How to set goals and achieve them

In this article, we will learn how to set goals and achieve them by following a few simple steps. We'll also answer four questions everyone needs to ask themselves when setting fitness goals:

  1. Why do you want to achieve the success of your fitness goal?

  2. What are the real reasons you are ready to work so hard at achieving this goal?

  3. How do you create SMART goals in a way that keeps you interested and accountable?

  4. What type of goal sets you up for long-term success?

  5. And finally, how do you create a goal you can commit to working at every day?

I have been in the health and fitness industry for a long enough time, and have helped enough of my clients achieve their goals, that I have started to notice a trend amongst those who succeed at their goals and those who fail. What’s more, this trend holds true regardless of whether the goal is fitness related or not.

You can go out onto the street and ask just about anyone whether he or she strives for self-improvement and you will inevitably get a resounding yes. As humans, there is a primal hard-wiring deep within us all that drives us toward, and which compels us to seek out, new ways of self-development.

We are forever trying to better ourselves, whether through fitness, education, relationships, employment, or otherwise. There is this idea that the better we are at being a certain version of the modern human being, the higher the quality of life we will have. Our income will be higher, our health will be better, we will enjoy the company of our friends and family more, and we will leave lasting impressions upon those we meet. So if everyone wants these things, why do so few achieve success, especially when it comes to fitness? In my opinion, it has everything to do with getting clear and concise in your goal setting.

Writing goals down

Writing goals down in a notepad can drastically improve your results. Once you have established this vision clearly in your mind’s eye, open the notepad and begin writing out an in-depth description of this version of you that you just saw. Write your account in the first person and as though you have already achieved the healthy body and vibrant lifestyle you just envisioned.

Unfortunately, how to create and achieve goals has never been properly taught in the traditional education system. Yes, there are high school classes like career and personal planning that help kids better understand what they want in life and gives them opportunities and resources, but proper goal setting methodologies seem always to take a back seat and remain ambiguous.

It's also my opinion our modern education system fails to offer kids the opportunity for understanding the importance of balancing the time and energy they spend on improving all areas of their life. It would seem there is an overemphasis placed upon improving one's finances, social status, and aesthetic appeal with little resource left over to attend emotional, spiritual, and relationship goals.

In fact, there is ample evidence coming from peer reviewed papers pointing to the idea that living a full, healthy, and happy life requires equal attention to areas we might otherwise believe to be unimportant for success. While we will discuss goal setting primarily as it relates to your health and fitness, I offer you the chance, perhaps for the first time, to take stock of the areas in your life you may have been neglecting.

To simplify, we can segment the areas of our life for achieving growth into six distinct classifications; Health, business, friends, family, passions, and spiritual. In taking a look at this list, the chances are high a few jumped out at you as areas you may have been neglecting, with one or two having taken up most of your energy previously. It's important for us to create worthwhile, achievable goals within all of these areas, not just one. Only then will you fully be able to enjoy life and all it has to offer.

As some homework, I have left you with a chart for you to fill out. Give each personal growth section a score out of five, with one representing little to no energy spent on growth in that area and five being maximal. See if you can find the imbalances in your life, then work on ways of bringing balance back in.

This article is about setting goals, no matter what those goals end up being. So, how do you set out in such a way that your chances of success go through the roof? How do you finally see the results you have tried to achieve so many times before but with very little to show for it?

The quick answer is this: you have to get as clear as you possibly can about what it is you genuinely desire. That sounds obvious, but I mean discovering what you honestly want. Usually, people focus on the how and not the why. People tend to concentrate on how many times a week they are prepared to go to the gym instead of on why they are willing to go three times in the first place.

Nobody wants the commitment of sweating it out three times a week in the gym, but many people want the lifestyle, health, and aesthetically pleasing body that comes with it as a result. If you can discover the why and dive as deep as you can into your understanding of where it is coming from, making it to the gym three times a week will become much easier for you to achieve.

I know you’ve heard this before from woo-woo gurus in books and all over the internet. Regardless, this statement of finding your own unique "Why" holds true. Most people think they are clear about what their goals are when, in fact, the vision of the goal is simply a faint idea of the actual experiences and events they would like to achieve. And no, tone up and get abs is not a clear goal. Neither is lose some belly fat or get more fit.

When I say clear, I mean so crystal clear you can see with colorful intensity your goal already achieved in your mind when you close your eyes. You should be able to experience on an emotional level how it would feel as though it’s already happened.

