Or… “How I Learned To Stop Setting Sucky Goals.”
Fitness people love setting goals. We love goal-setting, affirmations, and all that nonsense.
Yes, I said nonsense. By the time you reach the end of this article, you too will realize why everything you know about setting goals is nonsense. And what you should do instead.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about “motivation.” Probably because I feel very unmotivated lately.
I’ve been battling a seemingly never-ending bout of illness, injuries and insomnia: The Evil Trinity. I guess when your temperature is running high, your body is broken and your mind won’t shut down at night… it’s normal to start questioning the conventional wisdom when it comes to goal setting.
Anyway, I happened to catch a re-run of the Tosh.O show the other night during my latest bout with sleeplessness. (Nobody watches more bad TV than us insomniacs.)
The host (comedian Daniel Tosh) had an awesome “riff” regarding an old Hollywood story — the one about Jim Carrey and the $10 Million Dollar Check.
Maybe you’ve heard it. As the legend goes, back in 1990 when Jim Carrey was a struggling (and dirt poor) comedian, he wrote himself a check for $10 million bucks. He dated it five years in the future (1995) and in the memo line, he scrawled “For Acting Services Rendered.” He tucked the check into his wallet. Lo and behold, by the time 1995 rolled around Jim Carrey had starred in Ace Ventura, Mask, and Liar, Liar and was then receiving upwards of $20 million dollars per film.
OMG!!! Super-amazing, right? Well, color me cynical. That’s why I tend to side with Daniel Tosh’s analysis of the old “write yourself a check” strategy. Here’s the clip:
Get More: Comedy Central
Boom. He nailed it. A goal without a consequence provides no motivation.
Want to set effective goals? Then it’s time you got on board with the “Succeed Or Suffer” method.
Succeed Or Suffer (S.O.S.) Goals have 3 common elements:
#1) Single-minded: Set one goal at a time.
#2) A deadline: It’s corny as hell but “a plan without a deadline is just a wish.” We’re not in the business of “wishing.”
#3) A consequence: Every goal must have a built-in punishment for failure.
Every year, thousands of brides-to-be successfully lose weight because they have a powerful punishment for failure: No woman wants to look fat in a wedding dress.
For you and I to succeed, we need consequences. As much as I wish it weren’t so, humans are more motivated by failure than success. The promise of gaining something new pales in comparison to the threat of losing something we already possess.
In other words, we cannot succeed without the threat of suffering.
This is why setting “nice” goals doesn’t work.
Saying “I want to lose 10 pounds in a month” doesn’t cut it. Because what happens if you fail? Nada. There is no consequence for failure. And that in itself is a recipe for failure.
A better approach. Go to the bank and withdraw $1,000 dollars. Give the money to a friend with the instructions to donate all $1,000 to
charity a political campaign fund unless you lose 10 pounds in a month. Suddenly, there is a very real and very painful consequence for failure.
Of course, there is a problem with this method. It’s very difficult to willingly put yourself “under the gun” with these kinds of “S.O.S.” goals. Because in reality you are “setting yourself up to fail” in the hopes that the fear of failure will be strong enough to propel you to success. Yes, this system works. But it’s difficult to put yourself in a position where failure is an option. “Burn the ships” works, but bringing yourself to the point of lighting the match is no small feat.
To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure. I suspect it’s a matter of setting hard-target “succeed or suffer” types of goals… but not too often. Perhaps 3-4x per year. I’ve found that 30-day challenges work great for fitness goals…. but it’s damn near impossible to jump straight out of one 30 day challenge into the next without some kind of break.
In some cases, it helps if the goal comes from someone in a position of authority. An ultra-dedicated employee might give him/herself a goal of cutting out facebook for 30 days. Maybe you even give yourself a self-imposed consequence of parking 1/4 mile away from work every day if you fail. But in this example, everything starts and stays within your head. Nobody knows if you fail or succeed. But if someone else (ie: your boss) dictates the goal and the punishment, then your odds of success improve.
You need to find a way to get your goals out of your own head. At any given moment, millions of women in this country are trying to lose weight. Most fail. But brides usually succeed. Why are brides different? Maybe it’s because somebody else kick-starts the process (the man proposes) and then a hard & fast deadline is determined (a date is set.)
How can the average person duplicate this same level of motivation? Compete. Find a local powerlifting, olympic lifting or crossfit challenge. Sign up. Pay up. Show up. Join the weight loss contest at the office. Find something — anything — that makes you put money (and pride) on the line and you’ll improve your odds of success.
Set yourself up to “succeed or suffer” and you’ll be amazed at how easily you accomplish your goals.
Note: I realize the fly in the ointment for this method is finding contests/challenges that put you in a position to succeed or suffer. For that reason, I am considering “hosting” some form of fitness challenge every month. Each month will be a new challenge. If this is something you’re interested in, leave a comment and let me know.
And if haven’t done so already, make sure you’re signed up for the email newsletter below as fitness challenges would only be announced via email.
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Matt Marshall is a fitness writer and researcher committed to uncovering the truth about health and fitness. He shatters myths and reveals the facts about getting fit at