There are many different schools of thought on how to set goals. 

Some swear by the SMART goal-setting paradigm. 

Others rely on affirmations, meditation, or journaling. 

And others kibosh goal-setting altogether and simply focus on envisioning a better future, hoping their thoughts transmogrify into reality.  

If you’ve played with any of these approaches, though, you’ve probably noticed that they tend to go nowhere fast. 

You keep reviewing your SMART goals, telling yourself to think positive, filling page after page of your diary, or chipping away at a few choice habits, but after a few weeks or months, you lose heart. 

Many people chalk up their failure to a lack of discipline, determination, or motivation, and while these can be factors, their biggest mistake lies in putting their faith in faulty, facile goal-setting systems. 

Most of the goal-setting models I just described have merit, but they also tend to be incomplete or ineffective when put to the acid test. 

Like a map without a compass, they help you feel like you’re on the right track without providing all of the tools and information you need to reach your destination. 

I’ve spent many years reading about and testing various goal-setting strategies, and I’ve come to believe there’s no one winning formula that works for everyone under all circumstances. That said, there are some evidence-based goal-setting principles that you can apply in every situation that will increase your chances of success.

And in this article, you’ll learn to look at goal setting in a new, more productive light. 

Be warned: This isn’t a rah-rah you-can-do-it approach. It won’t be comfortable. But it’ll work. 

Before we get into all of that, though, let’s first diagnose the problem with most approaches to goal setting.

The Problem with How Most People Set Fitness Goals


fitness goals examples


You’ve probably heard of the SMART formula for setting goals or one of its many derivatives.

In case you need a refresher, SMART is an mnemonic acronym for outlining goals that stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. According to many productivity gurus, unless your goal meets these criteria, it’s just a dream. Apply this formula to your goals, though, and you’ll make them a reality. 

If you’ve ever followed this system you’ve probably found that it doesn’t pan out in practice as it does on paper.

The main reason for this is that the SMART formula works well for clarifying a goal you’ve already set, but it offers little guidance on how to choose a goal in the first place, prioritize it among the many goals and obligations that call for your attention, and identify and execute the steps you’ll need to take to achieve a goal.

What’s more, the SMART formula is really better at describing how people set goals than prescribing how to set them. In other words, most people don’t have trouble setting a specific goal that’s relevant to their needs and desires and giving it a deadline. 

Instead, the real bear for most people is determining what goals to pursue and which to pigeonhole, what the best course of action is for achieving those goals, and how to build systems that put them on the high road to success. 

This isn’t to say that the SMART formula (or its many iterations) is wrong, but it’s incomplete. 

I’d even go so far as to say that the SMART formula often leads to what author and computer science professor Cal Newport refers to as “pseudo-striving.” It gives you an evanescent boost of motivation and satisfaction without moving the needle.

So, what should you do instead? 

What’s a better way to achieve your fitness goals? 

The full answer to that question could fill several books, but one powerful wrinkle is to approach your fitness goals the same way successful entrepreneurs approach building businesses. 

Allow me to explain . . . 

A Superior Approach to Goal-Setting

In the late 1990s, Saras Sarasvathy was pondering a simple but profound question: 

What makes some entrepreneurs so much more successful than their peers? 

Why do some people continually produce blockbuster companies, and others limp along or fall flat? 

Or, as she put it, “What are the characteristics, habits, and behaviors of the species entrepreneur?” 

Instead of ruminating on this question in an ivory tower or examining a few well-known business paragons like Steve Jobs (Apple), Howard Schultz (Starbucks), and Sam Walton (Walmart), she hit the road. Traveling through 17 states, she met with 30 founders of companies with revenues of $200 million to $6.5 billion per year in a wide range of industries from steel manufacturing to teddy bear sales to semiconductor and biotechnology development. 

Instead of simply asking the founders a series of questions about their habits, practices, and principles, she wanted to understand the thinking process behind their actions. Why did they make this or that decision? Why pursue this goal and not that one? Why invest time, money, and effort here and not there?

To this end, she had each person complete a writing exercise that involved solving ten problems to create a successful business, all starting with the same product. What’s more, she had all of them talk through their thought processes and record the answers in a microphone as they answered each question.

Then, she meticulously parsed through the recordings, looking for patterns in the way these founders puzzled out business problems.

While she identified several similarities in their thinking, the most striking was their tendency to rely on what she dubbed effectual thinking

In a nutshell, this means that instead of starting with goals and then working backward to figure out what resources, skills, advantages they’d need to accomplish them (referred to as causal thinking), successful entrepreneurs flip the script: they take stock of what resources, skills, and advantages they currently have, and then set goals based on this information.

