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The Biggest Mistake People Make When Setting Goals (and What to Do Instead)

What Are Your Goals?

Think about the one or two most important goals you’ve set your eyes on right now. What is it that you want to do? Accomplish? Become? Do you want to run a mile without stopping? Fit into your skinny jeans? Write it down. For me, one of my goals for the past couple of months had been to start working toward a 225 lb deadlift. I kept telling people, “By x time period, I will achieve this goal and it will be spectacular!” I wanted it so, so badly. My other goal was to get my mile down time to 5:30 minutes. I just wanted to be fast.

Examine Your Behavior

Notice what you’re doing. Maybe even jot down some notes for a few days. Are you doing your mobility exercises to help you get to full depth in those squats? How often is your hand reaching for the candy jar without your realizing it on a conscious level?

Did I go to the gym diligently? Check.

Did I do a proper warm up each time? Uhh…

Did my deadlift have good form? I had no idea.

Did I eat the right foods? A+.

Did I eat enough? Not nearly.

Did I get enough sleep? Hit or miss.

Does Your Behavior Match Your Goals?

Oftentimes all it takes is some awareness of what you’re doing day in and day out to realize that despite sky-high goals you’ve set, you’re not doing much to get yourself there—or worse, you’re doing everything to hold yourself back. I wasn’t consuming enough calories or getting sufficient rest to support any kind of strength gains. Sure, I exercised six days a week, but that was actually probably too much. I had become so used to my set ways: stay up late working, keep the calories in check so I don’t have to buy a new wardrobe, skip the boring mobility work because, well, they’re mind-numbing. Oh yeah, and let’s not forget that I was also highly stressed and constantly flustered from trying to do so many different things at the same time. If you try to be the best at everything, your best ends up becoming mediocre.And how is mediocre going to help achieve lofty goals?

Do Your Goals Contradict Each Other?

So you want to gain 20 lbs of muscle and fit into those skinny jeans? OK. For the first, make sure you eat eat eat and lift lift lift; that’ll put some good size on your legs. For the second, all you have to do is eat at a deficit and maybe buy a bigger pair of jeans—then you’ll fit. It only took a little bit of thinking to realize that my goals of deadlifting 225 lbs and becoming a better 1600-meter runner couldn’t both be attained at the same time. Something was going to have to give. For the former, I needed to fuel myself; for the latter, the lighter I was, the faster I’d be. Technically, I’m sure I could have found a way to juggle the two, but that would have been an unnecessarily long and tedious process.

Remove the Extras and Prioritize

Let’s take out a pair of clippers and trim off the clutter in our lives that we don’t need. As you move down your list of behaviors, ask yourself, “Is this helping me get to where I want to be?” If you find that just about every action contradicts your goal, you might want to think about why you set said goal in the first place. Are you doing it for yourself or for someone else? Are you scared of success? Perhaps it’s time to reassess what it is that you yearn for. Sometimes all it takes is a little bit of self-awareness. Then put everything in order. What comes first in the list of importance? What can be left for later? With regards to my deadlift goal, I later learned that I really needed let my body recover from each day’s work in order to so much as inch forward. Sleep, glorious sleep—and elusive at that. Those giant bags under your eyes? That’s what you get when your beat your body into the ground for long enough. Second, I had to decrease my training volume because it was too much for my central nervous system to take. But I’d become so set in my ways for the past four years that to reduce the time I spent in the gym made me panic. These habits had become engrained in me; I needed to fix them. And third most important was improving my technique. What I was doing wasn’t horrible; I simply needed some tweaking—lots and lots and lots of tweaking. So… not horrible, right? The more significant goal to me was obvious. Running was going to have to have to wait until another time.

Now Focus

I suppose you could say this is the take-home message. Laser-sharp focus can be the key to transforming your life for the better. Now that you’ve gotten rid of the distractions, it’s time to put these new behaviors on your list into practice. Keep your eyes on the prize and don’t let anyone or anything deter you away from your goal. Recruit a support system that will help you during your weak moments and celebrate with you in your triumphs; this will help tremendously. On a diet to achieve better health? Tell people—tell everyone. Trying to practice yoga on the regular? Make sure you have a buddy or two to keep you accountable. Announce it to the world. Make the decision to direct all of your attention onto whatever task you’re supposed to be doing. When you’re in the gym, keep your mind in the gym too. Don’t let it wander to that tiff you had this morning with your friend or that problem set that you don’t understand. Focus. You can get back to that stuff later. You can absolutely manage it all: those Friday night parties, that book you’ve been wanting to read for close to a year, keeping up your performance either at school or at work, and taking care of your body. It can be done, and I am living proof of that. All it takes is a little bit of planning. Originally posted February 2013.