So many of us set fitness goals but fail to achieve them.
Yet, we often overlook goal setting itself as a factor in our success or failure.
If you’re struggling to reach your fitness goals, you may need a bit of work on how to set goals in the first place.
This article will explain why and how.
If you have any questions after reading, let me know in the comments 🙂
What are goals?
We speak about goals fairly often.
Yet, not many of us take a step back to think about goals even are.
In his 2018 paper, “The Neuroscience of Goals and Behavior Change,” Dr. Elliot Berkman offers two definitions for the word “goal” (1).
The first, more conversational, definition is any desired outcome that wouldn’t otherwise happen without some kind of intervention.
The second, more formal, definition is a desired outcome paired with preceding actions and behaviors intended to attain that outcome.
In a nutshell, a goal is what we want to happen and how we intend to make it happen.
Why does goal setting matter?
Many of us have no problem see the value in clearly identifying the outcomes we want.
We understand it’s similar to having the right map to the right destination before a long trip.
What we don’t always realize, though, is how more deliberate goal setting can serve an even greater purpose.
We often fail to reach our fitness goals because we don’t consistently do what we need to do to reach those goals (2).
Proper goal setting can be an powerful tool for exactly that.
It can help us actually change our actions and behaviors in an effort to improve our health (3).
Put another way, effective goal setting doesn’t only help us not only identify what we want.
It helps us actually do what we need to do to make it happen.
So, let’s talk about some specific strategies you can apply to make sure your goal setting is on point.
How do you set better fitness goals?
You can pick and choose, mix and match, and/or combine them as you please.
- Set approach, rather than avoidance, goals
- Focus on mastery over performance
- Prioritize goals that are in intrinsically motivating
- Set goals that you find challenging
- Set SMART goals
- Create an action plan
- Create a coping plan
- Goal evaluation (modifying your behaviors)
- Goal re-evaluation (modifying your goals)
1) Set approach, rather than avoidance, goals
Approach goals reflect moving toward something desirable, whereas avoidance goals reflect moving away from something undesirable.
Approach goals promote positive thoughts and emotions, whereas avoidance goals might promote negative thoughts and emotions.
To set approach goals, focus on what you want to do, not what you don’t want to do.
For example, you might choose to “eat foods with only one ingredient” rather than “quit eating junk food”.
2) Focus on mastery over performance
Mastery goals focus on improving your abilities and learning new skills.
They involve expecting failure and seeing it as a part of the learning process.
This is in contrast to performance goals, which generally focus solely on judging or evaluating your abilities.
Mastery goals encourage persistence when facing challenges or setbacks.
Similarly, they involve viewing obstacles as opportunities to solve problems and learn new skills.
This isn’t to say that performance goals are useless, necessarily.
However, it is to say that performance goals might be better combined with mastery goals.
First, identify skills you might need to learn to reach the outcomes you desire.
Then, consider that skill development an integral part of your overall goal.
For example, many of us might want to bench press or squat more weight.
Often, we’ll choose a target weight as our goal.
That is, we’ll set a performance goal.
To incorporate a mastery goal along with this performance goal, you might also set a target training frequency.
You might also keep track of your movement form, how you feel during training, or how much protein you’re eating.
These are all possible mastery goals that support the performance goal you’ve set.
3) Prioritize goals that are intrinsically motivating
Intrinsically motivating goals are those that you find inherently rewarding regardless of the outcome.
That is, they’re goals you pursue simply for pleasure or satisfaction in the working toward the goal.
Setting such goals can help you keep going when things get challenging
Furthermore, they may help facilitate improved learning, performance, and achievement.
For example, there may be an exercise that is super effective for you reaching your goal, but that you hate.
Thus, you might not be consistent with this plan or activity at all.
You might, however, be more consistent and successful with a less effective exercise that you enjoy.
That is, you might stick to the plan for pleasure, not only the outcomes it produces.
That said, keep also the concept of mastery in mind.
Regardless of how much you enjoy the activity, many learn to value progress over, or at least along with, achievement.
