Why Setting Fitness Goals Will Actually Stop You From Achieving Them

I walk slowly, but I never walk backward.

Abraham Lincoln

This quote relates to a frank and revealing conversation I had with a friend recently. She is trying to get back in shape, and she has made several fitful attempts at regaining the conditioning and form she held as recent as a year ago.

She described how things usually go. She'll decide on a very specific goal. She does the legwork in terms of loading up on healthy food, supplements and the appropriate gym membership. She totally kills it for a couple weeks, a week or a few days. Then, inevitably, she hits a wall.

Setbacks such as falling ill, missing a workout or a lack of progress all led her to feel like the work she had done up to that point was for nothing. So, what's the point? A few weeks or months later, the cycle starts again, and around and around we go. As a result, she never got out of first gear, feeling like the process is stacked up against her.

This probably sounds familiar. As a youth, I had the benefit of being enrolled in sport that more or less I had to attend (fortunately, I liked my chosen sport). But as soon as the structure (and obedience) was removed in my early 20s, and training every day wasn't a mandatory part of my life (and goals), the excuses and the weight began to pile up.

Over the subsequent years I would have periodic streaks of consistent workouts. It would be a couple months at the longest and the occasional single at the shortest. It was also just enough to keep myself modestly healthy and functional in day-to-day life.

But, I was never consistent enough to achieve anything substantial. Over and over, I would go around the circle of minimal gains, convinced that my “all or nothing” attitude was the only way I could approach my workout goals. It wasn't until a couple years ago that it clicked for me. After a particularly long absence from the gym, I started back at it yet again.

That time, the only difference was — and looking back now, I realize how smart of a move it was at the time — that I completely suspended expectations. The goal became solely making it to the gym. It was nothing more, nothing less. What I did when I got there wasn't nearly as important as the fact that I was there.

The “all or nothing” method does not work.

The attraction to the "all or nothing" way of thinking is understandable and tempting. It looks great from the outside — we make a commitment so unbelievably powerful that it bulldozes over our past behaviors — but this type of stop-or-go thinking leads to rather spectacular burnouts.

Just like you wouldn't stomp on the gas pedal of a car that had been sitting out in the freezing snow all night, you can't expect to upend your life in one spastic, albeit well-intentioned commitment.

So, if going all in with your workout goals is so tough, does that mean we are destined to remain where we are? Are we resigned to achieving below our potential? Of course not. Enter the giant slayer and the destroyer of goals, small wins.

Small wins work.

In 2011, Steven J. Kramer and Teresa Amabile wrote an illuminating piece for the Harvard Business School revealing the number one predictor for worker satisfaction. When over 12,000 worker entries were pored over, they found that employee motivation and engagement was based on whether they had achieved something worthwhile that day.

It was the simple act of making progress in work that the employee considered meaningful. They also found that for something to be meaningful and motivating, the task didn't have to be huge. In fact, often it was the simple pleasure of completing a small step forward on a project that instilled a sense of happiness and motivation. This makes sense, considering everything that small wins can do for you.

First off, they make you feel good about what you are doing. Want to talk about a powerful feedback loop? How about one that continues to keep you going long after the first surge of motivation has passed? If each day you are walking into the gym and making a slight, yet meaningful step toward your goal, you are going to feel good because progress is being made.

The more often you experience feeling productive, the more likely you are to continue working on it. Consistency and discipline is tough. You don't need me to tell you that. No matter how motivated and excited you are in the beginning, inevitably, the excitement is going to wane.

But if each time you walk into the gym and become motivated from taking another step forward, it will reinforce what you are doing. In turn, this will help you to get back to the gym tomorrow and the day after.

Small steps of progression are totally doable. A big barrier to change is the scope of what we want to accomplish. Do you want to lose 50 pounds? Do you want to add 150 pounds to your squat? Do you want to become Batman? Where to even start?

The task seems enormous from the outside looking in. But if you make it about doing a couple little things correctly today (and today only), suddenly, it doesn't seem so overwhelming.

Small wins make habit-building a lot easier. Adjusting old habits and creating new ones is tough. It takes a long time for things to become routine. But when you are starting small with little, digestible steps, it becomes a whole lot easier to do the task for a few days until it becomes your mini habit.

Small wins create an environment for big wins. Those big moments when you suddenly add 25 pounds to your bench press personal record is made possible with the consistent application of small steps of progress. The big breakthrough moments are awesome, but they are infrequent and hard to predict. It's the days in between when you take small and meaningful steps that set the stage for the big strides.

Here are three things I have to say to the naysayers of the small wins approach:

1. “But I'm starting from the bottom.”

Starting from rock bottom and being forced to be humble about where you are at is possibly the biggest advantage when getting back in the gym. Why? Because it forces you to suspend expectations.

It can be easier to be willing to take it slow, to be patient and to trust the process when you know it is going to take a while to see any real progress. Starting from rock bottom forces you to be a little more realistic about what you are capable of by that point.

2. “Small steps don't feel like enough. ”

The cumulative power of small wins is hard to see over the long term. Even if you subscribe to this system and adhere to it for a couple weeks, you aren't going to achieve exceptional results during that period. The "flash in the pan" efforts clearly don't work, yet still we cling to the belief that it is the only way forward.

The concept of small steps can be difficult to absorb because they lack the punch and instant results we have conditioned ourselves to crave. We want the results to happen the moment we make the commitment. But, as we all know, that's not how results come to pass.

Yet, this empty, misleading and discouraging set of expectations remains. It's another reason why goals aren't the things you should be focusing on if you are keen on long-term success. But, the good news is this: Small wins create a sense of optimism and confidence that is disproportionate to their size. This is what you need in order to keep yourself consistent and disciplined in your workouts.

3. “Small steps are beneath me.”

We all like to think we are the exception. We think we can be the one to summon a Herculean amount of willpower and discipline and be able to wield it effortlessly in pursuit of our goals. But, we aren't. It's tempting to think that we are above taking small steps or achieving small wins on a daily basis, dismissing them as only for people who suck at goals or who don't want it as badly as we do.

Aiming for small wins shouldn't be viewed as weakness or as a shot to your pride. It's a method that works. At the end of the day, that is the only thing that really matters. Taking baby steps forces you to regulate your expectations. 

We are brutal in expecting quick results. Goals are typically listed out in absolute best-case scenarios, but don't create ones that are impossible to accomplish.

After all, goals of any reasonable length will incur their share of setbacks, including illness, injury, family emergencies and so on. While we are taught to dream big, taking small steps forces you to stay focused on the process and on building a routine that will carry to your goals without making you stress endlessly about whether or not you will achieve them. In other words, small steps make the routine the goal.

Small steps are relative. A small step for an ultra-marathoner is going to be different from someone who has been completely inactive for the past decade. Small steps work no matter where you are currently. If you find yourself falling off or having a hard time keeping the steps consistent, the rule is to restart smaller.

Start off small so it has no choice but to stick, and once it does, ramp up the effort. In order to unleash the power of small wins, spend a couple minutes journaling your work in the gym. Grab a pen and a piece of paper, and spend a few minutes after your workout going over the aspects of your training that make the most difference to you.

Fire off a couple notes about the things that powered or hampered your performance that day, and then make a small plan for tomorrow. Rinse and repeat enough times, and you will find yourself crushing your goals in the gym without ever really having to think about them.