In other words, instead of setting big, hairy, audacious goals in a vacuum, these people took careful stock of their current circumstances first, outlined a number of possible next steps, and then started formulating their goals. 

While this study was about decocting the essence of entrepreneurship, this unique turn of mind has tremendous utility for setting fitness goals. 

Effectual thinkers are, at bottom, pragmatists. 

They take the stars out of their eyes and size up their strengths and weaknesses before they start setting goals.

This is the polar opposite of how many people set fitness goals (or any goal for that matter).

Instead, most people have been taught to set big, hairy, audacious goals that will motivate them to change their behavior. “Shoot for the moon and you’ll land among the stars” is their mantra. 

While there is value in setting long-term, challenging, “unrealistic” goals (more on this in a moment), more often than not these goals turn into will-o’-the-wisps. They’re so distant, daunting, and disconnected from your current reality that they become excuses not to get started. 

For example, let’s say you want to lose weight and, like many people, you’ve tried and failed many times before. 

Is making your goal more specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, or time-bound really going to change things this time? Will applying the SMART formula and saying you want to lose 30 pounds in six months going to deliver the goods? Not likely. 

An effectual thinker would take a different tack. 

They’d first look at their current resources, limitations, and advantages, and then plan their next steps—their fitness goals. 

For example, their appraisal of the situation might look something like this: 


“I’m 30 pounds overweight and have been since I turned 30. I’ve tried just about every diet and workout plan out there, but I haven’t stuck with anything for more than two months before giving up. I’ve also lost weight before, but never more than 10 pounds and I’ve never kept it off for more than six months. Consistency is a constant struggle for me. What I do have going for me, though, is a willingness to learn and work hard. I excel at work and in most other areas of my life. I just haven’t been able to crack the fitness nut. I’ve also watched several of my friends lose weight, so I know it’s possible for me, too. I just need the right formula.” 

What actions can our friend consistently execute right away?

He could . . . 

  1. Begin educating himself on the grammar of fat loss, muscle gain, and habit change. 
  2. Buy a cookbook and use his freetime to teach himself to cook healthy meals.
  3. Start going on walks a few times a week to get back in the habit of consistently exercising.

In other words, even though he hasn’t set any SMART goals or deadlines, he can start taking effective actions right away that will result in his desired outcomes. 

At this point you may be wondering, how are you supposed to decide on your next actions if you don’t know what your long-term goal is? 

If you only focus on “realistic” short-term goals based on the materials you have at hand, how will you ever break out of your current circumstances and achieve big, meaningful change over the long haul? 

The answer brings us back to another insight that Sarasvathy gleaned from her study of entrepreneurs. None of them exclusively focused on effectual thinking—they just prioritized it over causal thinking. 

As she explains, “the same person can use both causal and effectual reasoning at different times depending on what the circumstances call for. In fact, the best entrepreneurs are capable of both and do use both modes well.”

In other words, the entrepreneurs had a general sense of what they wanted to achieve—a vague vision for the future—but that they poured most of their time and energy into quickly identifying and executing effective next actions. 

And if you’re like most people, the same thing is true when it comes to your fitness goals. You probably want one or more of the following: 

  • Lose weight
  • Build muscle
  • Get stronger
  • Prevent or heal an injury
  • Get and stay healthy
  • Complete some kind of fitness challenge

You already have a general sense of what you want to achieve fitness-wise. The real challenge is building and following a system that’ll get you there. 

Keep reading to learn how. 

How to Use Effectual Thinking to Set Better Fitness Goals


types of fitness goals


So, how can you use effectual thinking to set and achieve your fitness goals? 

Here’s a three-step strategy that will help: 

  1. Write down exactly where you stand in terms of your fitness. 
  2. Write down what you want to achieve.
  3. Write down the habits you’ll need to get there, and start doing them immediately. 

Step 1: Write down exactly where you stand in terms of your fitness. 

Before you set any fitness goals, take a clear-eyed look at your current circumstances. If you aren’t sure where to start, ask yourself these questions:

This writing exercise serves two important purposes: 

  1. It helps you better estimate how much time, effort, and attention you’ll need to achieve your goals. In other words, before you decide where you want to go, it’s useful to understand what it’ll cost in time, discomfort, and energy.
  2. As your thoughts simmer, your most important goals will naturally bubble to the surface. For example, if your weight is the thing that bothers you most about your fitness right now, losing weight is probably going to be your most important fitness goal.

You don’t have to write much—five or ten sentences is plenty. 

As you write, try to avoid self-censoring, dramatizing, or moralizing. Just state the facts as you see them. Instead of, “I suck at dieting,” write “I haven’t consistently followed a diet for more than eight weeks in a row.”

