Goal setting is important. It sets a path, charts a course and gives us direction. The problem with most goal-setting endeavors is that they are cursory, lack substance and critical paths. They become more like wish-lists than actual springboards for action.
Here’s an effective blueprint for setting goals that will deliver results.
The New Mindset of Goal Setting Beyond S.M.A.R.T.
S.M.A.R.T. is a goal setting acronym you are likely familiar with. If you are in the fitness industry, you’ve likely been bludgeoned half to death with it over the years. It stands for: Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-oriented. Not a bad little set of guidelines, certainly doesn’t hurt, but this is still woefully incomplete and inadequate.
A first important step of goal-setting mastery is to re-frame how you look at goals in the first place. We need to look at goal setting as:
- A process or system
In short we need to transform goal-setting from an abstract, bullet-pointed list to something that will help catalyze, systematize and galvanize us into action. We need to go deep here. We need to extract all of our mental, emotional resources and physical resources into taking meaningful action towards our journey.
Goal Setting Mastery The 3 Pillars
Goal Setting Pillar 1: Finding your Why and Claiming your Identity
What is your “why”? Simon Sinek popularized the concept of finding your “why” in his excellent book Start with Why: etc and his TED talks that preach similar messages. While goals tend to focus on the “what,” the “why” is far more important as it gives the “what” meaning.
The idea here is to help guide you through your deeper, heartfelt desires that go beyond the scale goals. Be able to clearly articulate this your why. It might be the ability to do the things you love well into older age. It may be the ability to play sports with your grandkids. It may be to live independently for as long as possible.
Personally I find my “why” in being an excellent role model for my children. Secondarily, I thoroughly enjoy hiking. I live in one of the hiking meccas of the world in Vancouver, Canada and when I reach the peak of a mountain and take in the stunning views, I often think about wanting to experience this well into old age.
Everyone will have a different “why” and it doesn’t necessarily have to be about family or friends but if is helpful to have a profound reason for improving your health.
Your answer to the “miracle” question
This is straight out of the counselling model known as “Solutions-focused Brief Therapy.” The miracle question is: If you were to magically wake up tomorrow and you are at your goal (picture the perfect version of you), what is the first thing you would notice? The first thing that would be different about your life?
Again dig deep here. How would you feel, describe what your life would look like.
You: A Pursuer of Optimal Health
Your current behaviors are simply a reflection of your current identity. Rather than trying to chase outcome goals, focus on building and then aligning with an identity. You are not changing your body as much as you are changing WHO you are—your beliefs, your values systems.
Are you “someone who throws bottles into recycling bin” or are you “a recycler?”
Are you “trying to stay fit and healthy” or are you “a healthy person”?
From now on, choose to identify as someone who prioritizes their health.
“I _____ (your name) and I am someone who lives a healthy lifestyle. I eat vegetables, move around, lift weights and make the best choices possible under any given circumstances.”
Changing your behavior means changing your identity—believing new things about yourself. Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you want to become.
“But I don’t feel healthy”. That’s ok! All that matters is that you are from now on identifying as someone who strives to be healthy, a “liver of healthy lifestyles”. Call it the Cher Horowitz or the “as if” method (yes, I identify as someone who references 90s films a lot). Act “as if” you are already there. Keep chasing and living the behaviors that are congruent with who you identify as.
Your Personal Health Mission Statement
Having a personal health mission statement will help solidify your identity as a healthy person. Being able to fully articulate your values as someone who is constantly striving for better health reinforces this message. Here’s mine as an example:
“I aim to be as healthy as I possibly can be. I want my heart and my body to be strong so that I can do the things I love for many years to come. It is important to me to be able to enjoy playing sports, running, hiking, skiing and practicing martial arts. I wish to continue to hike to the summit of mountains and take in some of the most breathtaking views imaginable.
I want to be able to play with my children and role model active living and healthy eating to them, so that I may lay a foundation of healthy habits that they will hopefully carry with them as they grow into teenagers and adults. I want to defy my own expectations as I reach my third stage of life—continuing to improve, and to avoid injuries and preventable diseases.
