The conversation.

“I’ve stopped setting myself goals,”my brother said over dinner. “I had quite a few, but then I wouldn’t hit them and I’d be down on myself. Now I just go to the gym to keep moving.”

He wanted to squat 100 kg (about 220 lbs). He worked through painful knee issues with a physiotherapist. He perfected his technique, often squatting in the middle of my parents’ living room to show me his posture. He was hell-bent on hitting one hundred, until… he wasn’t.

That day, while seated at the family dinner table and tucking into roast pork, he argued that goal-setting is detrimental to fitness because when you don’t hit your goals, you lose motivation to go to the gym at all and end up doing nothing. So you’re better off just going to the gym for the sake of moving around and leaving it there.

Everyone listening in on the conversation agreed with my brother. At some point during each of their fitness journeys, they felt that goal setting had brought them down, and as a result, put them off working out entirely.

Failure is inevitable. So, too, is success.

The first thing that happened to my brother when he didn’t hit his goal was that he felt a sense of failure. Ray Williams, leadership trainer with 35+ years experience, claims that when it comes to goal setting, the only true measure is 100% attainment or 99% less= failure. This casts an image of perfection, which promotes the thinking of ‘I should be this way’ and counteracts self-acceptance. The result is that when a goal is not achieved people believe they are failures, or worthless. According to Williams, the effects of an unachieved goal are more damaging than not having goals at all (Williams, 2011).

Creator and head coach of Runnez.com, Rick Mirabella has seen countless people hit their performance-based running goals. He’s also seen people not achieve their goals.

“Most of the people I work with set the goal of running a PB (personal best) in a fun run. Some don’t get their PB on race day — and that can be disappointing for them. But what I try to make them remember is that they’re still improving. You might reach for the stars and hit the sky — but hitting the sky is still an achievement.”

Mirabella believes that we should always aim to become better versions of ourselves — mentally, physically, and emotionally. And then set smaller goals along the way. This approach to goal setting serves as a buffer when failure comes knocking.

“It’s best to have a short-term goal (e.g. run 10km in under an hour) and a long-term goal (e.g. improved mental health). So if you miss out on that PB at your next fun run, it’s OK because you’ve still made strides in your fitness journey AND taken steps towards your long term goal.” He says.

Don’t wait for motivation; hardwire your actions.

The second thing that happened when my brother didn’t hit his goal, was that he lost motivation to go to the gym entirely. This, according to the authors of Harvard Business School publication Goals Gone Wild, is one of the many issues with goal setting. It harms intrinsic motivation — the act of engaging in a task for its own sake — by placing the onus on extrinsic motivation. When the extrinsic motivation is gone, you’re not left with much (Ordóñez, Schweitzer, Galinsky & Bazerman, 2009).

Mirabella concedes that motivation can be a powerful tool, but it also has the tendency to wane — and often. So you shouldn’t be relying on it in the first place.

“Waiting for motivation (intrinsic or extrinsic) to get fit is futile. It usually results in peaks and troughs of activity, which doesn’t achieve much.“ He says. “If we wait until we are motivated we may never get moving.”

Instead we need to automate our actions. Working out must be as automatic as getting dressed in the morning. And this, according to Mirabella is exactly what goal setting helps us do: hardwire the behaviours that will get us what we want.

“When people don’t know their ‘why’, they’ll be OK for a few weeks at a time, but they’ll never achieve continuity, which is needed to get results on any level. They’ll press snooze in the morning or stay back late at work instead of training.” He says. “It’s the goal-driven, hardwired people who train regardless of motivation and circumstances that’ll progress.”

Goal setting and weight loss.

Approximately 33% of Americans are overweight, and an additional 33% are obese (Overweight & Obesity Statistics, 2014). Williams points out that these are curious statistics considering the proliferation of health programs that focus on weight loss, and speculates that the problem may lie with the validity of goal setting (Williams, 2011).

Mirabella argues that goal setting is not the problem — but the way in which it’s used. Weight-loss programs advertised in mainstream media revolve around superficial targets and practices that may work for a short period of time, but not in the long term.

“Often people jump into these gimmicky 12-week challenges because they want to lose weight for a holiday. They achieve that — but then what? More often than not they revert to their old ways and put the weight back on because the lifestyle these programs promote is not sustainable or realistic.” He says.

A better approach, according to Mirabella is to set a goal around training continuity and allow weight loss to be a by-product of regular exercise.

“Person A would say ‘I’m going to move 30-60mins every day, increase the intensity 1-2 times a week, resistance train 1-2 times a week, eat well, and sleep well. Every few weeks I’ll jog for 5km or ride for 10km and record my time.’ Person B would say ‘I want to lose 5-10 kilos.’

Needless to say, there’s a big difference here.

“Person A is setting up a new, sustainable lifestyle with smaller tangible targets to follow to support and achieve their goal. In the background they should notice nice aesthetic changes as well. Person B’s goal is purely aesthetic, and simply not a substantial enough goal to keep them on track.” He says.

Goals gone wrong.

“The only time I’ve seen people drop the ball in terms of their goals is when they’ve set an unrealistic target,” says Mirabella.

