I love goal setting: it keeps me motivated, sane and gives a sense of purpose to my decision making in everyday life. I’m one of those fortunate individuals in that respect – I’m sure a therapist would have a field day exploring why and how I became so goaL – orientated (my dad has told me on several occasions I’m a stubborn bastard who’s had a point to prove from day one!) but nevertheless it’s something I’ve made work for me. However, many of us struggle to keep ‘on track’ with our goals and instead of something to be worked towards with a sense of purpose, they become intimidating millstones. Instead of inspiring us, they serve only to remind us of our perceived shortcomings until eventually, as all toxic relationships must, we give them up for our own wellbeing. Unfortunately, rather than feeling liberated from them, many find their self – image and self – esteem hugely damaged from the whole process. How then, can we make goal – setting work for us?
If I were to hazard a guess as to why most goal – setting eventually falls apart, I need only take a drive. Ask yourself: if you were to drive 30 miles in any direction, how many roadworks would you see running over time? How many building sites that were supposed to be buildings 6 months ago? It happens all the time, and one of the reasons is the fundamental inability of human beings to predict the future. Whenever these long -term projects are undertaken, people base their forecasts on ‘best – case scenario.’ Rarely is this the case – workers get ill, weather gets in the way, costs increase and all of a sudden your best case scenario is laughably unrealistic.
And it’s the same on an individual level: we set our long – term goals based on us being at our best at all times, because that’s how we feel when we are setting these goals. So when somebody who hasn’t yet put toe to tarmac sets a goal of completing a 10k race in 3 months they feel that’s perfectly reasonable because they’re motivated, enthusiastic and ready to start working towards it. Sometimes they will succeed because, in a best case scenario, that timeframe is achievable, however most will not. Here’s what will typically happen.
Our budding Mo Farah will go running around 3x a week for the first month. It will be difficult at first because they may not be particularly fit but they will persevere and see improvement – and this improvement will, usually lead to them getting upto running 5k relatively comfortably. But already at this stage, they are having to use willpower – that is force themselves to go running when they really don’t want to. Because their goal is unexplored and made in haste, the initial inspiration is fading and instead becoming burdensome – this tends to happen at around that 4-6 week stage with rushed target – orientated goals. Now a battle within the self is taking place between the person’s desire to prove a point (usually to themselves) and questioning the importance of the initial goal in the first place.
Before we move onto the second month, it’s worth noting here that even in the most motivated of individuals, things can still go wrong: with this goal here both time and injury are unpredictable factors that can throw you off. Again, factors not really considered when setting the initial goal. An injury at this stage with this kind of timeframe is adding pressure to an already pressurised situation. A missed run is going to count for a lot more when you are constantly working under the banner of this ‘best case scenario.’
Even discounting the worst happening, a poorly thought – out goal such as our runner here is going to run into her own issues: she’s due to run at 6:00 before work, but has had a bad night’s sleep and wakes up to sub – zero temperatures and pouring rain. How likely is she to run? Two months into his planning our runner splits up with his girlfriend the night before a run – again, how likely is he to complete it? Life happens, and when people set themselves goals, they rarely take this into account. And if the goal simply isn’t motivating enough, it will go from being inspiring, to annoying, to intimidating before finally being discarded.
I may, of course, be doing the two examples above a disservice – of course dedicated runners run despite many more serious external factors, but this is precisely my point. Whilst dedicated runners may well be target orientated, they are in love with the process too: it’s not about what they have to give but what running gives them that gets them up in all weathers. Setting these types of goals before you know how you feel about the process is unlikely to be successful, so this is what I would call a hastily undertaken target goal. Often, these are the type that so many of us try to set ourselves and the seeds of undoing are normally sown at this very point. You may well be full of enthusiasm and optimism at the beginning – but this won’t last. You will have days when you are tired, feeling demotivated or just plain rushed off your feet. If your goal was made in a temporary emotive state without further exploration as to how important it is to you and the reasons why you want to complete it, it will fall apart here. It sounds strange, but working towards your goal when you are in this state is a sign of future success: it means you’re prioritising and may have even predicted this happening and you don’t need those bright lights of optimism and enthusiasm to work towards it. You simply can. You think I attack my goals with enthusiasm and vigour every day? Hell no! Sometimes I have to drag myself through training sessions and practice sessions with all the enthusiasm of a condemned man! Sometimes I ache, sometimes I’m tired and sometimes it’s just bloody cold out there! But I do it because my goals are important enough to me to not need motivation.
So how to succeed in achieving your goals? The first thing is to obviously stratify. Stop working with your enthusiastic, best case scenario and become the pessimist! Again, this may sound counter – intuitive, but for a goal to succeed, you have to be able to work without motivation. I will stress this again: nobody feels motivated all the time. Being able to work towards your goals when you are demotivated is a key factor in whether or not you will reach them.
So how to do this? Firstly, you need to explore this goal. Why is it important to you? How are you going to benefit from it? What is the greater good here? And the truth is that there are no right or wrong answers here, only personal ones. I have a client who’s mother died of cancer last year, running the Great Midland Run in June to raise money for Macmillan. An extremely powerful, emotional external motivator. And I have a client whose goal is to squat her bodyweight by the end of the year. A very different, internal motivator. The point is that the motivation for each of these two very different clients has been thought through, explored and ultimately very personal. One reason that both, as I write, are consistantly working towards said goals. If you say that your goal is simply ‘I want to lose two dress sizes’ and leave it there then you’re setting yourself up for failure straight away. This is a long – term goal being made with short – term thinking. The tendancy here is to focus solely on how good you’re going to feel when it’s achieved. The effort, habitual change, difficulty and inevitable plateaus that will happen along the way are ignored. Without asking questions such as ‘How am I going to get there?’ Why is this important to me?’ ‘What am I going to do in social situations?’ ‘How will I cope with setbacks?’ and many more besides, we are simply not giving ourselves the best chance.
Assuming, we now have a well-thought out goal, stratifying against setbacks and demotivation, I would next advise a breakdown. Not a mental one, but a breakdown of goals. The oft – quoted method of breaking large goals into smaller ones may be cliched but it is effective. Long – term goals are great and, when motivating, provide an overreaching arc to keeping us focussed. But there is a downside: mainly that they can let you off the hook in the short – term.
The classic example of this is with fat loss. If you have a goal of losing say 5 inches off your waist, this is a long – term goal that will take most of us (assuming the usual setbacks and plateaus) anywhere between 4-6 months to complete. How then to break it down? A classic error here is to say weekly, but in my experience this can be counter – productive. Weekly progress can be very variable to say the least, especially with fat loss. To give you an example of what I mean, a good weekly loss would equate to around 1cm a week, but it’s unlikely to be this neat. You may well go two or three weeks without seeing anything, even if you’re doing everything right because the body fluctuates massively and a week is not really long enough to account for this. For example if you’re retaining water in week one, you might see a large reduction of upto 2-3 cm in week 2 but nothing in weeks 3 and 4 before seeing a further cm in week 5. This equtaes to 4cm in 4 weeks but not 1cm a week. As a general rule I tend to assess clients looking to achieve fat loss every 6-8 weeks. If that seems too long a time for you this is where we come to the most important stage of goal setting: performance goals.
Broadly speaking, goals can be broken down into two distinctions: target and performance. Target goals are what we tend to focus on and, as discussed, get blindsided by. X amount of weight lost, running a marathon, earning 100k a year – all are target goals: goals with an external end achievement, and there’s nothing wrong with these types of goals as long as the motivation for achieving them is strong enough for you to work towards them without motivation if that makes sense! We’ve also noted the importance of breaking down large ones into smaller ones so that that sense of progress is there, milestones along the way ticked off so to speak and monitored. At the heart of it all, and the reason for most failed attempts are performance goals. I would argue that these types of goals are far more important than the end result you are trying to achieve.
The problem with target goals is that there is an element of them that is outside your control: not a huge one but, if our roadwork – ridden country is anything to go by, certainly a significant one. You may well have the target goal of running the London Marathon in April, but you could break your leg in March. You may well wish to drop two dress sizes by June but with the best will in the world your body may simply not do that for you. Performance goals however are different: you and only you are in charge. Set them well and you give yourself a fantastic chance of success at your target goal, set them poorly and you set yourself up for disappointment.
A good performance goal should give you every chance to achieve it: it should be flexible, accessible and challenging. Too rigid and you’re putting unnecessary pressure on yourself, too easy and you’re not really going to change anything. For example: I will exercise for at least 20 minutes 3 times a week is a good example of a flexible accessible performance goal. It allows for building upon (so you may wish to exercise for longer) it’s not time specific (so you can pick your days and time) and it allows for variety (running, weights, HIIT, circuits etc). Most importantly – it puts you in charge. One hour total from 168 per week is achievable for the busiest of lives. ‘I will go to the gym every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for one hour’ is the opposite – and usually the type of performance goal people pick! It’s rigid – the days are fixed, the timeframe is too long and specific and most importantly, it makes you a slave to your goals: if you MUST train on a Monday, what if you have a meeting at work that overruns until 7pm but you know you’re going to get out early on Tuesday? Wouldn’t it make more sense to switch? What if you end up working a 70 hour week due to some unforseeable crisis – wouldn’t it be better to do a quick 20 minute circuit at home rather than kill yourself to get to the gym? This may all sound incredibly obvious, but in my experience people love their routines and flexibility of thought goes out of the window. It’s this type of thinking that kills the target goal – Monday’s session gets missed so the whole week gets thrown off and the spiral begins. Make your performance goals flexible and achievable and you can stay on track despite life’s stormwinds. Too rigid and the slightest breeze will capsize you. A performance goal should be one you can meet in the toughest of times.
The final piece of the jigsaw is stratifying. This is where a coach or trainer can be most useful because stratifying is about knowing yourself. I once had a client tell me that as a performance goal they wanted to train twice a week before work – literally two minutes after telling me that they were struggling to get up in the morning and frequently missed breakfast. Whilst this is a fairly obvious example of overly – optimistic goal setting, it shows the level of caution that needs to be exercised. By the very nature of what you’re doing, you’re going to be at your most enthusiastic, dynamic, determined and focussed, which is fantastic. But what are you going to do when you’re downbeat, tired and demotivated? Asking the big ‘What if?’ questions at this stage are vital. Without strategy, you are weaponless. Knowing yourself includes knowing your vulnerabilities, knowing how to manage your moods and any self – sabotaging behaviour will give you a much better understanding of how to navigate towards that target goal.
To sum up – here’s an example of a well – thought out goal from a client of mine from last year. This is a beginner goal with a client I had just started working with. It’s important to note here that this was a client who was psychologically ready to commit to this and had a very definite idea of where she wanted to get to. For many people, this might only come into play later as they are simply not ready or not sure of where they want to get to, just that they’re unhappy with where they are.
Long – Term Targets: To lose total of 15cm from waist and hips (4 months)
Short term targets: To lose 6cm by next assessment in 6 weeks
Performance Goals: Train with Steve once a week
Exercise twice a week independantly for 30 minutes
Eat breakfast 5/7 days a week within one hour of waking
Include fruit or vegetables in at least two meals every day.
‘What am I going to do about food at work?’
‘How will my husband’s birthday celebrations in 2 weeks affect my goals?’
‘How will I make sure there’s always fresh produce in the house?’
‘What will I say to Karen when she offers me biscuits at work?’
‘How will I ensure that I exercise and maintain my nutrition habits when I am pre – menstural?’
‘What will I say to myself when I am tempted to order in at the end of the long day at work?’
To give you an idea of how important the strategy questions are – they took two hours of coaching sessions to find answers to! This is because the lady in question didn’t even realise that her menstural cycle was influencing her eating habits, or that Karen was always bringing in biscuits on a Friday, or that shopping was haphazard. She just thought she was lazy and lacked willpower. Better self – knowledge enabled her to ask and then answer the questions about the curveballs that could de-rail her goals. Without this vital element, goal setting is just words on paper. I cannot stress enough how essential this is – there is no magic template or formula no matter what people may say, there is only what works for you: and if that means standing on your head and counting to twenty in German then so be it! It doesn’t matter if it works for you.
And that really is the key here: self – awareness. Set your goals based on what’s important to YOU. I’ve seen people try to lose weight for spouses and society but those motivators rarely work because the goal simply isn’t important enough to that person. That’s not to say that external motivators can’t work – a few years ago I trained a guy to complete the Great Midland Run and he had such a burning rivalry with his younger brother that I think if I’d told him to run through a brick wall he would’ve done so to beat his time! But it was important to HIM. That’s what mattered: and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, if your goal is set solely to please others or live up to some idea of what you think you should be then this is something you should at the very least be aware of.
When your target goal is set and the motivation clear, using stratifying questions, breaking the goal down and setting purely performance – based targets would be the next course of action. Don’t rush this, and don’t look for blueprints: create your own plan in which you can recognise yourself and your own individual quirks. For example, in my planning I always squat heavy on a Monday morning for no other reason than it works for me! Taking your time and using a coach for this process is invaluable: raising self – awareness is a huge part of a coach’s remit. Know yourself and you will know exactly how you can achieve your goals.