Goals are part of every aspect of life. From personal relationships to our professional ambitions. From what we want to achieve in the gym to the way we use our spare time. Everything comes down to priorities and what we want to accomplish.
Without setting goals, life can become a series of chaotic events out of control. Not to mention it’s much harder to achieve what we consider to be important.
However, is having a goal enough, or is there a difference between good goals and bad goals? And how can we improve our goals in order to become more efficient, productive and motivated?
The Importance of Setting Goals
A surprisingly common problem I come across when coaching new clients, be they complete beginners or more experienced athletes, is they either don’t know how to set goals or they simply don’t care. This is an unfortunate oversight.
One of the very first things I have to ask before designing a new program are the goals of my client. In fact, without a clear understanding of where he or she wants to go, it would be impossible for me to design a program tailored to his or her needs. A different goal means a different program.
In this sense, setting a goal is like choosing the destination of a journey. I can draw you the map to reach your destination, but there is little I can do if you don’t tell me where you want to go. This is how important goals are. They are an integral component of any effective program because they give us guidance in structuring a workout plan.
Who would ever consider embarking on a journey without knowing its destination?
In all likelihood, we would end up in an undesired place, having wasted time and money in the process. Well, the same thing can happen with training. If we don’t know where we are going, we will never get there. Sure, it is possible to make progress without goals, but performance increases skyrocket when good goals are set.
Good Goals and Bad Goals
When people set their goals for the first time, it’s very likely they will come up with some sort of bad goal.
“I want to lose weight”, “I want to get toned”, “I want to get big”, “I want to get stronger”. These are all examples of bad goals because they are ill-defined, unmeasurable and ambiguous. They mean a thousand different things to a thousand different people.
How much strong is strong enough?
For a powerlifter, being strong could mean being able to squat 200 kg for 3 repetitions. However, for a martial artist, it could mean being able to punch through a pile of bricks unharmed.
And what exactly do we mean by losing weight?
For someone obese, it could mean getting body weight back into a healthy range. Instead, for a competitive athlete, it could mean losing 5 kg and drop bodyfat to 8% in order to fit the lowest weight category possible and maximize muscle mass.
Good routines are built around good goals. As long as our goals are fleeting and vague, so will be our routines. If we train with no idea what we are training for, we are is just spinning our wheels.
But how do we know if our goals are good enough?
As we will see in a moment, setting good goals is easing as counting from 1 to 5. All we have to do is to think smart. Or, should I say, SMART.
S.M.A.R.T. Goals Are Good Goals
We want to set good goals and we want to make sure they are in line with our overarching objective. To that end, it’s useful to keep in mind the SMART model.
SMART is an acronym, giving us criteria in the setting of objectives. Instead of vague resolutions, the SMART model uses a simple 5 steps checklist to make any objective more realistic and achievable. In order to be SMART, it needs to conform to five simple criteria.
We want our goals to be specific, measurable, action-oriented, reasonable and time bound.
“S” as Specific
Our goal must be specific. Unspecific goals are unspecific destinations on our map. Toning up, losing fat, putting on muscle, becoming strong, getting in shape. These are all examples of bad goals because they are too vague and ambiguous.
What are we trying to achieve, exactly?
If it’s strength, is it the strength of a gymnast or the strength of a powerlifter? If it is muscle, is it the muscles of an Olympic swimmer or the muscles of a bodybuilder? And again, a natural bodybuilder, a fitness model or a Mr. Olympia?
There is a much greater chance to accomplish a specific goal than a general goal. The more specific we are, the bigger our chances get. Furthermore, the more we advance in fitness the more we have to be specific.
A complete beginner will see improvements with any kind program because beginners are adapted to inactivity. On the other hand, an advanced athlete will have to work much harder and smarter to see progress. This is only possible by being extremely specific with goals.
Specificity is paramount. Putting effort in a very specific direction will dramatically increase our motivation as well as our chances to succeed.
“M” as Measurable
Our goal must be measurable. If we don’t have a way to measure it, we will never know when we have achieved it.
In the first place, having measurable goals means being able to identify what we would see, hear and feel when we reach them. Additionally, we want to establish concrete criteria for measuring progress towards their attainment.
Ok, we want to become stronger. But how much stronger? Do we want to squat our bodyweight, or are ten push-ups enough?
And if we want to lose weight, do we simply want to lose 5 kg? Or do we want to lose 5 kg of fat mass and drop body fat to 10% within four months?
When we measure our progress and goals, we stay on track and we keep motivation spot on.
“A” as Action-oriented
Our goal must be action-oriented. We can have the best goal in the world, but it will serve us very little unless we start moving towards it.
Taking action is a critical component to succeeding. This is the reason why we might want to put our goals on paper. There is something magical about writing things down. Plus, declaring our goals is a commitment. Psychologically, we are more likely to follow through on things to which we have committed.
Speaking of commitment, stating our goals publically can be an even more powerful motivator. Once our goals are set and written down, it’s important to place them somewhere where we can frequently look at them. This will help us to constantly think about achieving them.
The best place is probably a training log. If necessary, we can keep it by our bed or on our desk in order to see it frequently and remind ourselves of our goals. Additionally, it is infinitely useful to go back and see not only how far we have come, but also what has worked well for us and what has not.
“R” as Realistic
Our goal must be realistic. Unrealistic expectations are the number one reason people give up on their training regimen.
There is a reason why gyms are packed in January and half-empty by the end of March. The vast majority of newcomers have completely unrealistic ideas about how fast they can achieve their goals. For example, if our goal is to deadlift 200 kg with good form and it’s our first day in the gym, starting out with 150 kg might not be a realistic idea.
An easy way to make sure our SMART goals are in line with our ultimate aim is to break down our big goal into a series of short-term smaller goals within our reach.
Almost everything is attainable if we plan our steps wisely. Goals that may have seemed far away and out of reach eventually move closer. Not because they get less important, but because we steadily grow to match them.
There is nothing wrong with shooting for the stars. However, one thing is dreaming and another thing is real life. Taking it one day at a time with short-term SMART goals is a great way to keep us motivated and stick to our workouts long enough to see our big goals come true.
“T” as Time Bound
Our goal must be time-bound because time bounds give us the proper sense of urgency.
In most cases, deadlines are what make people switch to action. Without a firm date in mind, it’s easy for us to procrastinate and find excuses. Also, having a firm date in mind helps to better plan training. Starting at the goal date, in fact, we can work backward and optimally plan our future sessions.
However, it’s also important to be realistic. Being too strict with our timeline or too demanding with ourselves can easily lead to unsuccess and frustration, or turn the whole process into a stressful race against time. On the other hand, a more realistic and flexible time schedule will keep us focused and motivated.
Fitness is all about taking it one day at a time. Putting on 10 kg of muscles or losing 20 kg of body fat may sound daunting. However, eating healthy and exercising for just one day isn’t that hard at all.
What could we say to a tourist asking for directions but who doesn’t know to where?
If we don’t know what we are trying to achieve, we will never achieve it. Goals are an integral component of any effective program because they give us guidance in structuring a training plan. The more we advance in fitness, the more important setting goals becomes.
Working harder is not a guarantee for progress. We have to workout smarter and choose our goals carefully to avoid frustration and premature quitting.
Good routines are built around good goals, and setting good goals is easy as counting from 1 to 5. All we have to do is to think SMART. Once we know our destination, we are less likely to get lost.