How to Rock at Goal Setting

Sexification Note: This article of mine was originally published in Alan Aragon’s Research Review, but after receiving several e-mails about goal setting I felt that it would help a lot more people if I also posted it here.

Author Geoffrey Albert once said that “The most important thing about goals is having one.” This is clearly not the case. The world is overflowing with an abundance of goals, and if you need visual confirmation of this fact, just visit your local gym on January 1st and prepare to be amazed by the massive army of fitness warriors who have arrived on the field of battle. Many come armed with the latest 30 day workout program from their favorite magazine, while others just wing it and hope for the best. No matter how they’ve arrived at this point, the one common bond that links them all together is a goal that spurred them into action.

Just like all great battles however, the casualty rate is high. So why is it that after just a few weeks the number of gym goers actively pursuing their goal experience such a huge drop off? After all, they had a goal, right? Yes, but what they were sorely lacking – and what a large majority of successful people have – was a plan, and a goal without a plan is and will always be just a dream.

While a plan is important, a realistic plan will exponentially increase the likelihood of your success, and borrowing a few concepts Edwin Locke, a pioneer of goal-setting theory, can aid you in creating your own plan. In his book entitled A Theory of Goal Setting and Task Performance, Locke and his colleague Dr. Gary Latham outlined 5 key principles that must be in place in order to motivate us to succeed in the pursuit of our goals:

Clarity – If it is worth doing it is worth doing right the first time, but before we can do it right, we must clearly define what it is. Locke’s research brought to light the notion that the more clearly defined an objective is, the better the chances are of it actually being achieved. For instance, someone who simply wants to “get jacked” has a more ambiguous goal than someone who wants to “increase their front squat by 40lbs in 8 months while maintaining their current body fat levels.” The latter has an exact destination that they are heading towards, and when 4 10lb plates (or however you want to do the math) have been added to that original weight, the goal has been reached; the former however does not. When will his jacktitude quotient be met – 20, 40, or even 100 lbs later? Don’t hamstring yourself from the start by not giving yourself a clear target to shoot for.

Challenge – We must stretch ourselves outside of our comfort zones in order to grow as individuals, and this concept is also critical in setting ones plan for success. The less challenging a goal is, the less excited we are about achieving it. The less excited we are about achieving it, the less likely we are to even bother pursuing it. One tip that I learned from financial guru Dave Ramsey is the importance of starting with the easiest goals first. While the goal may not be exceedingly difficult, the importance of building momentum from the completion of smaller tasks cannot be underestimated. For instance, if your goal is to lose 15 lbs in 16 weeks, that initial weight that is lost during the first few weeks of dieting will serve as a sign that you can do it, and as a lesson to reflect on when the rate of loss slows down. By doing so, you will become more confident in your ability to succeed, which will carry over with you when you begin to tackle more challenging goals.

Commitment – This is where most people tend to fall off the wagon, down the hill and off the side of a cliff. If there is anything that I’ve learned from being surrounded by athletes from all walks of life it is this – effort and attitude trump all. You can have the best training program or business plan in the world, but if you lack pursuit, then you should expect it to show in your results. I would put my money on the person who has the worst training program known to man, but is willing to try their hardest every day.

Religious studies instructor and strength coach Dan John came up with a brilliantly effective and simple way for anyone to assess ones commitment. Simply look at your goals, then look at your behavior and ask yourself one question – do your behaviors match your goals? It’s very easy to say that you want to have an eye-turning physique, but if you’re a 120lb person who spends all nights partying and subsists on energy drinks andgraham crackers, then its time to change either your behaviors or your goals.

Feedback – Just imagine how many satellite launch failures would have occurred if it weren’t for the self-regulating inertial guidance system installed within the rocket. This system is responsible for making on the fly adjustments mid-flight to ensure that the satellite is placed in the exact orbit necessary for it not to come crashing back to Earth, or flying off into space. We as humans have this same system inside of us, but the problem is that we rarely use it.

