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Goal Setting: An Evolutionary Tale (And 10 Tips for Better Goals!)

Goal Setting: An Evolutionary Tale (And 10 Tips for Better Goals!)

As the New Year unfolds, goals and resolutions are often top of mind. Blogs and newsletter articles pop up like dandelions in spring, and if you do a quick Google on New Year’s Resolutions, you can treat yourself to several months’ worth of reading material on the “best” way to set goals. Often, people have very strong opinions on the matter, ranging from “goals are stupid; you’re going to fail anyway” to “goals are critically important for continual, forward progress.” 

In reflecting on my own goal-setting strategies, I realized how much my perspective and process has evolved over time. I thought it might be helpful to talk about this evolution and how I’ve reached the approach I take today. To conclude, I offer a summary of my current thoughts and actionable advice on goal setting.

Phase 1: The Pre-Goal Era

Back in the ancient days of my lifting career, I didn't know what I was doing, and I was arguably aimless. I somewhat cringe at the memory, but I did have consistency going for me.  I was extremely regimented and would go to the gym across the street from work seven days a week for 2-3 hours each day.  

I did keep good company.  In the middle of the Longwood Medical Area, right by Harvard Medical School, surrounded by swarms of highly driven, Type-A MD/PhDs, there was a consistent group who kept the gym hopping each night.  Every now and then, one of the trainers would ask one of us about our goals.  Or he would remark "You've been working really hard!  Are you training for something?"  I remember thinking that was a rather ridiculous question.  Goal?  Why do I need one of those?  To me, goals were for people who competed in something or people who needed an external push to get motivated, and neither categorization applied to me at the time. 

Plus, the popular goals didn't really speak to me.  Lose weight?  Well, sure, as a woman it was a given that I wanted to be skinner and smaller, right?  Crazily enough, I did have this goal, even weighing ~120 at 5’ 6”, but fortunately, after years of a very skewed, unhealthy, and negative self-view of my body, I had come to realize that losing weight should—at the very least—not be my first priority. Lower blood pressure?  Mmm, my blood pressure was already borderline hypotensive, so, no thanks.  Run a marathon?  Meh.  

What else was there?  I really had no idea what kind of goal would even be appropriate, let alone personally meaningful. And if I had to think so hard about what my goal should be, I probably wouldn’t be that excited about working towards it anyway.

Coming from a running background, the idea of spending ~10-15 hours a week invested in physical activity seemed completely normal. I didn't really think too much about my whys in regard to fitness.  And why did I need to think about my whys?  This was, of course, before Start with Why was written and the name Simon Sinek was not widely known.  All I knew was that exercise is important for maintaining and maximizing health, and I value health.

Rather than focusing on what you want to do or how you’re going to do it, first think about why you want to do it

And, way more importantly, exercise made me feel good. It boosted my mood and energy.   I felt strong and capable when I trained consistently.  I felt productive.   The gym was one of my two major social outlets.  It honestly felt more like home in many ways than my actual residence.  So, in short, I didn't need the external push of a goal to get myself to the gym and work hard.  

One of the Children's Hospital researchers I often chatted with remarked that his goal was, simply, "to come to the gym every day and continue to get stronger."  YES.  That summed up my sentiments as well. Simple and vague, perhaps, but that was fine with me.

It honestly really irritated me that so many people were insistent that everyone needed a goal.  "Hey!  I'm a millennial!  Don't tell me what to do! I’ll set a goal if and when I darn well please!”

[Side note: meanwhile, despite my laziness in formalizing my goals, I did unintentionally find myself setting goals all the time.  On a micro basis, I'd set rep goals for myself ("FIVE pullups today, self!").  On a longer term basis, I'd set movement goals for myself ("Hey, the kettlebell stuff that trainer is teaching look really cool—let's learn about that!" I’ll return to this point later.]

Phase 2: “Brain, tear down that wall!”

Spending the amount of time that I did in the gym, I collected a lot of data people watching (in a non-creepy way, I swear).  There was that one guy who performed the exact same thing every single day: dumbbell bench press with 65s on the flat bench, followed by cycling on the recumbent bike while reading the morning paper.  He did have exceptionally well-developed calves, but I remember thinking what a shame it was that he was so consistent yet making no progress.  Why not try the 70s this time?  Or, I don't know, try a row variation or something to complement all that pressing?

Then there was the Dragon boat paddler guy.  He always seemed to be training for a competition of some sort.  He was honestly a little scary while he was sprinting on the erg, and he let EVERYONE know how hard he was working with his loud, enthusiastic grunts.  But I admired his focus and intensity. And it was motivating to see someone have something specific to work towards.

And then, a few years later, one of the newer trainers started working with one of her more experienced colleagues to prep for a powerlifting meet. That piqued my interest. I don’t know if I had just never noticed them before, or if the facility had just purchased them, but I gained a new awareness of a thing called a barbell. And I thought it was so cool to train in a manner where you were highly focused on working to build absolute (maximal) strength.