You’ve heard those woo-woo guru’s say this over and over again, but most would end at this point and leave you to figure the rest out for yourself. Luckily for you, however, there is a step by step process you can use to fully grasp and understand your goal and develop a plan of action for achieving it. And no, this is not hippy stuff claiming that if you can dream it, you can do it. These are actionable steps built upon peer reviewed studies showing the efficacy of specific goal setting practices and how they exponentially increase your chances of success.

Visualize your goal

Visualize your goal already completed. You will be experiencing the vision of the truest, most authentic version of yourself five years into the future. Imagine yourself as living out your unique definition of success. Your intention will be to view this version of yourself as though you were watching a movie unfolding before you.

Step 1: Visualize your goals

 - Decide who you will be five years from now then visualize what success looks and feels like for you.

Brace yourself, because this shit is going to get a little hippie. But if you do this, I guarantee the rest of the goal setting process will be as authentic and valid as possible.

Take out a notepad and a pen and set them on the desk in front of you. I would encourage you to use a real pen and paper, not a note taking app on your phone or laptop as writing things down the old fashioned way seems to have a much more visceral connection with your creative mind.

Before you put pen to paper, I want you to sit in your chair and close your eyes. You are going to give yourself at least ten minutes to relax, breathing deeply and rhythmically. Allow your mind to drift into a daydream state and your body to sink into the seat.

Set the intention beforehand that you will be experiencing the vision of the truest, most authentic version of you five years into the future. Imagine living out your own unique definition of success. Your intention will be to view this version of yourself as though you were watching a movie unfolding before you.

  • What do you look like and how are you dressed?

  • Who are the people in your life you surround yourself with?

  • Where do you live? What does your home look like?

  • Are you traveling to some exotic location or in an office at your dream job?

  • Where do you go to have fun and with who do you enjoy spending your time?

  • In what ways do you give back to your community?

  • Most importantly, and the idea that we are effectively trying to get at here, what do people know you for and how will you be remembered? Why does a smile come to the faces of all those who’s lives you’ve touched when they hear your name?

Why is this exercise so powerful?

So why is this exercise so important if all you want to do is tone up and get a six pack? While toning up and getting a six pack would be nice, nobody wants to be toned and have a six pack just for the sake of being toned and having a six pack. Instead, you likely want the lifestyle that having a healthy looking body, feeling fit, attractive, and vibrant would give you.

When you see yourself in a body you know can be yours, enjoying the fruits of your hard work in the lifestyle you desire, the goal takes on a real meaning and purpose. You are starting to understand the relationship inherent in having optimal health and fitness and its effect on the quality of your life and the attainment of your truest desires.

Once you have established this vision clearly in your mind's eye, open the notepad and begin writing out an in-depth description of the vision of you that you just saw. Write your account in the first person and as though you have already achieved the healthy body and vibrant lifestyle you just envisioned.

Be sure you state clearly how grateful you are to yourself for allowing the success and for all of the positive events which have filled your life as a result. Give thanks to all of those who helped you along the way. Most important of all, and likely the most difficult for you to write down, be sure to affirm to yourself that you are worthy of this body, health, and lifestyle which you have worked hard at creating.

OK, enough of the hippie stuff, I promise. Now it’s time for step 2.


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how to create a smart goal

To get past the ambiguity and develop a good understanding of how you will achieve success let's discuss how to create a Smart Goal. Smart stands for specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, and time-bound.

Step 2. How to create a SMART goal

The vision you just created for yourself will act as the end target to keep in mind as you set out towards your goal. The next step is to work backward, being honest with yourself. Discover the necessary steps you will need to take along the way and set a realistic time frame for allowing yourself the achievement of your goal. You should now understand why it’s so important to become as clear as day as to what it is you’re aiming at. The clearer the target, the better you can calibrate the necessary steps and take aim.

Seeing as how this series centers around health and fitness we will use two example scenarios. Both of these scenarios will be to achieve the health and fitness component of the vision exercise step 1.

Scenario 1

Kim is 36 and will be getting married in August. She wants to lose weight and fit into a dress she’s already picked out. Before doing the visualization in step 1, Kim didn’t have much of an idea as to why losing the weight was so important other than to look good for her wedding day. Kim also had little understanding of how much weight she would need to lose.

After doing the visualization exercise, Kim now understands the real reason she wants to lose weight is that she is looking forward to this new chapter in her life. Kim wants to be as healthy and vibrant as possible, leading to her eventually becoming a great mother and growing old with her partner.