The process of learning new skills and continuous improvement are often more satisfying than specific activities or hitting specific goals.
4) Set goals that you find challenging
Goals that you see as challenging may lead to better outcomes than goals you see as easy.
This is particularly the case when you are committed and see the goal as inherently rewarding.
That said, if you consistently set goals that are too difficult for your current abilities, you might fail repeatedly.
This repetitive failure might lead to dissatisfaction and poor performance.
Take some time to evaluate your goals and your current abilities and adjust, as necessary.
Again, keep mastery in mind.
Remember that a goal might not be appropriate for you now, but could be in the future.
5) Set SMART goals
SMART goals are a tool for setting goals with well-defined criteria for success.
They are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and times.
For example, many of us might set a goal to “get better sleep.”
Applying the SMART principle to this would be to aim to get in bed by 9:00 pm at least five nights out of the week.
This is a much more objective, tangible goal than the vague “get better sleep.”
It’s also more focused on your actions, rather than the outcomes you’re seeking.
This brings us to our next point.
It’s worth also clearly defining how you are going to achieve the SMART goal.
6) Create an action plan
An action plan involves identifying the practical steps you might take to reach the goal you’ve set.
Some of the examples we’ve already explored – including training consistently to improve your bench press or setting a bedtime to get better sleep – reflect action plans.
That is, they focus on the action – training consistently or setting a bedtime – not the outcome – improving your bench or getting better sleep.
It’s important to identify actions that you are confident you can implement, otherwise you might struggle more than is appropriate and become discouraged.
7) Create a coping plan
In addition to your action plan, have a coping plan, through which you anticipate setbacks and plan how you are going to respond to and overcome them.
If, for example, your action plan involves going to the gym a specific number of times in a week, you might also plan for when the gym might close due to weather or a holiday.
Brainstorm how your plan might be derailed, and what you can do to keep progressing.
Some days you’ll take big steps forward, other days you’ll take small steps forward, just keep taking those steps.
8) Goal evaluation (modifying your behaviors)
As you work toward your goal, keep an eye on your progress and adjust your behavior as necessary to keep moving forward.
If you’re making progress, great, keep it up.
If you’re not making progress, great, you know a change is needed.
How can you change your actions and behaviors to better align with your goals?
9) Goal re-evaluation (modifying your goals)
In contrast to goal evaluation, modifying your behaviors, you might at times need to refine your goals.
We touched on this briefly when discussing choosing appropriately challenging goals.
If you are constantly falling short of your goals, you might dial them back a bit.
If you are consistently exceeding your goals, you might make them a bit more challenging.
Find that “sweet spot” where you’re hitting your goals sometimes, to not get discouraged, but not hitting them other times, to keep you interested and engaged.
Remember the goals behind the goals
Finally, explore why the goals you set really matter.
What is it about the weight on the bar, the number on the scale, or clean blood lab report that drives you?
What do these goals represent?
Often, the goals we set represent something much deeper than the goals themselves.
This is especially true when it comes to health and fitness goals.
The targets we set for the gym, mirror, or doctor’s office reflect what we want for our lives in general.
We want to put ourselves first, feel comfortable in our own skin, and do the things we love with people we love to a ripe old age.
These are the goals behind the goals.
Our health and fitness goals are simply means to these ends.
The coolest part is that we often don’t have to be healthy or fit to pursue them.
That is, we don’t have to look a certain way or weigh a certain amount to start living our best life right now.
Putting yourself first isn’t dependent on having a certain shape.
Feeling comfortable in your own skin doesn’t have a weight limit.
Doing the things you love with people you love doesn’t come with a size tag.
Yes, your physical health matters.
However, it’s not all that matters.
You can get started working on your best life right now.
Take one step at a time.
See how it’s working for you.
Adjust if necessary.
Rinse and repeat.
Goal setting is an iterative process.
It calls for self-awareness, being honest with yourself, and objectively assessing your progress.
Have some self-compassion.
You’ll make mistakes, and that’s okay.
This will take time, effort, and patience.
You are worthy of all that.
Keep showing up.
Keep doing the work.
You’ve got this.