Goal-Setting: Mind Your Own Business

After yesterday’s article (Realistic is Overrated), let’s talk some more about goal-setting and motivation with a bit more nuance.

Goals serve two basic purposes:  They keep you on track, and they keep you motivated.

There are also two basic types of goals:  outcome goals (what you want to accomplish) and process goals (what you need to do repeatedly in order to accomplish your outcome goals).

Outcome goals are the goals that play a bigger role in motivation, and process goals are the goals that play a bigger role in keeping you on track (though both types of goals contribute to both purposes).

For this article, I’m just going to focus on outcome goals.  I’ll have a lot more to say about process goals in another article.

So, outcome goals primarily function to help you maintain motivation.  They do that in two basic ways:

  1. Setting outcome goals, and regularly being reminded of them, gives you a boost of motivation because you really want the outcome you’re aiming for.  The outcome you’re shooting for is intrinsically motivating.
  2. Attaining outcome goals continually reinforces your motivation.  Setting goals will motivate you for a bit, but that motivation is bound to wane over time.  However, regularly reaching outcome goals helps build confidence, self-efficacy, and boosts your motivation to keep working toward bigger and bigger goals.

Here’s how this looks in practice:

You start by picking a long-term goal that’s big enough to motivate you, but not so big that it intimidates you (which would make it demotivating).

The size of that goal will vary from person to person.

That was the main point of my last article: For some people (a lot of people, in my experience), “realistic” long-term goals simply aren’t that motivating, and audacious long-term goals aren’t that intimidating.  It doesn’t matter too much that the odds of reaching the goal are small if the goal itself inspires people to move toward it.

On the other hand, some people simply don’t find bigger long-term goals that motivating.  A lot of people would rather look like Brad Pitt in Fight Club than Arnold on Muscle Beach.  That’s perfectly fine.  Other people would really like to reach lofty long-term goals, but the gap between that goal and their current state is intimidating, so bigger goals paralyze them with a sense of helplessness.  For these people, a smaller outcome goal that’s still motivating is preferable.

brad pitt fight club
This isn’t my long-term training goal, but if it’s yours, I have no problem with that whatsoever. No one else should have a problem with it either.

There is no one-size-fits-all long-term goal in any pursuit.  Feel free to define success on your own terms.

That’s the first step.  Remember, though, goal-setting doesn’t get you very far on its own.  If you have one big pie-in-the-sky goal that’ll take you years to reach, you’ll probably lose some motivation and drop off before you reach it.

Next, break that bigger long-term goal into smaller short-to-moderate-term goals that you can reach somewhat regularly.

Maybe you’re trying to put 200lbs on your squat.  That’s not going to come overnight.  So instead, maybe you can break your training into 8-week blocks with the goal of putting 10-20lbs on your squat each block.  By shifting the time frame from years to weeks/months, it’s easier to stay focused on the task at hand.  Furthermore, since you’re able to attain those goals fairly regularly, that gives you a boost in motivation, letting you know you’re on the right track and making tangible progress toward your long-term goal.

Unlike long-term goals, short-to-moderate-term goal-setting is more one-size-fits-all.  It rarely does much good to have pie-in-the-sky short-term goals.  If you’re aiming to put 50lbs on your squat each month, you’re most likely just going to be disappointed every month and start losing motivation.  Here, realistic goals are preferable and (generally) necessary for them to serve their purpose.  Regularly attaining small goals helps keep you motivated and adds up to huge progress over time.

There are three major ways you can screw up goal-setting (for outcome goals)

  1. Not setting any goals in the first place.  Without a clear direction, you’re like a rudder-less ship.  Similarly, it’s not very helpful to set goals that lack clarity.  The SMART criteria are helpful for setting clear goals, especially short-to-moderate-term goals.
  2. Only setting long-term goals, but losing motivation without any short-term goals to keep you on track and motivated via regular goal attainment.  Similarly, setting short-term goals that are too big can be demotivating and erode your confidence and self-efficacy when you consistently fail to reach them.
  3. Letting other people dictate your goals to you, instead of choosing goals that matter to you.

The third problem was the one I was addressing in my previous article.

You shouldn’t let anyone dictate to you what goals you ought to be aiming for.  Similarly, you shouldn’t try to dictate to anyone else what goals they ought to be aiming for.

If you’re like me and you want to be an elite strength athlete, don’t let anyone tell you you’re dreaming too big and aiming too high.  It doesn’t matter if the long-term goal is realistic or not; it matters that’s it’s big enough to motivate you to pursue it.  If someone can do it, then why not you?

Conversely, not everyone needs to aim that high.  In fact, that may be counterproductive for some people.  If it’s intimidating, or if it’s just not what they personally want to achieve, it’s not your place to tell them they’re aiming too low.  Odds are, you don’t set out to be the absolute best at everything you try (i.e. you may like cooking, but that doesn’t mean you’re aiming to open a restaurant that gets three Michelin stars), so you shouldn’t expect everyone to desire to be the best at the thing that happens to be super important to you.

If you’re not lifting with the goal of being a highly competitive strength athlete, then don’t let anyone tell you you’re aiming too low.  If you’re pursuing the goal that matters to you and motivates you, you’re golden.

Conversely, you shouldn’t view the goals and achievements of others through the lens of your own motivations; don’t tell people they shouldn’t aim higher because you personally don’t see a reason to or because you personally think their goal isn’t realistic or motivating.  This was the attitude I was primarily addressing in my last article.

Ultimately, goal-setting is primarily a matter of utility.  What inspires you to act and continually motivates you to keep moving in a positive direction?

That’s a question you can only answer for yourself.  Don’t let other people try to answer it for you, and, more importantly, don’t try to answer it for other people. (Side note:  I see coaches do this all the time.  What your client wants to accomplish >>> what you want your client to accomplish.)

Different people want different thing out of training, and that’s okay.  I think people attempt to force their own goals and values on other people because they tacitly view people with the same goals as a vindication of their own goals, and they tacitly view people with different goals as an attack on their own goals.

That type of thinking ultimately helps no one.

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