Kim remembers the best she ever felt was when she and her partner first met. Back then, Kim was going to the gym regularly, felt her strongest, and weighed 140 lbs. She was by no means shredded, but Kim was happy with how she looked and felt energized throughout the day. Knowing this, for Kim to get back to where she was she would need to lose 50 pounds of fat and gain about a few pounds of muscle.

Scenario 2

Our second scenario is Jorge: Jorge is 51 years old and has been in complete remission from cancer for almost two years. He wants to begin racing marathons again as he did in his early thirties.

Before the visualization exercise in step 1, Jorge just figured it was a good way to get back into shape after being sick for so long. After doing the visualization exercise, however, Jorge realizes he wants to help others find the strength to beat their cancer by setting an example.

He knows that placing in the top 100 for his age group, something he had always wanted to achieve in his younger years but never managed to do, can help those currently battling cancer by setting an example. Using data from previous races, Jorge can determine how fast he will need to run to place in the top 100 for his age group and will have an empowering reason for training hard to accomplish his goal.

Both of the people in our example scenarios now have tangible, worthwhile goals to go after. However, these goals are still unclear insofar as to the steps necessary for achieving them. To get past the ambiguity and develop a good understanding of how they will achieve their goal it’s necessary to create what is called a SMART goal. Smart stands for specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, and time-bound.

Specific:

 - What, specifically, are you ready to work on achieving? 

Getting specific with your goal requires dissecting what the achievement of the goal will require from you. Write a statement of intent based on where you are, where you want to be, and the changes that are going to take place. For instance, you could write the weight loss goal as, I am losing 50 lbs of fat and gaining 5 pounds of muscle, so I have a new, healthy body weight of 140 lbs”. You could write the performance goal as “I run at a pace of 11 minutes 20 seconds per mile to complete the upcoming marathon in a time of under five hours”. Your job is to get as clear as possible in what the accomplishment of your goal will look like. This clarity will make the end point free from any possible ambiguity.

Measurable:

 - What measuring stick will you use to make sure you are staying on track?

You could write the weight loss goal as, “I will lose 2 lbs of fat a week for the next 25 weeks while adding muscle and strength through resistance training". Whereas you could write the performance goal as “I follow the periodized running program my coach has me on for the next two and a half months, making sure I reach all of my pacing goals.

Depending on what your goal is, it would be wise to consult someone who has either accomplished something similar themselves or is a professional in a relatable field, such as a personal trainer, financial planner, or a life coach. These people can give you guidance on how to set up realistic expectations based on your abilities and available resources, then going on to create the measuring sticks and milestones that will keep you on track.

Actionable:

 - What steps of action will you be taking on the path to achieving your goals?

For the weight loss example, you could write it as “I go to go to spin class twice a week and see my trainer on Monday and Wednesday mornings. I also adhere to a meal plan at least five days out of the week.” An example of how you could write the performance goal is “I make sure to run the the four paced workouts each week and adhere to the nutrition plan my running coach has set for me.” No matter what your goal is, you will need to take action to see it through. The actionable steps will be different for everyone and related to what the goal is, the person's abilities, and what resources, such as time and money, that person has available to them. This step requires you to take an honest look at what actions you are willing to take now and that can be kept up on a regular basis. The steps will also likely be expanded upon over the following weeks, months, and years as you go after your goal.

Relevant:

Relevance may be the most important part of the SMART goal and will likely become the reason you are willing to work so hard at achieving it in the first place. When the going gets tough and you feel like giving up, remembering how all that hard work relates to the lifestyle you are creating will help you press on.

Make your SMART goal relevant by describing why achieving this goal will contribute to the overall vision you created for yourself in step 1. For the weight loss example, you could write it out as “I am committed to working at and achieving this goal for the next 25 weeks so when I get married in August I can start my new life with my partner looking and feeling my best.” For the performance example, you could write something like, “I am placing in the top 100 for my age group in the upcoming marathon as a testament to having the strength to beat cancer and inspire others.” Write the statement as though your goal were a literal gateway to a better life. In fact, your goal is the gateway to a more authentic, happier vision of yourself.

Time Bound:

This step requires discovering the amount of time you allow yourself to achieve the goal. It’s likely that when you first start out, you will have only a vague idea of how much time you should be giving yourself to accomplish your goal. Just as in step 2 when creating a measurable goal, it will be up to you to seek out people who can help you answer those questions. Find friends and family who have achieved a similar goal or a professional like a personal trainer, dietician, financial planner, etcetera, who has experience and knowledge with goals like yours.

