As a exercise psych guy, this time of year is very busy for me. This is the time of year I get the most emails that contains the words, “goals,” “resolutions,” “core,” “tone,” “marathon,” and “pounds.” They started a few weeks ago and their numbers are climbing daily. But I have a confession. For the last 5 years, I’ve been lying to myself. I’ve been obsessed with goals. Doing X by Y so I could do Z. I’ve taken classes on them, written papers on them, given lectures on them, and even splashed them all over my website. I’ve been all “SMART goals” this, and “process goals” that. But I’ve been lying to myself. Because after all that work with goals, I’ve come to learn that a goal is a lie. A goal is a lie we tell ourselves to protect us from finding out what we really want. People who sign up for marathons rarely want to run a marathon. Marathons suck. They hurt and yet are so easy that anyone can sign up for one. I crossed the finish line of my first marathon with a 65 year old woman who had run another marathon the previous week. People don’t want to run a marathon, they want to be the kind of person who ran a marathon. And most people don’t want to have a six pack, they want to be the kind of person who they think has a six pack. A person who is dedicated, focused, good, clean, disciplined, motivated, and a hard-worker but who doesn’t need to brag about it because everyone can see they have a six pack. But just FYI, you can be a terrible, flaky, lazy person who has bourbon and fruit loops for breakfast every morning and still have a six pack if you’ve got the genes for it.
By making a marathon or a six pack our goal, we are lying to ourselves because it feels like a plan. We feel good because we have focused on something and resolved to do it, but as Smith and Locke (1998) learned in their experiments, “more total time spent planning was associated with high performance when planning quality was high but with low performance when planning quality was low” (pg 118). And goal setting, even process goal setting, is functionally useless in a vacuum. In fact, Erez (1977) showed that goal setting without feedback is worse for performance than feedback with no goal setting at all!
When I strapped on my running shoes for the first time in years, I was probably 30% body fat and couldn’t run a block without vomiting. The next day I went out again and made it a block and a half before I wanted to puke. And the next day, I made it 2 blocks.
When I first started running, my goal was to lose fat but the three sentences you just read are what I really wanted. I wanted to prove to myself and to the people in my life that I was a becoming a competent person. Being 30% body fat and not being able to run a block were symptoms of the same problem: I felt inept. I couldn’t figure out how to use my body to do the things I wanted to do and I needed to get back that feeling of mastery that I had lost after years of doing nothing. Within weeks I cared less and less about the fat loss and realized I just needed to feel competent again. I did jiu-jitsu, kickboxing, the Marine Corps PFT and CFT, then eventually running and lifting weights again. The goal changed, but my desire to be a competent person did not. Goals are fickle, motivation comes in waves, and priorities change. If you want to write the story of your success, you’re going to have to rely on something that doesn’t change. You’re going to have to dig deeper.
When I am working with people, I ask them hard questions not only to find out what external goals they want to achieve (marathons, fat loss, etc.) but I also ask them hard questions to find out what kind of person they want to be. I want to know what my clients values are because while people might not want the same things every day, values never change. That way, my clients can get feedback on how they are doing every day and how they are living up to their own standards while their goals can change to keep them moving forward. Do you want to be the kind of person who runs a marathon? What does that mean? What are the qualities of a marathoner? What are the kinds of things marathoner does every day? What are the habits of a marathoner? By knowing the answers to these types of questions, you can make a better plan and a more flexible plan to keep you moving forward, even if change your mind and don’t want to run a marathon anymore!
For example, if you want to run a marathon to prove to yourself (or someone else) that you are a dedicated person but get injured, you can still prove that you are a dedicated person by working daily on the habits necessary to recover from the injury. If you want to be a healthy person, but discover that marathons are terrible for your body, then you can be a healthy person who does yoga every day or powerlifts. It even works when goals get in the way of other goals. If you want to work out every day because it makes you feel competent and confident only to find that working out every day means spending less time with your kids, then ask yourself what identity do you value more? By making the choice to work out 4 days a week because it makes you feel like a better parent, you can still feel confident and competent knowing that you made an informed decision based on your values and keep moving forward.
As Wittgenstein pointed out in his later years, “nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself.” Instead of making yourself new goals or resolving yourself to do this or that, take the time to honestly assess your own values and the kind of person you want to be. By dedicating yourself to integrity instead of outcome, you might find that your health decisions are easier to make and whatever goals you have are easier to come by.