How to Set Goals: Don’t “Do Your Best”
By: Barbell Logic Team
In a lot of ways, goal-setting is like a strength training plan. You must raise your effort level to meet the objective. With a clear goal setting strategy, you can give yourself everything you need to meet each of your personal goals this year—whether strength or fitness related, geared toward personal enrichment, or just things you want to accomplish this year. The first thing you have to remember, however, is to never just do your best.
How To Set Goals: Don’t “Do Your Best’
*This is Part 1 of a two-part article. Read Part 2 here for more.
Every meaningful change, like every proverbial journey, begins with a single step. But what is that step? Is it simply to start now, take the reins, and seize the day? Or should it be a measured, purposeful step—one that comes from careful consideration of your goals and possible paths? With any new change, a reckless plunge can lead to poor progress, frustration, and discouragement. But too much weighing and considering your options only increases your inertia—you don’t want to wake up in March ready to start your New Year’s resolution. Rather than acting with hapless abandon or falling into paralysis by analysis, the right first step toward any change lies in setting the goal itself and doing so in a way that maximizes your likelihood of success and gives you an immediate and clear plan of action.
With a clear goal setting strategy, you can give yourself everything you need to meet each of your personal goals this year—whether strength or fitness related, geared toward personal enrichment, or just things you want to accomplish this year. The first thing you have to remember, however, is to never just do your best.
Avoid the “Do Your Best” Trap
In a lot of ways, goal-setting is like a strength training plan. You must raise your effort level to meet the objective. For strength training, this means mustering for your prescribed weights, sets, and reps for the training day. If you instead flipped that goal and decided that your effort is the objective, then you could go to the gym and just “do your best,” lifting what feels heavy to you, applying a self-determined measure of success. The problem with a subjective effort like this—as opposed to an objective task “Weight x Sets x Reps”—is that it excuses performance that falls below what is necessary to meet your goal. “Do your best” is a directive without definition.
This represents the opposite aim of goal-setting theory. Much of modern goal-setting theory comes from the work of two authors, Edwin A. Locke and Gary P. Latham, and their decades-long investigation into the premise that “human behavior is affected by conscious purposes, plans, intentions, tasks and the like.” We experience this fact in the strength training area quite often, every time a lifter runs a properly organized linear progression, in fact. Your workout is a microcosm in which you can observe goal setting theory at work. Your goals are set by the prescribed weight on the bar and the sets and reps that make up your training session for that day. At some point in your training, the prescription will have been to lift a heavy weight for 3 sets of 5 repetitions. You completed that workout knowing without a doubt that you could not have lifted any more weight for that same number of reps on that day. What would happen if, at the end of your 15th rep, you reracked the bar and were able to set the weight for your next workout by deciding to just do your best next time?
But, the goal remains objective; the weight goes up. There are physiological reasons for this as part of the training stimulus that makes you stronger. But, as a matter of goal setting, the objective remains external to your effort level. Instead, when you go to the gym next time, you are asked to do something difficult and specific that, before you’ve attempted it, may seem to be outside of what you believe you can accomplish. One of the most common comments we receive as coaches after this workout is “I honestly didn’t think I could do this today,” meaning the objective goal brought out a higher level of performance than a subjective or do-your-best goal would have. “Conscious goals affect action,” Locke and Latham write and “a goal is the object or aim of an action[.]” A goal, carefully constructed, can raise your likelihood of success and motivate you to greater outcomes than you think you are capable of. You can, quite practically, do better than “your best” when you set the bar properly.
People tend toward extremes. Either they will set goals in which the likelihood of success is so high that they don’t really have to work that hard. Or, they will choose goals whose ultimate satisfaction is very great, but for which success is a near impossibility. Ironically, these two extremes always require very little personal effort.
Consider the lottery. Millions of people will play the lottery because the perceived satisfaction of winning is astronomically great. Just imagine what you would do…. The letdown when they don’t win, however, is very low. After all, it only costs a few bucks to play and you weren’t really going to win anyway. Far fewer people will choose to curb their spending slightly and invest a little bit of money so that in thirty years they can be a millionaire—despite evidence that doing so is possible with very modest earnings and investment strategies. Why? Because thirty years is a too-far-delayed gratification, even for most penny pinchers. The goal is certainly desirable, but the structure of the goal has not motivated most people to that course of action.
So, how do you set a goal that has a big payoff, that will motivate you to high levels of effort, and that is structured in a way that will help you stick to it? We can look again at strength training.
Making Small Goals Out of Big Goals
When you open up your training log to set your next workout, you have to consider the goal of the workout within a larger context. If “goals are,” as Locke and Latham put it “an object or outcome to aim for and a standard for judging satisfaction,” then every workout contains goals—the sets and reps and weight on the bar—but each is also a composite piece of a larger goal in your quest to get stronger. Each workout defines the focus of your effort, gives a narrow time-frame for completing it, and defines the things that will give you satisfaction (you completed the workout!). This is a useful structure for goals setting.
Composite goals, like individual training sessions, make your big picture goals effective. If you sit down to consider your strength training goals, for example, “get stronger” is probably your default aspiration. Without more, this isn’t a very useful goal. It doesn’t motivate you to any great efforts. You can see this in gyms right now, before the New Year’s resolutions have worn off, in people who flock to the middle of the gym floor with the resistance training machines, or skirt the edges in the realm of the cardio equipment, but do so without a real plan for Day 1. They mostly run in place for a while until they lose motivation. A bigger goal like getting stronger or fitter or losing a bunch of weight needs more specific, smaller goals that add up to success. To get stronger, this usually means particularly organized individual training sessions with prescribed exercises, sets, and reps and an effective loading scheme; at a minimum, knowing what you are going to do before you walk through the gym doors and why.
A pyramiding structure of goals begins to form when you organize them this way. At the top, you have your long-term, big goals. But those goals are built on the day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month goals. Shorter events that are still difficult, but are more directly applicable and, importantly, when accomplished will result in your long-term goal. Your longer, bigger goals require shorter composite goals, those that accumulate over time.
Each goal in the sequence, however, shares certain characteristics to be effective. They are specific and difficult, and they maximize your commitment to the goal by distinguishing between learning goals and performance goals and by providing feedback for you to gauge your progress along the way.
In the next part of this article, we will discuss how each of these attributes helps you achieve more, and even how seemingly impossible goals might be more useful than you think. Stay tuned…
 Locke and Latham, “Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal Setting and Task Motivation: A 35-Year Odyssey” (September 2002 American Psychologist) (quoting Ryan, T.A. “Intentional Behavior,” (Ronald Press 1970))