by Matt "Kroc" Kroczaleski T-Nation
In response to today's perfect storm of prolonged adolescence, self-entitlement, and financial turmoil, the self-help section of your favorite bookstore is bursting with entries dedicated to goal achievement.
I've always been very goal-focused – both inside and outside the gym – in part because I don't overcomplicate goal setting. I don't go off on extended pilgrimages to far off places to search for my "true purpose." I simply find a quiet spot and follow a few simple steps, which I'll share with you now.
Step 1: Redefine Your Expectations
The most important aspect of goal setting is defining exactly what you want to achieve and what you believe to be possible. Many of us have become far too complacent with where we are in life and have stopped striving for improvement. In a training context, this is common if you're the biggest and strongest guy in your gym or in your circle of friends.
An old saying that I like is, "The biggest tragedy in life isn't setting your goals too high and never reaching them, but rather setting them too low and achieving them." To that end, goals should be a journey, like steppingstones or progressions, never simple destinations.
Satisfaction and complacency are dream killers – if we find ourselves completely satisfied when achieving a goal, we cease to desire more and thus cease to progress.
So if you suffer from "big fish in the small pond syndrome," how do you break out of it? You must redefine your expectations – both of what's possible and what you view yourself to be capable of.
One way to accomplish this is by immersing yourself in a world that exceeds your current abilities and expectations. So if you're a strength athlete, join a hardcore gym or find training partners that are a lot stronger than you. Not only will you progress simply by seeing bigger weights being moved every day, you'll also benefit from their greater knowledge and experience.
Next, attend national and world championship meets. If you can squat 600 or 700 pounds, you may be the strongest lifter at the Okotoks Powerlifting Championships – but if you attend a world class meet where lifters are opening with over 1000 pounds on the bar, suddenly your big 700 doesn't seem so impressive.
This is invaluable. You'll start to see that so much more is possible and redefine your expectations accordingly.
Step 2: Set Specific Goals
It's imperative that goals be specific and definable. Vague goals lead to obscure results. Avoid setting goals that are subjective; where results can be altered independent of your own progress.
For example, many competing athletes set goals based upon the result of their next competition. Most would assume that this is a great way to set goals, but if we look at it in greater depth, the flaws with this line of thinking are revealed.
Let's say your goal is to win a local bodybuilding show. You prepare and come in slightly smaller and softer than your previous competition – but you still win, as the show was less competitive than usual.
You've now accomplished your goal by winning the show, but what have you really achieved? You actually regressed but still succeeded in reaching your goal.
Of course, the opposite can be true. You come in bigger and harder than ever, but another competitor shows up and blows everyone off the stage with a national-caliber physique. In this scenario, failing to achieve your goal wasn't really a failure at all.
More effective goal setting for a strength athlete would be goals that require adding a certain number of pounds to lifts or improvements in technique. For a bodybuilder, it would be progress in measurements, bodyweight, or body fat percentage.
The key is that no matter what your goals may be, you need to make them definable and measurable to allow accurate gauging of true progress.
Step 3: Set Short, Medium, and Long Term Goals
You should have short, medium, and long-term goals – and it's crucial that your short-term ones act as steppingstones towards both the medium and eventually the long-term goals.
As obvious as that may sound, many fail to do this and set conflicting or even opposing goals. While what constitutes a short, medium, or long-term goal is up to the individual, for athletics it's useful to define a short-term goal as something that can be accomplished over weeks or months.
Accomplishing medium-term goals should be set for 1-2 years, and long terms goals 5-10 years or possibly more. Of course, these time frames will vary greatly depending on exactly what the goal may be.
Step 4: Work Backwards
To ensure your short, medium, and long-term goals all work well together, it's best to start with the long-term goals and work backwards. This will also bring issues to light if you're not being realistic in your expectations.
Often people will set excessively ambitious long-term goals without having the short and medium-term goals in place. By starting with the long-term and working backwards, it will be easier to evaluate whether the entire process is even a realistic possibility.
Step 5: Be Lofty But Realistic
Your goals should extract the absolute maximum from your potential. Don't be afraid to reach too far and come up short. Fear of failure has kept many worthy individuals from achieving all that they were capable of.
Remember there is no reward without risk – and often the greater the risk, the greater the reward. Too many people sell themselves short by setting goals that they know they can easily reach and then pat themselves on the back for doing so. But what these folks are really doing is putting up an invisible ceiling, which results in them only achieving a fraction of their true potential.
I'm a big believer in competing at the highest level you're able to. If you're an athlete and qualify for a national level competition, then compete there. Don't waste your time in lower level shows just to stoke your ego.
Just be realistic in your expectations and try to learn as much you can. The knowledge that you acquire by competing and losing to stiffer competition will only benefit your future aspirations.
On the other hand, setting goals that are easily achievable proves nothing, accomplishes nothing, and fails to lead to the progression that we ultimately should be striving toward.
While some might sell themselves short in terms of expectations of their success, many others suffer from being woefully unrealistic. Goals should push you to your limits – but if you find yourself repeatedly falling short by a wide margin, a stern reality check may be in order.
To correct this, try discussing your goals with knowledgeable people that you respect, and most importantly, will be straight up with you. Ask them for their honest opinion and tell them not to sugar coat it. Say you need to hear absolute objectivity, and that you have a lot riding on their analysis.
This might require a thick skin on your part, but you have to be able to accept constructive criticism if you're to grow and progress. However, also remember that their opinion is just that – their opinion – and not necessarily 100% accurate. Accept it as a qualified outside perspective and combine it with everything else that you already know and believe. Still, if everyone you ask gives similar reviews then it's highly probable that there's validity to their appraisals.
As important as goal setting may be, it doesn't have to be complicated or require days of self-analysis. Here's the quick and dirty version:
- Redefine your expectations. A helpful tip is to surround yourself with people that are at the level you desire to be.
- Ensure your goals are specific and objective. Base your goals around criteria that are definable and measurable.
- Set short, medium, and long-term goals, and remember that it's vital that the short-term ones serve as steppingstones in the achievement of the medium and long-term goals.
- Use the inverse method of setting your long-term goals first and working backwards through your medium and short-term goals.
- Your goals should be lofty and extract the absolute maximum from your potential but not be unrealistic. Look for constructive criticism from knowledgeable and honest sources.