If you want to achieve your health and fitness goals, you need a powerful system, something to organise your efforts. In this post we’ll help you get organised while covering three important strategies for turning ‘bad’ fitness goals into ‘good’ ones.
What, exactly, are your fitness goals?
Any effort to “get in shape” starts with this question. It seems like an easy question to answer.
Just rattle off how many lbs you want to lose, what dress size you want to wear, how much weight you want to deadlift, or the date you need to look holiday-ready… and you’re on your way.
Of course, that’s how most people set their fitness goals. But are they doing it right? Usually not.
That’s why we spend a lot of time helping our coaching clients define and set the right kind of goals.
When you set your goals up properly, you have a simple, elegant, action-inspiring blueprint. You know exactly how you’re going to build the skills you need to achieve the results you want. Proper goal setting is a plan for getting things done. When you do goals right, you feel ready, willing, and able to make your dream happen.
When you don’t know how to set goals, you get lost. Confused. Overwhelmed. Crushed by “shoulds”. Distracted by wondering and worrying, or by irrelevant details. If you succeed with poor or unclear goals, it’s probably by accident.
Read on for three important ways to instantly transform “bad” fitness goals into “good” ones.
Step 1: Turn “outcome goals” into “behaviour goals”.
Generally, when we ask someone about their fitness goals, most people start with the outcome(s) they want:
I want to lose 20 pounds.
I want that ripped look.
I want to binge less often.
I want to deadlift double my bodyweight.
Outcome goals describe how we want things to be at the end of the process. There’s nothing wrong wanting things. Or talking about what you want. Or starting with the end in mind.
But we can’t stop there.
Wanting things isn’t enough. Even if you really, really, really want them. Because: We often can’t control outcomes.
Outcomes are affected by environmental things. Like:
Your job gets crazy busy.
Your kid gets sick.
Your mum with dementia needs help.
And they’re influenced by physical things. Like:
You’re travelling a lot.
You’re getting older.
You’re having problems sleeping.
You sprained your ankle or your arthritic knee is doing its thing again.
You get the idea.
You can’t make your body do what you want it to. (And neither can your coach.) But you can control what you do.
That’s why behaviour goals are so important: They focus on the things we do have control over. Behaviour goals represent your commitment to practice a particular set of actions or tasks every day, as consistently and regularly as possible.
Here’s a practical example.
Client: “I want a flat stomach.”
Coach: “Okay, cool.
“Let’s write that down as the outcome you want.
“Now let’s think about all the little steps we can take to move you toward that outcome, and which ones should come first.
“In my experience, here’s a step that makes a huge difference, and it’s a great place to start.
“It’s very simple but incredibly effective: Eating slowly.
“I know it doesn’t seem to relate to ‘flat stomach’ right away.
“But in fact, eating slowly helps you pay more attention to what you’re eating and how. That means over time, you make better food choices easily and effortlessly.
“Eating slowly helps you eat a bit less, but still feel satisfied. It helps decrease bloating because now you’re chewing and digesting your food better, which is another plus for Project Flat Stomach.
“Would you be willing to try this first step of eating slowly, and also to track whether you practice this?”
Since eating slowly helps folks eat less, and eating less most often leads to fat loss (not to mention the benefits of better food choices and better digestion), this approach helps turn an outcome (uncontrollable) into a behaviour (controllable).
Notice how both outcome and behaviour goals are trackable. However, behaviour goals are usually more effective because they give you something to do (and track) each day.
So how can you set powerful behaviour goals today?
Write down one outcome you want. Don’t overthink it. Just name the desire you want most right now.
Write down some of the skills you think you’ll need to get that outcome. If you’re just starting out, focus on foundational skills. What are the basics that make everything else possible? (For instance, if you want to manage your time, you need to learn to use a calendar.).
Related to each skill, write down a behaviour or two you can do today that’ll help build those skills. This can be really easy, like walking through the gym doors or even packing your gym bag for tomorrow morning.
Do the behaviour today, and tomorrow, and so on. And, keep in mind, if you don’t follow through on a given day, don’t let it derail you. Each day is a clean slate.
Step 2: Turn “avoid goals” into “approach goals”.
Stop drinking fizzy drinks. Stop eating junk food. Stop smoking.
“Avoid” goals like these are nice and straightforward. What’s simpler or easier to understand than “don’t”? This seems logical. “Don’t” or “stop” will push you away from something “bad”, or something that threatens what you want to achieve. Yet “avoid” goals are psychologically counterproductive.
Because telling yourself to stop doing something almost guarantees you’ll keep doing it.
As you might imagine, nobody likes being told what to do. This is called resistance, and it’s completely normal. The moment someone (even yourself) argues strongly for change, your natural reaction is to argue equally strongly against change.
What’s more, if the goal is to stop doing something, even the smallest slip can feel like a failure. One miss means you’re “off the wagon” and all hell breaks loose.
“Avoid” goals are a lot of psychological work. They take up a lot of mental and emotional real estate and energy. All you can think about is what you’re not doing… or shouldn’t do… but really want to do… but you’re not allowed to do it… augh.
That’s why we help clients turn “avoid” goals into “approach” goals.
“Approach” goals pull you toward something desirable (and quietly pull you away from something you’re trying to avoid).
“Approach” goals also focus on feeling good. About doing good for ourselves.
So how can you set powerful “approach” goals today?
1. Write down a “bad” habit you want to avoid. This is pretty easy. It’s the “hard to break” behaviour you nag yourself about a lot.