Ask these people what to expect as a possible time frame. For the weight loss example, it could be written out as “By August 15th I have lost 50 lbs and dropped five dress sizes, fitting into my wedding dress perfectly and weighing 140 pounds”. For the performance example it might be written as, “In two months and two weeks, when the city marathon takes place on Sept 7th, I will have trained properly under my coaches guidance in such a way that I know I will place in the top 100 for my age group”.

Create a window of time to achieve your goal and commit to it. Reaffirm to yourself every morning how much time you have left to complete it, then again before going to sleep. The presence of time, having a countdown in the back of your mind, will create a sense of urgency, compelling you to action whenever appropriate.

Considerations

An important thing to note when you are creating your SMART goal is to use empowering language. What I mean by this is using phrases like “I am” and “I have,” rather than “I will,” “I am going to,” or “I’ll try.” Write as though it’s impossible to fail. Even better, write as though it has already happened.

Writing “I am going to spin class twice a week,” you have taken on the ownership and responsibility of achieving your goal, even if you haven’t even signed up for the classes yet. If instead, you say “I will go to spin class twice a week,” you are projecting the ownership and responsibility onto your future self, shifting it away from the only moment in time you are empowered and can take action - the present moment.

Modus operandi and creating smart goals

It’s time to create your modus operandi, a Latin phrase meaning “the method, strategy, or plan,” by using the information you put into your smart goal. Your MO should be one or two sentences and reflect what it is you are going after and how you are going to achieve it, concisely and with precision.

Step 3. Create your Modus Operandi

It’s time to create your modus operandi, a Latin phrase meaning “the method, strategy, or plan,” by using the information you put into your smart goal. Your M.O. should be one or two sentences and reflect what it is you are going after and how you are going to achieve it, concisely and with precision.

It doesn’t matter if your sentence seems long or is a run-on sentence as nobody is going to grade you on grammar. Instead, this will serve as your creed. Recite it daily, anchoring yourself to the pursuit of achieving your goal. It does not have to be profound, bold, or beautifully written. It needs only to be constructed using your SMART goal and empower you to action when you state it to yourself.

An M.O. for the weight loss goal might look like the following:

I see my personal trainer three times a week, go to spin class twice a week, and eat from a healthfully prepared meal plan, all of which allows me to lose 2 pounds a week and reach my goal weight of 140 lbs for my wedding on August 15th, because I value living a healthy life with my partner.

An M.O. for the performance goal might look like this:

I am helping others who are struggling with cancer know that there is hope by placing in the top 100 for my age group at the upcoming September 7th marathon. I have beaten cancer myself and have now gone on to inspire others by committing to and following the training and nutrition program my coach designed for me.

Turn weakness into strength

The problem, as I see it, is people take an all or nothing approach. It’s why the gyms are so crowded in January and almost vacant the rest of the year. Turn your weakness into strength by promising to pick yourself back up when you fall.

Step 4. Turn your weakness into a strength.

At the risk of sounding like an eighth-grade substitute teacher, step four is all about owning your weaknesses. You will, without a doubt, trip up and have setbacks along the way. In fact, if we are going, being honest, you have likely tried to achieve this goal many before with no long term success.

Most people set out to achieve results with all the energy and intention in the world. You can easily see this each new year during the first few weeks of January by walking into any fitness facility. Gyms all over become completely packed with new members who are electric with energy and ambition to achieve their health and fitness goals. But what inevitably happens? The mass influx of new members becomes a mass exodus after a few weeks, and the gym returns to normal for the next 11 months. Why does this happen year after year? I believe I know why and it has everything to do with planning for setbacks and allowing for forgiveness.

Look, ice cream exists. Netflix and Doritos exist. Social events and hanging out with friends, thankfully, exist. Wine, beer, and food platters exist. Trips to all inclusive resorts and Mayan Riviera cruises with bountiful buffets exist. What I’m getting at is that, just because you committed to losing 50 lbs by August, it doesn’t mean life around you is all going to change or vanish instantly. That’s a good thing because the enjoyment of life springs forth from friends and family, through fun and unique events, adventures, and experiences. That part of life should take up the majority. The part where you go to the gym and count your calories should take up the minority.

The problem, as I see it, is people take an all or nothing approach. It’s why the gyms are so crowded in January and almost vacant the rest of the year. All of January the new members are hyper focused on working out and eating right to the point that they stop hanging out with friends, going to events, or living out the other regular areas of life.

