Goal Setting: An Overview
The first step in achieving a goal is making the decision that you want to achieve it, then comes the acknowledgment of the changes you’ll need to make to get there.
The process of a lifestyle change can be broken down into 6 stages, termed the Transtheoretical Model in a study by theorists Prochaska and DiClemente.
Pre-contemplation – The point where you’re yet to even consider making a change or reaching a goal.
Contemplation – You’ve realised a change or goal is necessary or desirable and are considering it.
Preparation – You’ve made the decision to make a change and are taking steps towards making it a reality.
Action – You’ve actually started doing something!
Maintenance – You’ve got momentum and you’ve formed a new routine incorporating your new habit.
Termination – You no longer engage in the old behaviour or have reached your goal.
When it comes to goal setting, the ‘contemplation’ stage is key. This is the stage people tend to linger in for the longest time (even permanently) as they consider the pros and cons and decide whether the end goal is going to be worth the effort they’ll need to put in.
Renowned strength and weightlifting coach Dan John identified 3 basic approaches to goal setting: Should, Could and Must. The ultimate decision to pursue a goal often results from a progression through these approaches.
The ‘Should’ stage is where you acknowledge that a change is needed or wanted. This could be anything from ‘I should try to lose some weight’ to ‘I should try to hit a new squat PR.’ Sometimes this is far as it goes and the goal remains a pipe dream.
When you tell yourself you ‘Could’ do something, things are a bit more tangible. This is where you start to acknowledge the possibility of achieving your goal and the steps you’ll need to take towards it. This is where ‘I should try to lose some weight’ becomes ‘I could lose some weight if I followed a stricter diet and exercise regime.’
The ‘Must’ is the motivating factor in the pursuit of a goal. When a reason why you ‘must’ achieve a goal becomes evident you’re more likely to put a concrete plan in place to achieve it. This is the difference between ‘I should lose some weight’ and ‘I must lose some weight to live a healthier life.’
It’s possible that ‘should’ or ‘could’ will lead you to a decision and to ‘preparation’ but if you identify the ‘must’ element of your goal you’ll have a clear understanding of WHY you’ve set that goal, which is a much more powerful motivator than simply determining WHAT your goal is.
To give yourself the best chance of success, there’s an optimal process for setting your goals.
If you want to have a real sense of direction or purpose, then you need to make sure the goals you set are SMART. Whatever your goal is, it has to be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-bound.
Specific – having a clearly defined goal allows you to have a greater attention to detail, which will allow for better overall progress. It’s also more motivating than having a vague, general concept of improvement in mind.
Measurable – If you aren’t working towards something tangible, your goals are left open-ended, making it much more difficult, or even impossible, to ensure you’re on track to achieve what you want. For example, make your ‘weight loss’ goal by turning it into ‘I want to lose 5kg in 8 weeks).
Attainable – When you set a goal, you need to make sure it’s something actually reachable. It’s great to be ambitious, but if you set a goal that’s not possible you’re only setting yourself up for disappointment and demotivation. If your end goal is fairly lofty, set smaller goals along the way. Rather than planning to set a world record marathon time, just focus on shaving a few minutes off your personal best.
Realistic- Similar to the previous point, this is where you need to be honest with yourself regarding the scope and practicality of your goals. For example, if you’re currently not exercising at all, how realistic is it that you’ll commit to getting up at 5am every day for a workout?
Time-bound- If you don’t set a timeframe for what you want to achieve you run the risk of procrastinating. Then your goal stops being a driving force and becomes something you’ll ‘get to eventually.’
A goal of ‘losing some weight’ is not SMART. To make it SMART we need to specify exactly how much weight, ensuring that number is attainable and realistic within a set amount of time. Doing this turns a good intention into a solid goal.
Sometimes your goals might not feel like they fit within the SMART structure. Maybe your goals do feel more general, maybe you do want to ‘feel stronger’ but don’t necessarily want to sign up for a powerlifting competition anytime soon. There is always a way to make your goals SMART. If you want to feel stronger, find a way to measure your strength. Find your 5rm on a given exercise and then set a target for improving it. Sure, your main concern might not be adding 20kg to your deadlift in 6 months, but if you achieve that you’re sure to feel stronger.
Once you’ve decided on your ultimate goal, it can be helpful to break it down into short, medium and long term goals. Think of this like milestones on the road to your final destination. Your short and medium term goals are markers of achievement that keep you motivated and ensure you’re on the right track. That way your ultimate goal feels less daunting. If you’re currently maxing out at 5 push ups, hitting 50 might seem impossible. However, hitting 15 seems much more doable. From there you can work up to 30. Then all of a sudden 50 doesn’t feel so impossible.
Accountability and Motivation
One of the biggest obstacles you’re likely to encounter is motivation (or a lack thereof). So what can you do to keep yourself motivated?
Tracking your progress is one of the best tools you can equip yourself with to stay motivated. Not only does this keep you accountable (knowing what you achieved last time around means you know what you need to do to progress) but it also acts as a record of the hard work you’ve put in and the progress you’ve made so far. If you ever feel like your hard work isn’t paying off, a quick look back at where you started compared to where you are now, can be all you need to pick up your spirits.
When it comes to being accountable, one often quoted strategy is to tell everyone you know about your goals. The idea being that the fear of others knowing you failed or gave up will push you to work harder. Sure, in theory that makes sense but in practice there’s research to suggest this can have the opposite effect.
When you tell someone about a goal you’ve set, you get a small sense of achievement and satisfaction, without actually having done the work. Announcing your intention to do something makes you feel as though you’re closer to actually accomplishing it. Psychologists call this phenomenon ‘social reality’ or ‘social acknowledgement’. The premature sense of achievement you feel makes you less inclined to put the work in to actually achieve.
That doesn’t mean you have to keep your goals a secret, a better strategy would be to discuss your goals but make sure you acknowledge the process. That way you’re less likely to feel that premature satisfaction. For example, rather than telling a friend you’re ‘going to run a marathon’ say you’ve ‘starting a marathon training program. It’ll be a lot of work but by the end of it I should be able to run a full marathon’.
Reaching a goal you’ve set for yourself is one of the most rewarding things you can do. However, setting the goal itself can be the first hurdle. If you don’t set it the right way you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. Give some thought to the WHY behind your goal, take some time to make it SMART and break it down into short, medium and long term markers, keep track of your progress and you give yourself a much better chance of success.
Gollwitzer et. al (2009). When Intentions Go Public. Psychological Science, 20(5), 612-618.
Elliot, A.J., & Dweck, C.S. (2005). Competence and motivation: Competence as the core of achievement motivation. In A.J. Elliot & C.S. Dweck (Eds), Handbook of competence and motivation (pp. 3-12). New York, NY: Guilford Publications.
Bu.edu. (2019). The Transtheoretical Model (Stages of Change). [online] Available at: https://sphweb.bumc.bu.edu/otlt/MPH-Modules/SB/BehavioralChangeTheories/BehavioralChangeTheories6.html.
John, D. (n.d.). Goal Setting for Hard Asses. [online] T NATION. Available at: https://www.t-nation.com/powerful-words/goal-setting-for-hard-asses