2. Write down a “good” habit or two you can use to replace the habit you want to quit. Try to make the “good” habits relevant to the context. If you usually take a smoke break at work, take a tea break instead, for example.
3. Write down an “approach” goal you can do today to support the new “good” habit. Start as small as you want. Maybe you take the tea break today — or maybe you just bring your new tea stash to work today so it’s ready for you tomorrow.
4. Identify how this “approach” goal will benefit you. Brainstorm all the good things that your tea break could bring: you get antioxidants, you can try all different kinds of tea, you can use the adorable mug your daughter made you in pottery class, you can hang out in the break room with that attractive coworker who also likes tea, you’ll smell like fragrant jasmine or vanilla rooibos instead of cigarette smoke… whatever.
5. Find what works, and repeat. You can try a bunch of different “approach” goals to find out what feels easiest for you. When you find one that works for your life, practice it every day.
Step 3: Turn “performance goals” into “mastery goals”.
Performance goals are a lot like outcome goals. But they’re usually associated with external validation such as wanting to get good grades from a teacher, win a competition for the fans, or race against a standardized time.
Just like outcome goals, performance goals are often limited by factors outside your control:
It could be rainy and windy on the day of a marathon. That’s out of your control, yet influences your time.
You could get a head cold, an upset stomach, or mega-period-cramps on the day of a powerlifting meet. You may not perform well or set that personal record.
You could show up in top form at a bodybuilding competition. But your opponent could show up in better form.
Of course, performance goals can be fun for a while. They can push you to achieve your best. But it’s incredibly demotivating if they don’t work out. Every time you don’t achieve the performance standard, you may think you’ve “failed” (regardless of whether it even makes sense to meet that standard). And performance goals put our happiness and satisfaction in the hands of someone or something else. Like pleasing a coach. Beating a competitor. Matching an arbitrary number. Having lots of social media “likes”. Or getting a gold star. We never really feel like we accomplished something because we’re always looking over the fence.
Mastery is different.
Mastery emphasizes the process of getting a little bit better each day at a particular skill. You don’t expect to be a black belt a quickly as possible. But you do expect to progress… a little at a time.
Mastery focuses on the joy of learning and the value in intrinsic (inside-yourself) process. External validation becomes irrelevant when you’re focused on the pleasure of doing the activity itself.
Mastery is gratifying because no matter what others think or do — whether you’re judged poorly or you’re outperformed — you can still feel good about your own personal progression.
Truly, mastery is motivating no matter what else is going on.
But wait, you’re thinking, I’m an athlete.
Or maybe: My clients are athletes. Athletes are defined by performance goals
They might be during competition. However, during the day-to-day grind, the best athletes I’ve ever worked with have focused on mastery almost exclusively.
The intrinsic pleasure of a growth mindset, of learning each day, and of making improvements is what keeps them training for years. And top performance comes from mastery.
After a disappointing play, or game, or season, mastery-oriented athletes don’t question the value of the activity, or of themselves. They don’t feel like losers. They see losses as essential learning opportunities.
And let’s imagine a situation where performance can’t get better. Let’s imagine that an athlete is winning everything, performing their absolute best — at the very top of their class, with few competitors to challenge them. If there’s no one else to beat, what do you train for? Mastery.
So how can you set powerful “mastery goals” today?
Write down a desired outcome that’s a performance goal. This could be obvious, or it could take some digging — like: “Damn, why am I so focused on lifting more weight than my brother-in-law?
Write down some ideas for turning inward with that goal. If you take the external validation out of the equation, what does success look like? What do you want to master… for you? For the craft?
Think about which skills will lead to mastery. Not to a faster time. But to a body that can produce faster times or higher jumps or smoother movement or better decisions made more consistently.
Write down an action you can take every day for the next two weeks to build those skills. Then take the action. (Our clients have a lot of fun with this one, because it tends to totally transform and renew workouts, meal planning, and other health-related regimens. It becomes about practical progression. It can even become a game.)
Track your progress toward mastery. Make your practices a permanent part of your daily or weekly routine. Have fun tracking your progress. And high five yourself for all progress, no matter how small.
What to do next: Some advice from Glevum Fitness.
1. Take an honest look at your goals.
Most people have health and fitness goals. Think about yours. Write them down if you like.
Review and sort them. Which ones are “outcome goals”, “avoid goals” and/or “performance goals”?
If any are, how long have you had them? Do you feel good about your progress? How are they working for you?
2. Consider the skills you need to do what you want.
New outcomes need new skills. If there’s something you want to do, and you haven’t done it, you probably haven’t developed the skills you need. (Yet.)
Consider which skills you’ll need to build and how you’ll build them.
3. Turn outcomes into behaviours.
Once you know which skills will help you reach your goals, break them down into behaviours/actions you can practice with a purpose every day.
4. Focus on what to do, rather than on what not to do.
“Don’t do X” is not an action plan. But “Do more Y” is. Where possible, go towards “good stuff”: benefits, enjoyment, pleasure, abundance, learning, growth, and satisfaction.
5. Enjoy the journey.
Choose behaviours you’ll enjoy (or find ways to enjoy the behaviours you’ve chosen). Experience the daily zen of doing a thing for its own sake. Refine, improve, and become a master.
Want some help?
Even when you learn to set excellent goals, aiming to make big changes can feel daunting. At Glevum Fitness, we specialise in providing expertise and support to make the process easier, more manageable, and more fun.