and continually remind us of where we want to get eventually. This is vital because not knowing what you want to achieve is the surest way to fail.
Let’s, for example, take fitness. This simple term encompasses so many different things and potential goals. Some get into fitness to lose some weight; others want to build some muscle and bulk up. A third group of people wants to improve their sprint time or vertical jump. On and on it goes. And each of these potential goals requires a specific approach to fitness.
So, if you get into fitness without any clear goals in mind, you’ll quickly find yourself confused and overwhelmed.
Imagine that fitness is an open sea, and your actions represent a rowing boat. So long as you keep rowing, you’ll move in some direction. But if you don’t know what direction you want to go in, you can easily find yourself rowing back and forth for what seems like an eternity without getting anywhere.
This is all well and good, and it makes sense. But one logical question arises, “So why is it that, despite many people having similar goals, our results tend to vary so much?”
Habits, Consistency and Getting Back on Track Quickly
Let’s face it:
Goal setting isn’t noble, it doesn’t require much effort, and it certainly doesn’t achieve anything on its own. In fact, one could argue that we’ve become quite good at setting goals and not so much at attaining them. Dedicate an hour on a Sunday afternoon, and you can probably bang out at least ten goals for various aspects of your life.
The fact is, a twenty-year-old Elon Musk probably had many of the same goals as some of his contemporaries. But why is it that we’ve all come to know Elon while so many others have failed and given up?
It all comes down to habits, consistency, and the ability to bounce back from failures and setbacks.
Granted, while Musk might not be the best example of someone who does things at a sustainable pace (for the average person, at least), he’s an excellent example of what can be achieved through consistent hard work.
You see, your habits are what drives your behaviors, thoughts, and things you say. Believe it or not, 40 to 95% of the things we do, think, and feel daily are based on habit – they are more or less automatic. At least, that’s what research suggests. So it’s important to build habits that work in our favor and break those that work against us.
Take, for example, the act of working out. Three hour-long sessions a week don’t seem like much. But stretch that over a year, and that’s a solid 156 hours of exercise. In a decade, that’s 1,560 hours. Consistency scales our efforts up quite a bit over the months and years. So much so that we can make drastic changes without having to make fitness the center of our lives.
When it comes to bouncing back from setbacks, nutrition often comes to mind. Take, for example, eating healthy. We’ve all been there:
Bubbling with motivation at the start of a new diet. Things are going great, sticking with our meals isn’t an issue, and the scale shows consistent progress. But then, we all slip up – an unhealthy meal, a night out drinking with friends, a few too many cookies, or something else.
No matter how bad it may seem, understand that this is nothing more than a setback and so long as you get back on track after, you’ll be just fine. A single meal doesn’t define you. But most folks feel guilty, decide to drop everything, and only make things worse by doubling down on that setback.
Luckily, there’s a reasonable strategy you can use to stay consistent more easily and experience setbacks less often.
Do Things At a Sustainable Pace And Be Consistent
Prevailing wisdom claims that we need to do things with incredible intensity to achieve good results – especially when fitness is concerned. Many folks have the ‘all or nothing’ mentality, which does more harm than good.
We often set incredibly high and unrealistic goals because we feel like that’s the way to go. Plus, being highly motivated helps. So we jump on overly-restrictive diets and very demanding training programs. And that works… for a bit. But then, once fatigue and hunger set in, you start questioning your decision and are much more likely to give up altogether. Why? Because that’s not a sustainable pace.
An excellent way to evaluate whether or not something is sustainable is to ask yourself, “Can I keep doing this for a year? How about a decade?”
Let’s get back to our example of three weekly workouts from above. We concluded that, though it may seem like it’s not enough, that simple habit results in over 150 hours of exercise every year.
Now, let’s flip the scenario and evaluate the other standard route – dedicating yourself to a very demanding program. Say that program has you train six days per week, for over an hour each time. In a year, that’s over twice as many exercise hours. But most folks don’t make it to the second month. Why? It’s unsustainable. And you’d be surprised to find out just how mentally-demanding it can be to have to train every day.
