We all know that it’s important to set goals – some big, overarching long-term goals and other smaller, more immediate and easily attainable goals to keep making progress and remain motivated.
Seems simple, right? Well, in a way, it is because the act of setting goals requires little action. Setting a goal is easy. We all want to lose a few kilos this year, improve a PB or complete that bucket-list event.
Achieving that goal is the hard part, so here’s everything we know about achieving goals, shared with you in one place.
Your goal-setting blueprint:
- Set a goal using your tools of choice.
- Interrogate that goal to determine if it’s the right goal for you.
- Set a new goal (if required).
- Plot your timeline.
- Create a plan and systems to implement it within that timeframe.
- Follow the systems with perseverance and persistence.
Set the right goal
But before you chase after your ambitious goal, take a minute and consider whether you’ve actually set the right goal…
When we fail, we tend to write it off to a lack of motivation or willpower. But what if we were doomed to fail from the start because we had the wrong goal to begin with?
There are numerous reasons why a specific goal may not be right for you. You need to take time out after establishing your goals to interrogate them.
Through this process, ask yourself the following questions (and write down your answers):
- Why did you choose that goal?
- Why do you want to achieve this goal?
- How much do you really want or need to achieve this goal?
- What will happen if you don’t achieve your goal?
- Am I making this harder than it needs to be?
- How will your efforts to attain this goal fit into your current lifestyle and situation?
- Do you have sufficient time to dedicate to achieving the goal in the timeframe you’ve set out?
Ultimately, the reasons driving your desire to achieve a goal must hold substance to be effective. Many of us fail to achieve success because we choose to do things that we don’t like doing to achieve an outcome.
Obviously, achieving goals you actually want to accomplish in the first place will set you up for success, rather than failing at the first stumbling block. To be successful at anything you first need to enjoy what you’re doing. You need to have a passion for it and a desire to improve in that regard.
Create goals with substance
This creates the most powerful form of motivation there is – intrinsic motivation. This form of internal motivation is driven by an interest or enjoyment in the task itself, rather than relying on external factors or rewards, like a trophy, medal, recognition from others or to conform to societal conventions.
These reasons are poor motivators and seldom sustain the passion and perseverance needed to achieve long-term goals.
You also need a strong reason behind your desire to achieve a goal because the process will test your resolve at some point on your journey.
When your goals are connected to a larger purpose, they hold personal importance. This will help you answer the question of ‘why am I doing this’ when things get tough.
Only once you fully understand what it is you’re pursuing and have established the intrinsic motivators behind your desire to pursue that goal, can you begin plotting your approach to success.
In this regard, refining your meaningful goals is a logical and necessary next step. To do this, use the SMART approach:
- Specific: You need a clear end-point or marker to work towards. Losing weight is a terrible goal. Losing 5 kilos to get back to my pre-pregnancy weight is far more specific.
- Measurable: The specificity of your goal ensures that it is measurable and sets a defined target – lose 5kg, or run a half marathon in under 2 hours, as examples.
- Achievable: Do you have the time and resources available to achieve your goal? Can you afford a gym contract and healthier food options? Do you have the time to dedicate to training every day? It’s worth establishing these parameters up front before committing to a specific goal.
- Realistic: Are your expectations realistic? Can you really lose 20kg in 3 months? It’s unlikely that you’ll achieve unrealistic goals and you’ll end up abandoning them.
- Timely: Setting a realistic timeframe is important, but it should also have an end date. Working toward open-ended goals with no deadline is a sure-fire way to dilute your motivation levels over time.
Setting SMART goals will help you focus on what’s important and will motivate you to take the appropriate actions.
Create a plan
Following these goal-setting principles also helps to define an actionable plan. After all, without a plan, goals are merely wishes… This workable plan should give you the blueprint for how you will achieve your goals.
Obviously, walking into a gym without a workout, or following a diet that doesn’t cater to your genetic individuality, metabolism and daily energy and macronutrient requirements will be an exercise in futility.
This may require the assistance of a qualified professional, such as a personal trainer or dietitian, but the investment will be worth it.
