Why setting goals can slow your progress

In the gym, we often talk about doing the common, uncommonly well. It’s under that commitment that I want to tackle the most common, yet misapplied and misused topic related to health, goals.

Spoiler alert. I’ll also cut to the chase here and state that from our first moment of discussing a goal, we often are setting it up in an environment where success is near impossible. A goal as offered is usually something that can’t be achieved today; “to lose or lift X amount of weight”, “to run a certain time for a race” and so forth. Unfortunately, we cannot control the future, believe me I have tried very hard at times to do it. This means that all we have control over is today and to refine it even more, our actions at this very moment. You were a different person 30 seconds ago and will be different 30 seconds from now (my apologies if that’s alarming). What I’m here to advocate for instead of long-term goals, is long-term process.

To me, process requires four things:

  1. Presence
  2. Community
  3. Being uncomfortable
  4. Humility

Presence

If we place all our value in a specific goal and wrap our self-worth into achieving a finite thing, when that finite thing goes away (and it will), it takes our self-worth along with it. If I deem being a successful athlete to mean going RX every day for the workout, there will come a time when I can’t do that and I will have set myself up to feel like I’m a failure. Even worse, I never reach that finite thing in the first place and then yell at myself for wasting time and energy for so long in its pursuit. Usually, the most interesting experiences happen along the way.

Attainment of skill can be fun, no doubt about it. If you want handstand push-ups, you can do nothing but pressing and hollow holds and you will improve that skill. You will feel proud when you get your first one (and you should!). By this approach however, you will also fall behind on any number of other skills during that exclusive practice and be back on the roller coaster of “not being good enough”. Athleticism (what we preach) is how we raise all markers simultaneously, not in isolation.

Community

In the 1940s, it was becoming questionable if it was possible to run under four minutes for the mile. Roger Bannister, who ultimately broke the barrier first to run 3:59, had questioned if the act might even kill a person. The most interesting part of this to me isn’t that Bannister broke the record, but what happened before and after. In the year preceding Bannister breaking the 4-minute barrier, John Landy, a contemporary, ran 4:02 on 4 separate occasions (exactly 4:02). Then, 46 days after Bannister, Landy ran 3:58 and to establish a new World Record. Landy, finding that Bannister had broken the barrier, could have been crushed. Instead, it gave him a new perspective and a new World Record. Shared experience gives us an opportunity to learn and competition pushes us. Neither of those runners working in isolation would have made the progress that they did, we need each other do things we cannot imagine alone.

Being uncomfortable

Just as we are hard-wired to be adaptable to different environments, we are equally hard-wired to seek safety and comfort in those environments.  Death makes the perpetuation of a species extremely challenging. Growth requires failure and failure can bring consequences, it’s as simple as that.

One of the reasons why presence and mindfulness are so difficult is because we so rarely get definitive feedback on the result of something. Our desire for not being uncomfortable causes us to suffer. We obsess over past interactions that were “ok”, but “what did they really mean”. Those things haunt us. When we miss a lift, fail to run a certain distance in a set time, or don’t get our chin over the pull up bar, we have been given a gift. We tried and we failed. AWESOME. Consider failing a lift the same as someone telling you exactly how they feel in a relationship, it is full honesty, it’s a remarkable moment. Therefore, to not fail at things, to not be uncomfortable leaves opportunity on the table every day. It doesn’t imply recklessness because that would ignore being present. If you can apply being uncomfortable to the present state of your capability – now you can do some exciting things as you overcome each obstacle. It’s moving well under a snatch at your max of 145 pounds and then trying 150. It is not loading 215 after 145 and going for it. That uncomfortable feeling is called physical therapy.

Humility

Whoever you are reading this, I know one thing without question about you. You are better at accomplishing certain tasks than I am. This fact doesn’t make me a terrible person or you the best person, but it’s a fact. That could be anything from using excel, to public speaking, to handstand walking, to the perfect amount of hot sauce to add to your eggs. Now, this either provides opportunity or it can cripple us.

I have one process for the gym. That each class is an hour where each person can feel comfortable enough and have the support to fail. That’s it. Each class we do things a certain way in that process. We won’t achieve that for every person, every hour, but we’ll always honor that process. Not to make everyone go RX, not to have everyone accomplish any one specific skill. It’s to strive for an environment where we can have the humility and vulnerability to give all we are able in that moment.

Process, not goal-setting

A goal has a lifecycle and ultimately ties you to a future that you cannot control. A process connects you to maximizing your ability in the present moment and that’s a powerful thing.

We cannot predict the future, however, we do have some pretty good data at our disposal to imagine how it might go. Being active, paying attention to nutrition and sleep, and sharing a community generally leads to a happier and more productive life (work cited – every research study about fitness, health and wellness ever). If we can engage in a variety of movements and in a way that prioritizes quality and presence over numbers, well, then some really cool things start to happen.

Wylie Belasik