So you see, it’s much better to do things at a smaller, more manageable scale over the long run than to go all out for three weeks and give up. So what if you can’t eat healthy foods all of the time? A couple of nutritious meals per day are still better than nothing? Or what if you can’t train more than twice per week? Again, it’s infinitely better than not doing anything.
Now, just as we tend to set incredibly high goals, there’s one other common mistake people make when it comes to goal-setting.
In the field of psychology, there’s a concept called “goal competition.” According to researchers, goal competition refers to the common roadblocks we all face – the inability to achieve one goal because of other purposes. Each of our goals competes with the others for our time and attention.
Once you set a goal, you need to give it enough time and attention – that’s a given. The problem is, we only have so much time and energy we can put into our objectives, and every new goal you set automatically pulls your focus and energy from your previous goals. The more goals you have, the thinner your attention and energy become spread.
This often leads to not achieving any goal (or, even making noticeable progress), especially when it comes to contradicting goals (i.e., two conflicting goals that require vastly different actions to complete).
The good news is, there’s a fix for that. Grab a pen, take your goals list out and start crossing out. One of the best ways to make progress in one direction is to eliminate (or, at least, pause) other goals and put all of your attention and energy to it.
Your approach to goal setting may not be inherently wrong, but you may need to make some adjustments to your priorities.
Take, for example, the two contradicting fitness goals of building muscle and losing fat. Yes, there are scenarios where achieving both at the same time is possible, but that’s beyond the scope of today’s article.
Now, a lot of people waste their time, trying to achieve both objectives at the same time. But, with a simple look at priorities, almost everyone can make noticeable progress in either direction in mere months. But try to do both at the same time, and you can easily waste a whole year without getting anywhere. And that’s just an example of two contradicting goals. Imagine having four, five, or more?
With that said, you can have more than one goal at any given time. But you need to pick them carefully and seek out ways to make them work together.
How to Make Your Goals Work Together
Let me give you something to think about:
Think about a typical work or school day. Are there specific actions you do one after the other in the same order and fashion every day?
Grabbing a cigarette after lunch. Flossing after brushing your teeth. Taking a shower after working out. Preparing food after getting back home.
If you think hard enough, you can probably come up with three or more actions you do in the same circumstances and order every day.
What’s interesting about this is that it gives us some insight into how we usually operate and how we can use this to our advantage. An excellent way to create new habits that work in favour of your goals is to link them with things you’re already doing.
For example, stretching for five minutes after a workout. If you’re already consistent with your workouts, you can use that to your advantage and add another positive behavior to the equation.
It’s a no brainer because you’ve liked it with something you already do and that alone is enough to help you follow through. Plus, you would be piggybacking off of the momentum you’ve already created – it’s much easier to keep being active and do things once you’ve already started.
Other examples include:
- Working out at home – I’ll exercise for 10 minutes in the morning after I brush my teeth.
- Eating more healthy meals – I’ll have a healthy meal after every workout.
- Reading – I’ll read ten pages before bed.
Track Your Progress (and The Importance of Specific Goals)
As the old saying goes, “You can’t improve what you don’t measure.” The fact is, this saying applies to every aspect of life, and we need to be mindful of our progress (or lack thereof). That’s the best way to make sure that we are doing the right things. If you’re making good progress, keep at it. If not, make small adjustments until you do.
Now, the problem is, most folks go about vaguely setting goals. What would you say is wrong with the statement, “I want to lose weight.”?
If you thought that the statement is not actionable or specific, you’re spot on. You see, having the goal of losing weight is good, but vague statements like that rarely lead to lasting results.
For you to accurately track your progress, you need to have clear and actionable goals. Rather than say, “I want to lose weight.” flip it and make it actionable:
“I want to lose 5 pounds in the next 21 days.”
This is a much clearer goal, you can more easily track your progress on it, and it’s quite realistic. Together, these factors make the goal useful.
If you ever feel unsure, follow the S.M.A.R.T. goals acronym:
S – Specific
M – Measurable
A – Achievable
R – Realistic
T – Timely
So long as you cover each of these, your goals will be reliable, and you’ll have a much easier time constructing a plan of action.