In the past, you could have best categorized my training as a bodybuilding-style “program”: high frequency, high volume, moderate weight. Now, the idea of getting actually STRONG became a thing in my brain, even if I still didn’t really understand the distinction between strength and muscle at this point. But I had a new desire to get someplace, rather than just spinning my wheels. I wanted to improve my skill at more technical lifts and become measurably stronger, rather than just check off a daily workout.

I had come to accept that goals could be pretty cool things that push you to do pretty cool things. 

Phase 3: The Numbers Game

With my perspective shift, I jumped headfirst into strength training and enjoyed a period of swift beginner gains. It was awesome! Add five pounds to the bar EVERY session? Cool!

Before I knew it, I was setting all kinds of goals: deadlift my bodyweight, squat my bodyweight, bench press with the kinda big plates (the 25s). Check, check, check. Being able to do more and more each week was incredibly satisfying and fun! I couldn’t believe I used to be content doing essentially the same workout day after day, only increasing weight every few months.

As in previous years, I never paused to consider my “why,” but if I had to guess in hindsight, it was twofold: feel strong and continue to make progress. And, honestly, probably a bit of validation-seeking as well, to prove—if only to myself—that I was could justifiably think of myself as “strong,” as if you could easily define strength by some arbitrary quantity of weight lifted. 

Little goals beget larger goals.

As my strength journey continued, I set my sights on more ambitious objectives: deadlift 2x bodyweight, deadlift 300 lbs, perform a ½ bodyweight getup, do 15 tactical pullups, press a 16kg bell for five clean reps and snatch a 16kg bell for 100 reps in five minutes (to complete a StrongFirst kettlebell instructor certification).

With highly specific, numerical feats to accomplish, I had a destination. Now I needed a plan. You can’t pull twice your bodyweight without a plan. I was no longer content to bop around in the gym, haphazardly performing random acts of variety. I needed a plan, and I needed help.

Knowledgeable, experienced coaches gave me the roadmap and guidance to go from A to B, and soon I had more check marks. Checking things off felt really good!

Those check marks gave me confidence to set additional goals and to persist, even on those tough, demoralizing days when training felt more like a slog than a triumphant road to victory (especially working on those darn kettlebell presses!). Goals like a 300 lb deadlift gave me direction and focus, which in turn cultivated a strong emotional investment (if failing on a 285 lb deadlift one morning shortly before a competition and immediately crumpling on the ground into a puddle of tears is any indication). My enthusiasm for, and drive to reach, the goal grew as I worked towards it.

Unlike in my unfocused early days, I grew to begrudgingly accept the fact that my actions carried tradeoffs. If I were serious about a goal, I needed to act in a manner consistent with my goal. If I wanted to pass my kettlebell certification, for example, I needed to spend a lot of time with kettlebells and not get distracted with working towards a 1 rep max back squat.

With clearly defined objectives, I learned to “keep the goal the goal” as Dan John (a well-known strength coach) would say.

While I had worked towards a 300 lb deadlift for a long time, the actual PR itself came as a surprise, on a day when I least expected it and certainly hadn’t planned it

Phase 4: Who cares?

As 2016 came to a close, I sat down to reflect and think towards the future. What did I want to work on in 2017?

At this point, having read probably a hundred different opinion pieces on the “best” way to set goals for the New Year, I typically start the process with key categories: health/fitness, wealth/career, social/relationships, mental/education, and emotional health/spiritual. For years, the part that has been most fun to me is setting strength goals for the next year. 

But this year was weird. I excitedly planned out things like getting my recovery on track (SLEEP!), reading and writing more, and learning to play ukelele. But fitness/strength goals? Nothing was really coming to mind. At least nothing number-based.

I am super excited about building my proficiency in the Olympic lifts, and I know I need to work on some strength/mobility issues. But when I was thinking about pressing the 24kg bell or squatting two wheels (225 lbs), I was kind of disinterested. Yeah, it would be cool, but…who cares? It’s not like squatting 225 lbs will make me a better person or a better coach. It won’t cause dollar bills to rain down from the sky or bring world peace.

For a minute, I was concerned about my lack of ambition. “You feeling OK, self?” Then, I felt OK about it. Good, even.

I know I’m strong, and I don’t feel a need to prove it (what an incredibly freeing perspective!). Sure, there are benchmark lifts I’d love to hit at some point, but I’ll get there when I get there. Trying to speed up or schedule non-linear processes like strength building is asking for disappointment or injury.

Challenges are opportunities to grow and learn; they are not tests of our innate abilities or our worth as a person

Hard work and focus are important, of course. But so, too, are patience, prioritization, and an appreciation for the process. 

