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Does goal setting really work?

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Lewis Carrol said it perfectly when he stated ‘If you don’t know where you’re going, then any road will get you there.’ Since the obesity epidemic began, health professionals have discussed, debated, and argued about how to motivate people to live healthy and fulfilling lives. Some things have been relatively tame, while there’s been plenty of stories that feature the extreme.

In fact, I once worked with a client who worked out twice a day. I asked her what she felt motivated her and she said that her husband started work at 6 am, so he would wake her up every morning at 4 am while he got ready for work. My response was that it was a great thing to see a couple work out together, but she quickly correctly me and said that he woke her up so she could work out, not him. Did I mention that things can get pretty extreme when it comes to losing weight?

The fact is, proper goal setting works as evidenced by psychological studies and Edwin Locke’s goal setting theory. The key here is proper, as many people do not set goals correctly. Sport psychologists separate goals into two distinct categories: subjective and objective (1). Subjective goals, such as getting healthy or having a good time, are relatively vague. For all intents and purposes, you can have subjective goals assuming that you don’t have a meltdown when nothing really changes. Working with clients who said that they just wanted to be healthy really left me with no ability to design a training program. It’s not because there’s something wrong with being healthy, but the simplistic nature of the goal left too many definitions and possibilities for me to justify accepting the client's money.

This is where we can make the case for objective goals. These are specific goals that are outcome-based. For instance, being healthy could be made objective by saying that you wanted to lower your resting blood pressure to 130/85 mm/hg and reduce body fat percentage by 4%. This sets the stage for honesty and accountability but also forces people to go running in the opposite direction.

Whether it be fear of failure, embarrassment, or even laziness, people tend to want nothing to do with objective goals. The key here is that we are separating objective and subjective experiences. Just because you set up an objective goal doesn't mean you need to make things subjective if you don’t reach it. People can become their own worst enemies and tend to beat themselves up when they fail to reach a goal. Don’t become this person, because it will be difficult every time you get a little more motivation to re-try the goal (New Year’s Resolutions, anybody?).

Instead, take a somewhat scientific approach to your goal setting. Research shows that using outcome-based methods not only improved self-confidence in boxers, but actually improved their winning percentage in the boxing ring as well(2). So next time you set up a goal for yourself, try using this process instead:

1. Establish core values
Setting up your core values will keep you in check. So if you say that honesty is a core value, you wouldn't lie, would you?

2. Objective goals
State what you want to do and when you want to do it. Remember, be specific here, as being vague will get you nowhere.

3. Outcome goals
State where you’ll be in life when you reach the goals. Why is your life going to be better? Figuring out why you are doing something is one of the best ways to make sure that you keep on doing it.

4. Process goals
Define the process. How are you going to get there? Basically, to answer Lewis Carrol, you’re choosing which road you want to go down. So if you’re goal is to finish a marathon in under four hours because it will give you a sense of confidence, then you would develop a nutrition and training program that will allow you to accomplish that goal.

Goal setting is actually pretty easy; it's own our mind and life’s distractions that get in the way. Attaching value to something - the why - will help you get rid of all those pesky distractions.

1. Williams, Jean M. ed. Applied Sport Psychology: Personal Growth to Peak Performance. 6th ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 2010. pp 83-85
2. O’Brien, M. Mellalieu, S. Hanton, S. “Goal Setting Effects in Elite and Non-Elite Boxers.” Journal of Applied Sport Psychology. 21;3(2009): pp 293-306