I want to be able to one day play active games and sports with my grandchildren—should I be blessed to have them. I want to be able to serve others around me for as long as humanly possible.”
Goal Setting Pillar 2: Process Goals
When looking at your health and fat loss goals, it’s absolutely critical to look past the outcome goals (i.e. lose 20 lbs, 3 dress sizes, etc) and look at the habit goals—the goals behind the outcome goals. These goals are the building blocks that form the foundation of your actions that beget your physical/body composition goals.
James Clear, in his book Atomic Habits, does a particularly great job when he points out a few problems he has with traditional outcome goals. Most notably perhaps is this:
Achieving a goal is only a temporary situation and can derail long-term progress: Conquering a goal only changes things momentarily. Coaches know all too well that achieving a weight loss goal initially is only the first step and weight can easily be put back on. Goals are transient by design. A goal-focused mindset can cause a yo-yo effect since once people achieve a goal they may revert to a previous way of living that was suboptimal. Clear summarizes this nicely when he says, “The purpose of setting goals is to win the game. The purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game.”
Here’s an example of how to break down a goal into processes—working backwards from the outcome goal.
Outcome goal: Losing 20lbs.
Requirements: Healthier eating and more activity.
Requirements for eating healthier and being more active: Consistent food preparation and execution.
Requirements for good food preparation: A good rhythm of grocery shopping and time to prepare food.
Requirements for being more active: Creating time for intentional movement and gym access.
Requirements to create more time for food prep and activity:
- Prioritize as an important activity
- Manage time better
Requirements for better time management:
- Spend less time on tasks that do not support my health and wellness goals.
- Wake up earlier and go to sleep earlier.
Start at the bottom. What is the first process you will need for the other processes to fall into place? Put your energy into those goals and you will soon see a domino effect manifesting into physical transformation.
Goal Setting Pillar 3: The Lens of Discomfort
Instead of asking, “What are my goals?” instead ask, “What pain am I willing to go through?”
I’ll never forget the first time I read this from prominent author Mark Manson. Far too often we see goals through rose-colored glasses—picturing a utopian world filled with an obstacle-free golden paved road lined with flowers and unicorn flatulence.
Instead ask yourself: What sacrifices, discomforts or trade-offs am I willing to make to reach my goals? It is almost always best to look at goals with a realistic viewpoint of the obstacles you’ll likely encounter. This will mentally prepare you for the work, rather than keep you grounded in wish lists and enthusiasm.
List some ways that you are willing to kick yourself in the comfort zone. This could be:
- Going to the bar less often, or having fewer drinks when you’re out. Or both.
- Watching less TV
- Going to the gym even when you’re exhausted or there is a more tempting offer.
- Getting out of bed early when all you want is more sleep.
- Cooking from scratch and spending time cutting vegetables.
There may be some areas where you absolutely do not want to compromise on. That’s ok too-provided you are making enough sacrifices in other areas to spark change.
Some of these activities will be a kick to your comfort zone. It’s important to take stock of your obstacles. Balancing both the levity with gravity—seeing the reality of your situation.
Goal-Setting Mastery Taking Meaningful, Consistent Action
It’s time to take this to where the rubber meets the road. I will break this process into 2 goal-setting steps and then provide a blueprint for your deep action.
Step 1: The Outcome Goal
- Specific: What are the specific outcomes you want to achieve?
- Measurable (and subjective): What metrics will you use? What do your subjective goals look like?
- Time-oriented: What is your time frame for achieving these goals?
Step 2: The Deeper Dive
- Deep why: What is your “why?” What are the most profound reasons behind your health intentions?
- Process-oriented goals: What are the habit-based goals that will beget the outcome goals?
- Resource-deployment: What knowledge/skills/people you will need to help you achieve your goals?
- Obstacle-conscious: What are the obstacles that are standing in your way? (Pick 3-5).
- Solutions-driven: What are some of the solutions to these obstacles?
- Mindstorming: List 10-20 reasons why you will succeed with your goals.