Too many people believe that having even one night out with friends, eating chips and drinking beer, that all is lost and the new image of the self they were trying so hard to create was flush down the drain. The thing is, working towards achieving your goals, following a nutrition and exercise routine, and finally having the healthy body you always wanted does not have to be mutually exclusive of enjoying time with your friends and family. There are simply better ways of aligning how you enjoy time with friends and example and eventual the achievement of your goal.

And guess what? Even when you do harmonize your social life with your goals you are still going to mess up. At some point you will have too much cake at your friend's birthday party. You eventually may have to miss a week of working out because you got sick. You will come back five pounds heavier after your vacation. BIG DEAL! The all or nothing approach doesn’t work.

Nothing in life is linear, not even training, as you will find out when we get into workout programming. You need to allow forgiveness of yourself for being human and having a setback. Don’t punish yourself further by giving up on your goal. Instead, forgive yourself for the setback, understand that setbacks are a necessary component of any worthwhile goal, and move on.

Life is about up and down, forward and backward, and side to side. The stock market is a perfect analogy for life. Did you know more than 99% of mutual fund managers FAIL to beat the index? They try to beat the index by buying a stock at a low price they believe will go up and sell when they think it will go down. It doesn’t work. The "Buy low and sell high for the quick return" is a parable for the crash dieting and all or nothing approach so many take with their fitness goals.

In contrast, a person who follows the market index long term will see a better return on their investment. Although they will see moments when their stock soars and moments when it does a nose dive, the overall trend will be up and they will create a return on their investment. That word, TREND, is the key.

Think of the progress of your goal likened to that of the trend of an index rather than that of an upward slanted straight line. Just as the markets will go down, you will have setbacks. As long as you pick yourself up and press on toward your goal, and just as the markets will rally upward once more after they fall, your TREND will be ever upward and in the right direction.

how to remember your goals

Open your morning journal and write out what you are grateful for in the past and present, then a description of who you are becoming and what you choose to experience as they relate to your goals in the future.

Step 5: Remind yourself daily

I’m genuinely excited for you. It’s important to know that, simply for having gone through these goal setting steps, getting clear on what you want and setting up a plan of action, you are closer to success than 99 percent of everybody else. The final step is to remind yourself daily of what you are working to achieve and why are you are working so hard to make it happen. You can do this in whatever way you like. Nevertheless, I offer you my daily routine which I use to keep my goals in sight.

Every morning I sit down to meditate for twenty minutes. I do this the very second I wake up, not allowing myself to turn on my phone or distract myself in any way beforehand. I set the intention before I begin to come away with a clear idea of who I am striving to be. During my meditation, I go in and out of both visualizing my goals and the form meditation typically takes on which is mindful, present state awareness.

Once I've finished my meditation I immediately open my morning journal and write out what I am grateful for in the past and present, then a description of who I am becoming and what I choose to experience as they relate to my goals in the future. This process sets my momentum in the right direction for the duration of the day. I find it helps me make better decisions, ultimately aligning myself with the long-term achievement of my goals.

If you haven’t meditated before, but you’re interested in developing a meditation practice, I will devote a future section solely for that purpose. In the meantime, you can check out an amazing nine minute guided meditation session by Sam Harris hosted on Soundcloud here. If you would like, he has also recorded an extended, 26 minute version that you can listen to here.

In the next article, we will go over how to choose an exercise routine that is right for your specific goals. We'll go over whether or not you should hire a trainer, join a group class, train with a friend, or train by yourself. We will also cover what you should look for when choosing your gym, your personal trainer, your group fitness class, and the friends with whom you train.


As always, thank you so much for taking your time to read this article. If you got something from it, or  you know someone who would benefit from this article, please feel free to share.

If you have any questions or suggestions for future articles or videos, please leave me a message in the comments or reach out to me on social media!

And remember, with everything in life the secret to success is getting started. So get started!

Other articles you may like:

Why do we exercise?

How to create SPECIFIC goals

What makes a good exercise program?

Free weights, body weight, or machines. Which is best? 

Do these two studies prove once and for all that coffee is good for you?


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About the author

I switched careers from a mechanic to a personal trainer and life coach after seeing the difference one made in the life of my mother. I watched as she transformed herself, changing her path in life to one that allowed for the enjoyment of what she loves most. Our family saw how powerful an impact her trainer had on her health and happiness, and we couldn't have been more grateful. From then on, I knew I wanted to help others take back their lives the same way her trainer had helped her. 

Taylor Patterson

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