Successful people do not just create a plan and follow it blindly; they are constantly re-evaluating it based on their results. If the plan they’ve come up with is taking them in the direction that they want to go in, then they just keep on chugging along. In the event that they do come across a snag in the road, they simply make the minor adjustments necessary to keep moving forward. Sadly, we’ve all seen examples of the person who completely demolishes their plan at the smallest sign of stagnation – or even when it hasn’t occurred at all! One week they’re doing total body training, and then the next week they’ve moved onto HIT, and before 30 days have passed they’ve booked a flight to Russia in order to train with self proclaimed kettlebell masters, all the while not getting an inch closer to their original goal. Don’t be that person. If you came across a road block while on a trip across country, would you turn around, drive all the way home, and then pick a different route? A complete overhaul is rarely necessary, so get in the habit of making small adjustments by using outcome-based decision making and you will be in a much better position to achieve what you desire.

Task Complexity — As an elite mountaineer with the accomplishment of reaching the summit of all 14 of the world’s eight-thousanders (mountains more than 8,000 feet above sea level) under his belt, Ed Viesturs knows a little something about goal achievement. While reading his book No Shortcuts to the Top, I couldn’t help but take note of his most repeated mantra – “Getting to the top is optional, but getting down is mandatory.” Some become so fixated on reaching the summit that in their mind the battle is won once they make it to the top, when in fact it has just begun. It is of paramount importance to make sure that you know what you’re up against when you decide to tackle a difficult task. While this isn’t always possible, the more informed you are, the better decisions you can make. The point of having a plan is make sure that you manage your resources appropriately in order to reach your destination, not to go out in a blaze of glory before you even get there. Mount Everest is the burial ground of many people who pushed to the top despite the fact that they lacked the necessary mental and physical resources. Let us not make this same mistake.

The greatest variable in achieving our goals is time. While taking our sweet time has its own consequences, going too fast or giving up too soon because we don’t have a realistic grasp on how long it will take is a much larger hazard. If you develop a plan that fails to acknowledge passion, planning, sacrifice, struggle, commitment and consistency as an integral part of the process, then it’s time hit the drawing board again. There is an entry fee for anything worth achieving in life, and as the great blues guitarist B.B King once said, “You have to pay the cost to be the boss.” By applying Locke’s principles of goal setting to your own endeavors, success will not be a matter of if, but when.

What goals do YOU have? What are you doing to get there? Is there anything that I can do to help? Let me know in the comment section!

Photo Credit: cameronparkins

Never Miss A Post Again…

Sign up for one of the best fitness newsletters, ever. I'll send you nothing but practical and actionable content.


  1. says


    Your write really well- concise, funny, and eloquent. And of course the content is excellent… I like how you pulled in information from a bunch of relevant sources.

    Rock on-


  2. Ulfur says

    Great article, well worth the read. Even if you’ve heard all this before and know it already it always helps to remind yourself. It helps to keep you motivated.

    A note on time. I always tell myself, especially when feeling dwarfed by the juiced guys at my gym, that whatever I build will last in proportion to how long and how much effort it took. That’s to say, if I “cheated” and juiced I’d be jacked in no time but would also deteriorate quickly as soon as I slacked off (and we all do sooner or later for longer or shorter periods) whereas if I take my time and put quality and care into sculpting what I want to achieve it’ll endure better whenever I lose momentum.

    I might be wrong but this is the way I think about it and I think it holds true for almost anything you try create. Patience and time are your friends.

    • Neal says

      @ Ulfur: I feel exactly the same, staying natural FTW!
      My goal:
      I am currently following a lean gains bulk approach to gradually build up to 170lbs, currently at 155ish lbs at 5 ft 10. I have no problem staying motivated with my eating plan, I just have to remember to tweak and make gradual changes to slowly add on lean mass, not excess fat by making acute drastic changes to calories or going overboard. Any tips for staying the course on adding lean mass?

      @Rog- What are you up to with IF at the mo? Hows your training going?