Break it up
It is beneficial to break the larger goal up into smaller steps, or mini-projects. Ideally, you’ll need to complete each mini-goal before you can move on to the next.
Doing so also ensures that you constantly make progress towards your overarching objective, even if you’re not actively thinking about or focusing on achieving the bigger goal.
Ultimately, though, the most successful plans are those that establish systems. Goal-oriented approaches, while highly effective at driving behaviour and boosting performance, generally rely on motivation to complete specific goals.
However, motivation is dose-dependent – motivation levels generally depend on the magnitude and relative importance of a goal. Motivation levels also ebb and intensify based on various factors.
The proposed solution to this issue was popularised by Scott Adams, the world-renowned cartoonist and creator of Dilbert, and author of How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life.
In his book, Adams talks about using systems instead of goals to achieve success. For example, losing 10 kilos is a goal-oriented approach that requires significant willpower to steadfastly adhere to the plan.
That’s one reason why few people sustain weight-loss efforts over extended periods. In contrast, learning about what constitutes a healthful and appropriate diet and how to prepare food in the correct manner is a system that substitutes knowledge for willpower.
Ultimately, your system becomes what you do each day to progress towards your ultimate goal. The key here is to determine whether if you completely ignored your goals and focused only on your system, would you still get the results?
If the answer is ‘yes’, then you’ve successfully done what so many people fail to achieve, which is making their goals attainable through a change in lifestyle, rather than short-lived quick-fixes.
READ MORE: Grit your way through lockdown
Focus on the process
In this context, all the conventional talk about making diet and exercise a lifestyle effectively boils down to implementing systems that enable you to focus your efforts on the process, rather than a blinkered focus on the outcome.
Being overly concerned with this outcome-based approach can create frustration and disappointment, so the sooner we realise the futility of our psychological attachment to outcomes, the better.
The issue is that despite what we’ve been told and led to believe by many self-help ‘gurus’, we seldom if ever, can control outcomes – there are just too many variables at play. You can’t control if and when you get sick (or when a global pandemic breaks out), what deadlines or work projects may detract from your training, or what the weather will do on race day.
While you can certainly improve your chances of achieving a specific goal, there are seldom, if ever, any guarantees.
The only thing we can control is our daily actions; what we eat, how and when we train, how we handle our stress, and whether we sleep enough. Always remember that we have complete control over our daily actions and it is our daily actions that determine the eventual outcome.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t set goals, just don’t fixate on them by worrying if you’ll succeed, or what others will think if you fail. Rather focus your efforts on the work needed to reach that outcome.
Have a longer-term plan
The other issue with a goal-oriented approach to motivation is what happens once you’ve achieved your goal.
When all of your hard work is focused on a particular goal or event, what’s left to keep you progressing when it’s done?
If you have a system in place, you will simply carry on training, maintaining fitness and not losing out on the benefits and progress achieved from all that hard work, until you set a new target.
Use commitment devices
Whichever approach you choose to achieve your goals, we can all use a few motivation pick-me-ups along the way. Thankfully, we have a veritable arsenal of motivation tools at our disposal.
Accountability to your goal is a powerful way to achieve success. Telling someone about your goals and agreeing to some form of repercussion or penalty should you fail to achieve them. Commonly referred to as a commitment device, or self-binding, these tools create effective incentives that can make goals more meaningful, while keeping us committed and see the process through to the end.
READ MORE: Avoid the winter workout rut
Gamify your approach
Making fitness fun and interesting can be a powerful motivator and promotes adherence to a plan. One way to do this is by using game-based elements to drive behavioural change, which is known as gamification.
The application of gamification has the potential to make often mundane tasks, like regular exercise, more interesting and engaging.
For instance, activity trackers like the Fitbit Sense and Versa 3 allow users to record their daily activity in relation to established milestones or targets, and they receive virtual badges or trophies for their achievements.
While this in itself offers its own form of motivation, integration with social media and multi-user functions across devices and apps adds additional incentives, as users are able to compete against others and earn rewards.
So, if you lack the willpower to keep chasing your goals, there are ways to incentivise yourself to keep going. The trick is to find the right commitment device for you.