This year, in my “health/fitness” category, I’m most excited to develop a skill. This doesn’t lend itself to a time-bound outcome goal (e.g., clean and jerk 135 lbs by March 1st) but, rather, a behavioral goal (e.g., practice weightlifting each training day to build consistency and control over bar path). Committing to a goal weight will only cause me to rush through the crucial foundational step of developing my skill. I need to be patient and embrace practice over performance.

Unlike when I was in my early 20s, I no longer have hours and hours each week available to train, and I have more responsibilities, a way longer commute, and people (and a dog!) in my life that need my attention. While training is very important to me, I have other priorities that demand my focus and time. I can choose to prioritize, or I can try to do everything and succeed at nothing.

Yes, I’ve had to reduce my training frequency to free up time for long dog walks, but I wouldn’t trade this fur monster for the world

I have also learned to anticipate setbacks. Set a date to press a 24kg bell if you want, but strength building is not something that always follows a smooth schedule.

Some goals lend themselves very well to the classic SMART criteria: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound. Things like saving a certain amount of money for your retirement fund. But other goals are better left as intentions or as daily habits you intend to practice for an indefinite amount of time. Who is to say how long it will take me to become comfortable clean and jerking my body weight? I’d be foolish to set a deadline for this when I still need to improve consistency. But I can recognize weightlifting as something exciting to me and set process goals, until setting more measurable, number-based outcome goals makes sense.

I certainly still have fitness goals, but, at this point, I am giving myself the space to be more flexible in how I structure those goals.

And, with that, here is my current advice on (fitness-related) goal setting:

  1. Let goals come to you. If you force yourself to set a goal, you will almost definitely not be excited or invested, which means you will almost definitely not be successful. There’s nothing wrong with not having a specific outcome in mind if you’re having fun and being consistent getting movement in your life. Don’t stress about changing anything. (Remember in Phase 1 when little goals presented themselves to me? That’s what we’re going for.)
  2. That said, I do encourage people who are not feeling excited about the gym and/or not having fun in their training to find something specific to work towards; working towards a goal builds emotional investment as you put in sweat equity, and success with early goals builds confidence to push your sights higher.
  3. If you feel you need something to work towards to boost your motivation and consistency but you’re having trouble formalizing goals, talk it out with a coach! Think about what is important to you. Maybe it’s feeling strong, increasing endurance, lowering blood pressure, establishing a routine, or feeling energetic enough to play with your kids/grandkids. Whatever it is, enlist your coach’s help in translating that into a more specific outcome and then 1-2 concrete behaviors that you can perform to reach that outcome. For example, you want to “feel strong” so your coach suggests working towards your first unassisted pullup. To achieve that outcome, your coach prescribes greasing the groove 3-5 days per week with band-assisted pullups and performing hollow holds 3-5 days per week.
  4. If you’ve set the exact same goal year after year, ask yourself if you actually care about it; if not, drop it! If yes, perhaps it’s a little too ambitious and you should work on a sub-goal as a stepping stone. Or maybe you just need some help from someone knowledgeable and experienced to refine your plan.
  5. Relatedly, if you have already set a goal, ask yourself if it is really YOUR goal. Are you trying to lose fat because you want to lower your blood pressure or run faster or prepare for an upcoming pregnancy? If so, cool! However, or are you trying to lose fat because you feel like you “should”? Or because all your friends are trying to lose 10 lbs? If so, a fat loss goal might just not be that meaningful or important to YOU, in which case, drop it!
  6. Most goals are going to start with an outcome in mind, then you (or your coach) will work backwards to figure out the behaviors you need to adopt to meet that outcome. Outcome goals can be highly motivating, but without behavioral (or process) goals, they do you little good. Behavioral goals give you your roadmap and control over your process.
  7. Be very specific in defining your outcome, and then be very specific in defining your behaviors. A goal is meant to provide focus and direction, and vague descriptions like “lose weight” or “eat better” or “get toned” don’t provide either focus or direction.
  8. Once you’ve decided on a specific goal, commit to it and be consistent in the behaviors necessary to reach that goal; trust your coach, trust the process, and be patient. Anticipate the rough times, and keep the goal (and your why) in mind to keep yourself consistent.
  9. If you don’t have a super clear picture of your outcome yet (or don’t feel comfortable setting a time limit on your goal), that is fine! Outcome goals can be great motivators, but they are not required, especially early in your journey. Just be very clear on your behaviors, like getting to the gym 4x per week or eating 30g protein 4x per day.
  10. Goals are meant to push you to better yourself; they are not meant to make you feel bad or judge yourself. If you find yourself becoming obsessive (in a bad way) or feeling ashamed when progress seems slow or absent, assess if you’ve set an appropriate goal and seek assistance from someone you trust, like your coach, to refine your goal and strategy.

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