Here’s an example of a goal-setting worksheet.
- Specific, measurable, time-oriented goaI: I am going to lose 25 lbs and/or 8% body fat within 6 months.
- Deep why: Because I have a young family and it is important to me that I be healthy for them and be a positive role model for healthy behaviors.
- Process-oriented goals: Grocery shopping 2-3x per week, food preparation on Sunday, consistent bedtime, wake up 30 min earlier, get to the gym 3x per week, get more daily steps, log food intake.
- Resource deployments: I will need to work on cooking skills, exercise technique, basics of calorie counting. I will need support from my significant other to help with healthy meal prep and to look after children while I go to the gym. Being part of an online accountability group would also be helpful, as will hiring a coach.
- Obstacles: Unpredictable work schedule, fatigue, waning motivation, travel schedule.
- Solutions: Prioritize food prep and going to grocery stores and eating out consciously when things get busy. Prioritize sleep, use health food delivery service when needed.
- Mindstorming: I will lose 25 lbs and 8% body fat within 6 months by;
- Tracking my calories and macronutrients in My Fitness Pal
- Getting to the gym 3-4 times per week
- Eating out less
- Shopping and cooking from home more
- Hanging out more with people who do healthy things
- Meditating/praying/practicing mindfulness
- Getting 2000 more steps each day
- Playing more active games with the kids
- Riding a stationary bike while watching tv
- Taking a bag of carrots to work daily
- Learning 3 new healthy recipes
- Joining a hiking group
- Joining a support community on Facebook
- Spending less time watching TV and surfing the smartphone
- Hiring a coach
Weekly and Daily Locks
Putting your goals into action involves a combination of identifying the process goal, deploying implementation intentions and setting your personal environment up for success. For habit locks, ideally include some weekly locks (habits you want to put into play 1-5 times per week) and daily locks (things you want to do daily). Weekly locks may look as follows:
Grocery Shopping (2x)
-Sunday, 8:30am at local grocery chain.
-Wednesday on the way home from work, produce stand.
-Pick 2 recipes and create list to shop from.
Meal Preparation (2-3x)
-Sunday: Chop and marinate tofu for the stirfry. Cut up veggies, cook quinoa. Pack them in containers.
-Wednesday: Cook chicken in oven, put in containers with lettuce and veggies.
-Sunday 11am, Monday 7pm, Wednesday, 6:15am, Thursday 6:15am.
-Lower body workout on Sunday & Wednesday
Upper body workout on Monday & Thursday. Hard cardio on upper body days.
-Tuesday 7:30 pm at the dojo.
Here is what some daily locks might look like:
Sleep: To bed 30 min earlier, wake up 15 min earlier.
Go to bed each night at 10pm, wake up at 6am
Before leaving for work, pack 2-5 healthy snacks such as a can of tuna, apple, sliced peppers and a handful of almonds.
Pack leftovers from dinner already packed in the to go container.
Weigh in Monday through Friday morning on bathroom scale, before shower.
Walk at lunch for 15 minutes and after dinner for 20.
Daily for 10 minutes upon waking and/or before bed using a mindfulness app.
Customize your locks according to your own goals, preferences and circumstances. Keep it realistic but don’t be afraid to deliver a kick yourself in the comfort zone.
Take Home Message
You are now well on your way to creating repeatable processes that will help you achieve your outcome goals. Being prepared for all aspects of your journey and having a follow-through plan is everything.
- Re-framing how you look at goals.
- Find your most profound reason for wanting change.
- Re-shape your personal narrative on how you identify yourself. Identify as a healthy person.
- Focus on process goals rather than outcome goals
- Set goals through the lens of discomfort – rather than wishes.
- Set up your habits in weekly and daily “locks” with the specifics on how you will execute.
If you’ve gotten this far, please don’t finish here, say “nice idea” and then not do anything about it. Grab a pen and notepad and start your personal journey by taking this deep dive. It takes longer and requires more internalization and introspection than your traditional goal-setting, but the work you do now will help you live your new lifestyle – starting today.