Ford employees ‘dropped the ball with disastrous consequences when they were presented with the goal to build a car (the Pinto) under $2000 by 1970. To hit the goal, employees cut costs by overlooking safety testing. In the end they designed a car where the gas tank was vulnerable to explosion from rear-end collisions. Fifty-three people died as a result (Williams, 2011). Perhaps this is an example of an unrealistic target?

Fitness goals go wrong too. And often. In 2011 the joint goals of losing weight and getting fit were named the most commonly broken New Year’s resolution (Shaw, 2015). And studies have shown that approximately 50% of individuals who start an exercise program stop within the first 6 months, even though they know participation must be maintained to obtain any health benefits (Robison & Rogers, 1994).

Goals gone right.

An increasing number of studies are starting to show that using goals in health and fitness can be helpful. Researchers looking into ways to promote healthy ageing and reduce risk of dementia in the elderly have found that a goal-setting intervention has the potential to achieve increased activity engagement (Clare et al., 2015).

A study examining the effect of goal setting on the reaction time of physical education students found that goal setting enhanced performance (Goudas, Ardamerinos, Vasilliou & Zanou, 1999). A number of case studies have highlighted the importance of goal setting skills in athletes for achieving optimal performance (Kornspan, 2009). And research into different types of goal setting found that multi-faceted goal setters performed best across all tests, while goal nonbelievers scored the worst (Burton, Pickering, Weinberg, Yukelson, & Weigand, 2009).

The verdict? It’s all in the way you use it.

I don’t claim to know what my brother did ‘wrong’ or, if in fact, he did anything wrong. But, in light of Mirabella’s insights, I do wonder if I would be writing a different story had my brother focused less on what he didn’t achieve, and more on what he did achieve. What if he’d written down short-term and long-term goals and reflected on his achievements in light of these?

Goal setting seems to be just another tool to get what you want. When it’s used well, the results are more likely to be pleasing. Wielded incorrectly, less than pleasing. Take the vacuum cleaner as an example. Used on a shaggy rug on the lowest setting, it’s unlikely to suck up many crumbs. But if I increase the suction, I’d be far more pleased with the outcome.

Effective goal setting.

Mirabella’s approach is as follows:

  1. Sit down with a coach or mentor and write down your current training status. Talk about how long you’ve consistently trained without a break of 3 weeks or more.
  2. Write down your short-term and long-term goal.
  3. Set your ‘objective goals’. These are tasks that need to be fulfilled in order to achieve your aims. For example, the short-term goal might be to run 10km in 59 minutes in the next 9 months. The long-term goal might be to run a marathon in the next 4 years. Objective goals will be to run 1km under 5 minutes and do 10 body weight chin ups. Basically, objective goals provide a road map for how you will reach your broader goals (Goals and Objectives, n.d.)
  4. Have realistic expectations.

Mirabella’s stance is firm: goals are crucial for progress in fitness. You have to know your ‘why’ and if you don’t, you’ll just end up “fluffing around” in the gym. But amongst all the serious planning and goal setting, you should try to have some fun.

“The key is to enjoy the process. Never let goal setting or exercising become a chore.” He says.

 

References

Burton, D., Pickering, M., Weinberg, R., Yukelson, D., & Weigand, D,. (2008). The Competitive Goal Effectiveness Paradox Revisited: Examining the Goal Practices of Prospective Olympic Athletes. Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10413200903403232

Clare, L., Nelis, S. M., Jones, I. R., Hindle, J. V., Thom, J. M., Nixon, J. A., … Whitaker, C. J. (2015). The Agewell trial: a pilot randomised controlled trial of a behaviour change intervention to promote healthy ageing and reduce risk of dementia in later life. BMC Psychiatry15, 25. http://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-015-0402-4

Goals and Objectives. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.ncjp.org/strategic-planning/overview/where-do-we-want-be/goals-objectives

Goudas, M., Ardamerinos, N., Vasilliou, S., & Zanou, S. (1999). Effect of Goal-Setting on Reaction Time [Abstract]. Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.2466/pms.1999.89.3.849#articleCitationDownloadContainer

Kornspan, A.S. (2009). Goal setting helps athletes perform. Retrieved from http://www.humankinetics.com/excerpts/excerpts/goal-setting-helps-athletes-perform

Ordóñez, L.D., Schweitzer, M.E., Galinsky, A.D., & Bazerman, M.H. (2009). Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting. Retrieved from http://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication Files/09-083.pdf

Overweight & Obesity Statistics. (2014). Retrieved from https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-statistics/overweight-obesity

Robison, J., & Rogers, M.A. (1994). Adherence to Exercise Programmes [Abstract]. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.2165%2F00007256-199417010-00004

Shaw, D. (2015). Why fitness resolutions fail. Retrieved from http://believeperform.com/wellbeing/why-fitness-resolutions-fail/

Williams, R. (2011). Why goal setting doesn’t work. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201104/why-goal-setting-doesnt-work

Robison, J., & Rogers, M.A. (1994). Adherence to Exercise Programmes [Abstract]. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.2165%2F00007256-199417010-00004