      • Ulfur says

        Well, I’m coming off a three-year “slacker” period following an injury. I seem to have retained a fair bit of muscle mass so I’m mainly trying to lose fat as it stands. I’m 6ft 2 @ 210lbs/17% currently which I’m aiming to move over to something like 200-210lbs/12-14%. I’m also leangaining at the moment with a lot more cardio than Martin suggests. For some reason I think I know better which I don’t but it seems to be working. The fat is coming of fairly fast and I’ve retained muscle if not added some (getting measured tomorrow, then I’ll know).

        I don’t claim to be any sort of expert on training so I’m hesitant to give out advice with my limited knowledge. All I can say on adding muscle is what’s worked for me in the past.

        I guess I’ve got lucky genes as I usually get results pretty quick in the positive direction (mass up, fat down) and a rather slow decline in the negative (mass down, fat up) and it’s the results that usually keep me motivated. And with results being my main motivator the only advice I can give really for staying the course when gaining is to plan for plateaus. I’ve had plateaus that have completely derailed and they suck. The best thing to do is to be aware that you will plateau at some point and have a plan already in place when it happens. It might be too late to start making a plan if a plateau is already sucking away all your motivation.

        The best way I’ve found to deal with plateaus is to change things up. Change the exercises, change the approach (rpt, fixed, strip), change the volume or change the days. Any, all or more usually a combination of these will help punching through plateaus. Be prepared to do this every few weeks. Besides helping with plateaus I also just think it’s more fun and more interesting to change it up now and again.

        Bear in mind though that we all have a genetic threshold on how far we can go and how much we can gain without getting “a little help from our friend”. The closer you get to that limit the harder it will get so sometimes accepting that limit and focusing on another goal is what’s needed. You’re probably not even close to that yet but I thought I’d mention it anyway.

        Anyhow, that’s all the advice I think I can give on the matter but besides, I suspect Rog is much more suited to be answering these kinds of questions anyway and I hope he’ll correct me if I’m wrong 😛

        • says

          @ Both of y’all

          Great points, Ulfur. My only advice to you Neal would be to enjoy the road that you’re on and plan for it to take at least 4-5 months. Knowing ahead of time about how long it will take you keeps you from getting too wild and antsy and trying to speed along the process. In terms of muscle gain, you can only gain so much so quickly, and eating a ton more won’t help get you there any faster. It’s kinda like those arcade racing games where you see people (myself included haha) stomping on the pedal thinking that the harder they step on it past a certain point, the faster they’ll go.

      • says

        Yo Neal!

        I’m still on board the IF train – it’s more of a complete lifestyle change to me now. As far as training goes….eh, it could be a lot better. I’ve finally accepted that I’ve run into a wall in terms of how strong I can get without taking a step back to put in some serious work on things that I’ve been neglecting lately (soft tissue, mobility, flexibility), so right now I working on those things everyday while just lifting with no particular goal in mind until I get those things to the point where I don’t hurt anymore. I’ll probably blog about that in the future. What about you, Neal?

        • Neal says

          @Rog – At least you realise what has been holding you back and are planning an approach to take it down. I have been an online client of Mike Robertsons for the past 3 months correcting lots of asymmetries, inhibited muscles and poor posture that was holding my lifts and general training back. Things are coming along slowly, hope to compete in my first powerlifting meet this summer and had hit a 3 x BW deadlift. Yea I noticed with IF it does seem to become a lifestyle, just got to keep plugging away with leangains bulk and then slowly lose a bit of excess fat at the end.
          @ Ulfur- Cheers for the advice, I am in it for the long run so just need to make slow but steady gains.

    • says

      True that (to all of your statements).

      IMO, juicing takes all the fun out of it. There are some folks that openly admit to being on steroids and they have a physique pretty similar to mine…which is sad for them =)

  3. says

    LOVED the blog Rog! And you mentioned Dave Ramsey – so now you get 2 thumbs up instead of one. 🙂 Keep up the great posts!


  1. […] I want to wrap this up by giving you my go to websites when I want to get all sexy with watching my intake. I don’t do it very often anymore, but it’s good to have when I want quickly reference a food or create an intake trend to keep myself on track when I’m going after a new goal. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *