Optimal Goal Setting
This is the first psychology/motivation article written for the Omni Focus Fitness website – hopefully I do it justice. In this article, we will briefly go over how to understand goal setting and appreciating the time between goals to maintain motivation for long term success.
What is Goal Setting?
Goal setting is simply identifying something you would like to achieve and then setting up a plan to achieve.
Most people are completely familiar with the idea of having goals, because consciously or unconsciously, we set goals for ourselves every day. Being thirsty and going to get something to drink is an unconscious decision to fulfill a goal. Granted, you do not think explicitly, “Wow, I’m thirsty (realization), I should probably get some water from the kitchen (goal), and I can do that by getting up and walking while avoiding tripping over the dog toy on the ground (plan of action)”, but even so, you are setting up little goals and fulfilling them.
However, there are also less innate goals that require some thought. These goals tend to be more difficult, because they require a great deal more cognitive attention, hence them being conscious. Now, when it comes to goal setting in a conscious state, it is often required that a person realizes their goal, and hopefully presents a conclusive plan for themselves to achieve said goal. I would say it is far less likely a person will achieve their goal without a plan to do so. I would even wager that the greater distance and/or time between a person’s point of realization and the point of fulfillment of said goal plays a huge role in if that goal is achieved. For the purpose of this article, if said goal is something that requires a change in habit and is not a pleasurable experience, it stacks the deck in favor of not accomplishing the desired goal; specifically, exercise or nutritional intervention (dieting).
Typical Goal Setting
The typical person goes about goal setting for an exercise program or nutrition change by realizing they are in a state of discomfort (aesthetics, health, strength, etc), and once this realization occurs, they imagine a future self in a better state of being, and then mentally bridge the gap between where they are now and where they would like to be. When the “bridging the gap” phase occurs is when the goal is set. Then, unless a person is just day dreaming, a plan is birthed.
For example, if our participant does not like the way he looks, he will envision himself in a better state of aesthetic appeal. Then, he will set a goal of “going to the gym from now on”.
However, there are several issues with how we go about this process and they are the biggest anchors to our success in achieving our goal.
Issues and Solutions for Optimal Goal Setting
There are many reasons why this style of goal setting is flawed, so let us go over a few glaring ones.
1. Too general
Yes, saying “I’ll start going to the gym” is not useful. It offers an extremely weak link between the current state of affairs and the wanted state of being. Much like if I wanted to educate myself on the anatomy of the heart I would not simply state to myself, “I will read a book”. This does not accomplish anything except acknowledge the general behavior that may be necessary for achieving my goal.
Solution: Write down a detailed plan, day by day, workout to workout, that can be critically analyzed and adjusted. In simple terms, you should be specific.
Example: “I will go to the gym on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 6pm. On these days I will do 3 sets of each exercise for 5 repetitions, and each week I will try and add resistance. The exercises will be the deadlift, squat, and bench press.”
2. Too emotional
Letting one’s emotions dictate goal setting is almost always a sure way of failing. While it is admirable to feel passionate about improving oneself at any moment, emotions tend to be short lived. When we let our emotions take hold, we can easily get carried away in the heat of the moment, but the long lasting impact will be non-existent. “I hate the way I look! I’m going to the gym right now!” is excellent to motivate someone in the moment where something has stirred their emotional response, but ask them to emulate that response every day will prove extremely difficult.
Solution: Do not ignore your emotions, but be sure to balance them with a rational mindset asking yourself if this is really something you can take on in the long term.
Example: “I’m so pumped to start working out! I’m going to go today, feel it out, and then re-evaluate if it’s something I can see myself doing consistently.”
3. Too aggressive
Starting a goal too aggressively has two impactful negatives. First, changing one’s habits drastically is not a sound way of approaching change as the aggressive change may be a point of pride and a “slap in the face” to one’s old ways of existing, but the distinct advantage those “old” ways have is they are habitual and will start taking control again after the excitement of the new wears off (and it will). Secondly, starting aggressively can be extremely uncomfortable (crash diets, insane workouts, cutting thousands of calories, etc.) physiologically and that alone can make a person give up quite quickly.
Solution: Start slow, make subtle changes that do not interfere strongly with predetermined habits.
Example: “I want to be healthier, but for the first week, I’m just going to start by going for a walk twice a week. I’ll do that for 2-3 weeks, and then I’ll start tracking my nutrition. Then, I’ll start walking 3 times a week and wear a heart rate monitor after two more weeks.”
4. Too ambitious
This is a little like the “too aggressive” point, but it deserves its own recognition. Just because the overall goal is to be a super model does not mean it will happen in just a few weeks, nor does it mean you should obsess about the overarching goal.
Solution: Focus on the small victories along the journey, like dropping one pound, or lifting more weight, or running for 5 minutes longer. This ensures constant positive feedback, drawing attention away from the greater picture (which, although the end goal, can be demoralizing considering its distance in time and effort).
Example: “Although my goal is to squat 225lbs, this week I’m going to try and squat 170lbs three times, which I’ve never done before!”
5. Lack of enjoyment
Probably the biggest long term deterrent to doing something, or, at least, doing a quality job, is if someone is not enjoying the activity. Granted, exercise can always be uncomfortable to those that have never exercised or simply do not enjoy mindless exercise, but forcing yourself, with a groan, to do an activity you have never gained any pleasure from is pretty torturous in its own right.
Solution: Exercise is simply a style of structured movement and can be expressed in a multitude of ways. One would be hard pressed not to find something enjoyable between lifting weights, hiking, biking, swimming, calisthenics, basketball, and the list goes on and on. If boredom is an issue, then simply switch things up; it is not a crime.
Example: “Can’t stand the monotony of lifting weights up and down; I feel as if I am stupidly doing nothing. I do not identify with the activity. So, I decided to start rock climbing to engage all my muscles; I also do some calisthenics in the park from time to time.”
Bottom line, when attempting to set a goal for yourself and to maximize success at achieving that goal, you should follow a number of simple rules. Be specific on how you will achieve your goal, be sure to think rationally about how you will achieve, ease into things, take each step and appreciate each of those steps, and be sure to choose a path to your goal that is filled with enjoyment.