Systems not goals

You set yourself a fitness goal. This isn’t the first time, you’ve set many in the past. Some of which you’ve made, some you’re embarrassed to repeat because of how you never really got started. But you’re going to go again, and in your head, you have an idea about what you could be capable of achieving; what you think will make you happy to say, “I reached that goal!”

Regardless of what the goal is, run a marathon, complete an iron man, or tough mudder, bench press 80kg etc. it’s going to take a while before you get there. Perhaps months. All the while that goal is in your head, maybe even in your eyeline, shouting loudly from a post-it note: “COMPLETE THAT FITNESS GOAL!” It is pressure, perhaps from external sources, but at the very least pressure that you are putting on yourself. For the length of time that the goal manifests in your psyche, you are behind, unable to complete it. Failing.

And then joy when you’ve finally gotten there. The goal has been completed, owing to your preparation, hard work, and determination. You made it! Celebrate the success of achieving what you set out to achieve. This success can be a release for some, an escape of artificial pressure that was placed on themselves to achieve a lofty goal. Now that it’s over and the victory is celebrated are you still progressing? Especially when it comes to celebrating fitness goals, the best way to reward yourself is with alcohol, late nights, and lots of tasty, inefficient calories.

This tends to put you a few steps back from the point of your goal very quickly.

Do not set yourself goals, they will only beat you down. We talked before about how getting fit is a lifetime vocation, and as such, there will be no endstate. Instead swap a goal for a system. Instead of telling friends and family about what you’re hoping to achieve in the future, tell them about the system you’re already adhering to today. Tell them about the structured training regime that is now part of your regular routine: “I train three times a week now. My most recent session was Tuesday, and I hit all my training targets.” Thought of in this way, systems allow you to feel good about yourself all the time.

If there’s something explicit you want to achieve though, how else can you do so except without a similarly explicit goal? The subtlety is to think of the achievements as milestones along the way, rather than explicit goals which are like final destinations. Remember, happiness is the road, not the end of it. You can have a limited focus on specific milestones for a given date e.g. “I’m competing on this date, so I need to have reached exercise level X, two weeks before that.”, but ultimately you need to be more gentle on yourself while the milestone remains unachieved. Pause, celebrate, and distract yourself less as you take the milestone in your stride before carrying on to the next one.

The final supporting reason for favouring systems over goals is that it simplifies progression. A system tells you what you should be doing at every step of the way, and lets you see quickly if you’re not progressing. Goals on the other hand, are messy. Do you have lots of small goals that force you to reset plans frequently? Or do you have a significant feat that will be a year in the making? It’s impossible to know if you’re on track for getting there.

A good system will be simple to follow and the results will take care of themselves. Once you stop setting, sharing, and celebrating goals, people won’t forget about you and how you’re doing. You, and your milestones, become a visible advertisement for all to see of how your adherence to a system is smashing it.