If you want to achieve your health and fitness goals, you need a powerful formula, something to coordinate and organise your efforts into results. In this article, 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 pounds you want to lose, what jean size you want to wear, how much weight you want to deadlift, or the date you need to look photo-ready… and you’re on your way.
Of course, that’s how most people set their fitness goals. But are they doing it right?
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 get the outcome 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.
Step 1: Turn “outcome goals” into “behaviour goals”.
Generally, when someone asks about their fitness goals, most people start with the outcome(s) they want:
- I want to lose 20 pounds.
- I want that thin-skinned, 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 child gets ill.
- Your gym closes for renovations.
- Your mum with dementia needs help.
And they’re influenced by physical things. Like:
- Your hormones get out of whack.
- You have a chronic illness. (Or even just a tough bout with the flu.)
- You’re stressed.
- 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.
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 sugary drinks.
Stop eating junk food.
“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 notdoing… 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.
Here are some examples of how we can turn “avoid” goals into “approach” goals. Note how approach goals are about adding and enjoying “good stuff” rather than taking away or avoiding “bad stuff”.
|Stop snacking on “junk food”.||Snack on cut-up fruits and veggies prepared in advance.||Fruits and veggies are good for me, and this helps me get more of them.|
|Stop over-eating when stressed or overwhelmed.||Stay “aware” and practice eating slowly and breathing between bites.||I feel so much calmer, I enjoy mealtimes more with my family, and my digestion is better.|
|Stop drinking fizzy, sugary drinks||Drink a glass of water with at least 3 meals each day.||I don’t get headaches or constipated any more.|
|Stop eating when I’m stressed out.||Come up with a list of stress-relieving activities that I enjoy. Then pick one from the list and do it.||I feel so much better after my “stress-relief break”!|
|Stop feeling so fatigued and sleep-deprived all the time.||Develop a relaxing sleep ritual and 9 pm bedtime.||I am clear-headed, energised, and happy. I need less caffeine now.|
So how can you set powerful “approach” goals today?
- 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.
- 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 cigarette break at work, take a tea break instead, for example.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 standardised 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.
Here are some examples of how we can turn performance goals into mastery goals. Notice how mastery goals involve words like “work on”; “build”; and “practice”.
|Beat a personal record in the half marathon.||Work on running elegantly, efficiently, and smoothly. Watch video of self running and identify technique elements to improve, then incorporate these into training plan.|
|Bench press more weight.||Work on increasing bar speed and strengthening supporting muscles; consistently practice exercises that do this.|
|Beat last year’s time in the Tough Mudder.||Build up lactate tolerance through high intensity anaerobic sprints|
|Drop body fat to 8% for an upcoming competition.||Build my ability to consistently prepare and execute a well-designed meal plan.|
So how can you set powerful “mastery goals” today?
- Write down the 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 progression 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.
So, why set the right kind of goals?
The right goals can help you set realistic expectations and break large projects into smaller pieces. This avoids overwhelming and helps you stay committed.
The right goals help you feel “in charge”: autonomous, accountable, and responsible for your own life. This is a good feeling. You need it for sustainable change.
The right goals set you up for long-term understanding and inspiration that “sticks”. (Rather than short-term “quick fixes” that ultimately fail or frustrate.)
The right goals boost your own intrinsic motivation. They’re meaningful to you, rather than being about someone else’s judgement, standards, or agenda.
The right goals help you take action. Right now. In real ways. In your real life.Because in the end… only action leads to change.
What to do next: Some advice from us.
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 behaviors/actions you can practice with 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.
If you’re needing some help…
Get in the best shape of your life—and stay that way for good.
You tell us what you want to do. We’ll help you do it. First, your coach will learn about your lifestyle, needs, and specific goals. Then, over the course of the programmememe, we’ll give you everything you need to look, feel, and perform better than you thought possible.
If you’d like to learn more about what we do and how we can help, consider booking a FREE Discovery Call on Nutrition Coaching.
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