Stop Setting Goals! How Setting Goals Can Hold You Back

Stop Setting Goals! How Setting Goals Can Hold You Back

Have you ever met somebody that is absolutely relentless in going after the things they want? Whereas most people fall in and out of motivation, this person never slows down no matter how much they accomplish or how much they fail.

There is nothing and nobody that can derail them from moving forward in pursuit of what they want. While you are out looking for the good motivational meme or quote to get you through another day, they are out trying to conquer the world.

People often wonder what fuels people like this and what makes them keep pushing. Different people obviously have different motivations and things that drive them to do what they do. However, those that are truly driven typically do one thing differently than others and it lies within the goals that we set, and the goals we don’t.

Living Goal to Goal

We are always told that we need to set small, manageable goals so that we can stay on track and keep us motivated. However, I think certain things about the practice of setting goals can actually be a detriment and can work against long-term progress.

The detriments of goal setting applies to all things in life but I see it clearly in my own work with fitness competitors. Many people set their goal of doing or winning a competition. If they lose or quit it is devastating to them. They had only this singular goal in mind and they did not succeed. This failure is now all that they have and embarrasses them, fills them with regret, and it can even define them.

Even if they do succeed in their goal it can still have consequences. Let’s say they do the show and they win. Many competitors are usually only happy for a short time after the show. Sometimes even as little as a day. Afterwards they feel what is sometimes referred to as post contest blues. They become depressed and feel lost. The reason for this is that this goal was "it" for them. There was no further aim beyond that original goal and many are left thinking "what do I do now?".

This happens to everyone, not just competitors. It could be that promotion or raise at work you were aiming for, getting into a particular school, or getting a job you want. Succeed or fail in these goals, people are often left feeling lost and unmotivated after. The lost feeling is a result of people simply living goal to goal. They have a goal and once it is over they are left searching for the next one.

I believe that if you NEED to keep setting goals in order to keep yourself motivated, then it is time to ask yourself if you are possibly forcing yourself to do something you just don’t want badly enough. A person that NEEDS goals in order to keep them motivated is similar to a donkey following a carrot on a string. The carrot (the goal) is put in front of the donkey to get it to move from one spot another. The purpose of the donkey is to reach its destination. However, the donkey doesn’t give a shit about reaching the destination. It only wants the carrot. The carrot will get the donkey to move. However, what happens when the carrot is taken away or if the donkey actually gets the carrot? The donkey is lost and doesn’t know what its actual purpose is. The donkey will not go any further without a carrot in front of it.

Goal Avoidance

When I work with clients I try to avoid setting goals at all costs. My clients will often ask me questions like:

"How much muscle growth should I set as a goal for the next year?"

"What placing should I set as my goal for my next show?"

"How much should I aim to increase my squat in this training block?"

People think these are good questions because they believe that these goals will keep them on track and keep them motivated. They expect I will give them answers like this:

How much muscle growth should I set as a goal for the next year?

Let’s aim for 5 lbs. of muscle!

What placing should I set as my goal for my next show?

Our goal should be to place in the top 3.

How much should I aim to increase my squat in this training block?

Our goal is a 30 lbs. increase in this block.

These answers create problems. First, what if they are not capable of achieving these goals of what if they are capable but simply do not achieve them? A failure is going to be discouraging to some people, and for other people the idea of a failure is absolutely devastating. You don’t want people having to pick themselves up out of a motivational hole every few months when they fail to reach their goal. Never a good thing.

Secondly, what if they are capable of more than the goal we have set. What if I tell them we are aiming 30 lbs. on the squat but they are capable of 50 lbs? Many would likely just hit 30lbs. and then be content. I never want my clients to settle for something that is simply “good enough”. When my clients ask me these questions above these are the answers I typically give:

How much muscle growth should I set as a goal for the next year?

As much as possible.

What placing should I set as my goal for my next show?

As high as possible.

How much should I aim to increase my squat in this training block?

As much as possible.

For some people these answers don’t sit well. They want a goal that they can go out and attack! They want to set a goal and show that they can get it. However, the truth is that in many cases, goals are largely out of our control. I can tell a client that I want them to place top 3 at a show, but where they place is largely going to be dictated by who shows up to compete on that day. I can also tell a client that I want them to put on 5 lbs. of muscle in a year, but that depends largely on the genetics and training experience of my client. They could do everything absolutely perfect and they could still fail.

