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.
Keep reading to learn how to set better fitness goals so that you’re more likely to actually make them happen.
What are goals?
Goals are desired outcomes that wouldn’t happen without intervention – often deviating from the path of least resistance – and the actions necessary to achieve those outcomes (1).
Why does goal setting matter?
Many of us already 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.
When done correctly, however, goal setting can serve an even greater purpose.
Failure to reach fitness goals often results from not consistently doing what we need to do to reach the fitness goals we set (2).
Proper goal setting can be an powerful tool for helping us with exactly that – actually changing our actions and behaviors to improve our health and fitness (3).
That is, effective goal setting helps us not only identify what we want, but actually do what we need to do to make it happen.
How do you set better fitness goals?
In his 2019 review, “Goal Setting and Action Planning for Health Behavior Change”, Dr. Ryan Bailey describes seven goal setting strategies shown by research to improve outcomes (4):
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, expecting failure, and seeing it as a part of the learning process, whereas performance goals focus solely on judging or evaluating your abilities.
Mastery goals can encourage persistence when facing challenges or setbacks, viewing obstacles as opportunities to solve problems and learn new skills.
This isn’t to say that performance goals are useless, necessarily, but only that they might be better combined with mastery goals.
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, rather than simply aim to increase your bench press, which may be a worthy performance goal, you might supplement it with the goal of learning to bench press with proper technique or learning to consistently follow a proven training program.
3) Prioritize goals that are intrinsically motivating
Intrinsically motivating goals are those that you find inherently rewarding regardless of the outcome.
That is, these are goals that you might pursue simply for the pleasure or satisfaction of the work required to reach the goal.
Not only might intrinsically motivating goals help keep going when things get challenging, but they also might facilitate improved learning, performance, and achievement.
For example, you might be more consistent and successful with a training plan based on a less effective physical activity that you enjoy than a more effective physical activity you hate.
Exercise A might be more appropriate for your goals, but if you love Exercise B, it might be a better option if you’ll more consistently do it.
Keep the concept of mastery in mind, and work to value progress over, or at least along with, achievement.
4) Set goals that you find challenging
Goals that you see as challenging may lead to better outcomes than goals you see as easy, particularly when you are committed and see the goal as inherently rewarding.
That said, if you set goals that are too difficult for your current abilities and fail repeatedly, you might find yourself dissatisfied and not perform as well.
Take some time to evaluate your goals and your current abilities and adjust, as necessary.
Again, keep mastery in mind and 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, you might aim to get in bed by 9:00 pm at least five nights out of the week, rather than “get better sleep”.
It’s important to keep in mind the other steps outlined above, making sure that your SMART goals are inherently rewarding, approach and mastery based, and appropriately challenging.
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 eating 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 also 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.
Once you’ve identified your fitness goals and started working toward them, keep in mind two additional goal-related strategies as you progress (5):
1) 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?
2) 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 goal behind the goal
Finally, explore why the goals you set really matter.
Is it the weight on the bar?
Is it the number on the scale?
Is it the clean blood lab report?
Or is it what these represent?
Putting yourself first?
Feeling awesome to a ripe old age?
Being comfortable in your own skin?
Spending more years with the people you love?
Doing the things that fill your cup until your last breath?
These are the real goals behind the goals.
These are the end.
Fitness is simply a means.
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.
It calls for self-compassion.
Understanding that you’ll make mistakes, and that this is okay.
It calls for time, effort, and patience.
You are worthy of all that.
Keep showing up.
Keep doing the work.
You’ve got this.