On setting goals and the practice of goal-setting

I see dead resolutions.

I see them at CrossFit Gaspar, the gym close to campus where I coach. There’s a board where athletes write their achievements and personal records for the whole community to see and cheer. These range from fastest miles ever ran, to most weight lifted, to first workout completed. I like this board— it’s a celebration of accomplishments, big and small, for people at various stages of their journey.

Then, there’s the other board. Since 2016 rolled through, there’s a space where members have begun recording their resolutions and goals for the coming year. I’m less enthusiastic about this board. Don’t get me wrong, I love goal-setting: when athletes set goals, my little coach-heart grows two sizes. It bums me out because seems a bit like a living cemetery, if you know what you are looking for.

From the wording of the goal, I have a pretty good sense of who will end up crossing stuff off their list and who will be recycling resolutions for next year. All goals generally come from the same, authentic place of reflecting on your weaknesses and where you can improve. The trouble is that few of those aspirations have matured and developed enough to withstand the weirdness of everyday life. A soft, squishy goal can survive in the warm confines of your mind— but take it out into the real world, and it’s like a beagle trying to brave a New England blizzard.

The most insidious result of squishy goals and lack of follow-through is that you have practiced one rep of setting a goal and not completing it. Consider within the context of difficult gymnastic movements: after a bit of fatigue, you might fail a pushup or handstand, but you need to stop and adjust your plan before you are consistently failing reps. From a neuromuscular and morale standpoint, you don’t want that muscle memory to burn into your subconscious. Same with year-long resolutions: set small ones that you know you can complete, so that you can bat as close to 1,000 as possible.

What do I look for when analyzing a goal? First, I figure out what kind of goal they are setting, then I determine if there’s need of any supporting or scaffolding goals. I generally categorize goals into three distinct types, listed in order of increasing specificity: qualitative/descriptive behaviors and outcomes (“I want to lose weight” or “I want to perfect my olympic lifts”), quantitative/numerical outcomes (“run a marathon in under 4hrs” or “I want to squat 200#”), and quantitative/numerical behaviors (“I will practice my olympic lifts three times a week” or “I will cook dinner five times a week”).

Most folks start in the broad category of qualitative/descriptive behaviors or outcomes and never dig much deeper. It’s awesome to make a loud declarative statement that this year will be the year to master gymnastic movements. But without subsequently more specific and more actionable goals, there are no legs upon which the big goal can stand. If you build from a strong foundation, then you’ll be crossing off outcomes like a boss.

For example, let’s say you want “perfect the snatch” (qualitative/descriptive outcome)— when will you complete this goal? What will be the moment when you can cross perfection off the list? It’s a terribly binary proposition: at the end of the year if you do not feel like you have perfected the snatch, then you have failed that goal. So, let’s dig a bit deeper. With that overall driving goal of “perfect the snatch”, let’s say that we want to lift our bodyweight (quantitative/numerical outcome). This gives us the goalpost, so we have something concrete to consider, a true target to aim for.

A bodyweight snatch is better, but not quite an actionable goal, not quite there. I can say I want to run a five minute mile, but if I don’t practice running drills, if I don’t sprint regularly, then I’ll never achieve my stated goal. So let’s create that goal for tomorrow: I will practice snatch drills with an empty barbell every time I go to the gym (quantitative/numerical behavior). These are the real goals, the ones that move mountains and get stuff done: I can start counting how many times I run through that snatch drill practice, and then know that each session added progress to that goal of lifting my bodyweight. If I hit that magic number down the road, then I can feel like I’m making progress on perfection, toward that “perfect the snatch” goal.

The goal with goal-setting is to get as granular as possible, to find out exactly what we need to do tomorrow, to begin crossing things off the list immediately. These daily habits are what define our overall productivity: if you write everyday, then you are a writer. If you spend everyday staring at the typewriter, then you are one old-school procrastinator, not an author. So, practice yoga everyday to become that yogi you want to be, lace up your running shoes three days a week to become a runner. It’s really that simple. The barrier to entry is whether or not you are willing to be relentless in the daily pursuit of your goals.

I threw some goals on that board: complete the Spartan Race Trifecta, run a half-marathon without hating it, and place in the 75th percentile for the 2016 CrossFit Open. All of these goals fall under the middle category of quantitative outcomes for a very specific reason: my overall qualitative/descriptive outcome goal is to enjoy my physical practice, to have fun moving my body. These mid-sized goals are way-points to help me realize that fuzzy overall directive in the coming year. My micro-goals, the actionable tomorrow-steps for my quantitative behaviors are maintaining what I’m already doing: logging information and keeping track of my time.

One app that has helped me the past few weeks in my micro-goals is HabitBull. A simple dose of dopamine everyday: create a list of habits or activities and check them off as you go about your day, or all at once before bed. For example, I want to sweat five days a week this year, either from exercise, movement, or some sort of play. Keeping track of how close I am to my weekly goal helps me stay on track. I can see how many days in a row I’ve reached my target, and get very specific about my habits (read for at least 15min four times a week). This has helped me get much more done in a day than I would’ve expected, and it’s because I have streamlined my approach to setting those micro-goals and recording the subsequent results. In addition to reading and sweating, I’m tracking: writing, flashcards, non-exercise activity time, regular sun exposure, time spent in a backbend, and floating at least once a week.

The methods and habits that got me here will not get me to where I want to be. What worked in the minor leagues will not work in the majors. I’ve had to become increasingly more efficient and effective with my goal-setting because my dreams have gotten bigger and my time has become more scarce. Learning new methods of learning is painful. Daily sharpening of the ax is slow and not very sexy, but the best way to leverage my time and to affect the most change in the world.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

~ Aristotle

8 thoughts on “On setting goals and the practice of goal-setting

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