Ultimately neither my client, nor I, know who will show up to their show or what their genetic potential truly is. By setting a goal all we are really doing is trying to essentially guess where their potential lies. This arbitrary guess then ends up having an emotional and psychological impact on them which can often negatively impact their long term progress.

Setting a goal may seem like a nice idea, but ask yourself why in the hell you would ever have any other goal other than to simply progress as much as you are able.

Aim for Purpose and Continuous Progress

It's important to first make the distinction between a goal and a purpose. Many people mistakenly believe they are the same thing. While they are similar, the difference between the two can have a profound impact on our lives. A goal is something that one hopes or intends to accomplish. A purpose, on the other hand, is the reason for which something is done or for which something exists. In other words, goals are something you work towards, but a purpose is your reason for being. A purpose is much grander than a goal. It is the thing which encompasses you entirely and by which you define yourself. It's is not a singular act or accomplishment, it is all of your acts and accomplishments.

A purpose is different from a goal in that it is centered on CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT. With a purpose you do not aim for a single bodybuilding show, you aim to be the best bodybuilder you can be. With a purpose you do not seek to get that promotion at work, you instead seek to go as far as you possibly can in your career. If you have a purpose there is no timetable, each day is a goal in itself where you must act in order to make something happen. A goal can be put off until a later time. A goal can be procrastinated. A purpose, however, can never wait. It calls you to act each and every day. While you may know what you want for the next few months, someone with purpose wakes up every day knowing what they want for years to come. 

It is also possible to have more than one purpose. You shouldn’t have dozens, but you can have a few. For me personally, my purposes in life are to be the greatest coach, bodybuilder, and husband that I am capable of being. When I have kids I will add the purpose of being the best father I can be as well. My purposes are few and therefore I am able to focus on them with all of my efforts. At times they conflict with each other and it is up to me to delegate my time accordingly. With this though I am never searching for what I want next. In fact, I always have too much that I want to do but never enough time to do it. There are setbacks and failures along the way, but no matter what, I aim for one thing and one thing only…that is continuous improvement.

So Should I Forget Goals Completely?

Listen, there is nothing terrible about setting goals from time to time or to have something to aim for. However, there are a few things to consider when doing it.

1. Is it serving my overall purpose?

You can set a goal of doing a bodybuilding show, but this can serve your purpose of becoming the best bodybuilder you can be.

2. Forget the time limits.

It is one thing to say that you want to squat 500 lbs. and really aim for that. It is another to say that you want to squat 500 lbs. within the next year. As we discussed, why not just aim to progress as fast as possible. Any other time frame then you are doing yourself a disservice.

3. Your purpose can’t be your sole motivation for doing whatever it is that you are doing.

Let’s be realistic. You are going to want things from time to time that do not lie completely within your purpose. Some people want to just slim down and lose 15 lbs but not become the greatest bodybuilder they are capable of becoming. This is fine, however you can’t set some arbitrary goal and then let it become pretty much the only thing dragging your sorry carcass out of bed in the morning to get it done. If you set a goal that doesn’t lie within your true purpose(s) then you need to find a way to get in touch with some sort of passion and enjoyment for the process, not simply the result. If you only care about the final result, but absolutely hate the process, then your process is probably going to fail or be riddled with motivational setbacks at best. Find something about the process that you actually enjoy and make it work.

Your Time is NOW!

It’s one thing for me to sit here and tell you to go out and find your reason for being, it’s another thing entirely to actually go out and find it. However, a lot of people don’t even think to try and look for their purpose. They are usually so blinded by their mini goals that they don’t even think to look for the big picture. They are missing the forest through the trees.

If you haven’t been looking for your purpose, it’s time to start. You won’t find it fast or easily, but you must try. A person that has purpose is not defined by small successes or failures because no matter what happens, your purpose is always there demanding more from you. It doesn’t matter what happened yesterday or what happens tomorrow because your purpose remains the same. Once you find what it is you are supposed to do, that reason you exist, you will stop trying to find motivation and instead you will create your own.

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