If you find this difficult, imagine you paid a consultant to give you a no-nonsense assessment of your life. Maybe even ask a trusted friend or family member to give you unfiltered feedback (just make sure it’s someone you know won’t sugarcoat their responses). 

Step 2: Write down what you want to achieve. 

This is where causal thinking can be helpful. 

Now’s the time to think more carefully about your desired outcome.

Based on your answers from Step 1, what do you want to achieve with your body? You can think in any timeframe you like at this point—months, years, decades—whatever. 

Write down everything that comes to mind, whether it’s a matter of health (lower my cholesterol to a healthy range), vanity (get abs), or personal satisfaction (climb Mt. Kilimanjaro). 

Here’s the hard part: Organize your list of goals from most important to least. If you struggle with this, once again ask yourself these two questions:

  1. What am I willing to give up to achieve this? The more you’re willing to sacrifice, the more important the goal is to you.
  2. If I could only achieve one goal from the ones remaining on my list, what would it be? Just keep asking yourself this until you’ve worked your way through the whole list.

And here’s the really hard part: 

Circle the top two goals on your list, and ignore the rest (for now). 

You can listen to this podcast to learn more about the importance of focus, but the long story short is this: You can only effectively pursue a limited number of goals at any one time. You’ll only dilute your efforts and ultimately overreach if you pursue too many. 

When it comes to fitness, a good rule of thumb is to pick two. I typically recommend focusing on a body composition or physiological goal (like losing 20 pounds or reducing your blood pressure) and a performance-based goal (like deadlifting twice your body weight or running a half-marathon). 

Why two?

Two reasons: 

1. Fitness is only one sphere of your life and you probably have other personal and professional goals. 

Thus, you’re probably pursuing several other goals at the same time, and setting too many in one area of your life (fitness) will detract from other areas of your life (relationships, finance, career, hobbies, etc.). In fact, you could argue that setting one fitness goal would be better than two, except . . . 

2. Fitness goals tend to be complementary, so pursuing one often indirectly helps you achieve another. 

Using the same example from a moment ago, losing 20 pounds will make it easier to deadlift twice your body weight (since you won’t have to lift as much) or run a half-marathon.

Whether or not you set deadlines is up to you. Many people find them motivating (at least in the early stages of their journey), although they often turn out to be redundant once you implement Step 3 . . . 

Step 3: Write down the habits you’ll need to get there, and start doing them immediately. 

Here’s where the rubber meets the road. 

What do you need to start doing every day or week to reach your goal? What do you need to not do to reach it? 

Write down a list of possible ideas. 

For example, if you want to lose weight, your habits might be . . . 

Then, you’d want to break these habits down into even more specific next actions, make them as easy as possible to do regularly, and, sometimes, give yourself a kick in the pants to git ‘em done. 

Check out these articles and podcasts for more guidance on how to do this: 

A Scientific Guide to Habits: How to Build Good Ones and Break Bad Ones

How to Use “Environment Design” to Accomplish Your Goals Easier and Faster 

Are You “Voting” the Way You Know You Should?

⇨ Use This Simple Mind Trick to Instantly Boost Your Motivation

Finding Your Biggest Fitness Whys 

Workout Motivation: The Power of Habit

Here’s How I Go About Setting and Achieving My Goals

10 Habits of People Who Lose Weight and Keep It Off

⇨ Stephen Guise on the Power of Mini Habits

Motivation Monday: The Wrong Way and Right Way to Set Goals

Now, why did I say that this step makes deadlines redundant?

Because when you cultivate the right habits they become second nature, and success an inevitability instead of a possibility. In other words, if you consistently stick to the right habits, you’ll reach your goal without needing a deadline dangling over your head like the Sword of Damocles. 

For example, if you follow these instructions for creating a weight loss meal plan, you’ll probably lose about one to two pounds per week without feeling excessive cravings, hunger, or low-energy. 

And at that point, do you really need a deadline to keep you one track? Or would you be better served by simply trusting the process, adjusting as needed, and letting the results come in their own time? I’d wager you’ll have more success with the latter route. 

The Bottom Line on Achieving Your Fitness Goals

If you had to distill everything in this article down to one simple rule, it would be this:

Spend 10% of your time thinking about what you want, and 90% of your time thinking about how you’ll get it. 

Although this sounds like a platitudinous truism, the reality is most people don’t look at their fitness goals through this prism. They fall over themselves to create SMART goals, affirmations, and so on, but spend very little time at the coal face, answering the hard questions of what they should do to achieve their goals and how and when they should do it. 

Research shows that the most successful entrepreneurs rely on effectual thinking to overcome this problem, and you can implement the same formula by following these three steps: 

  1. Write down exactly where you stand in terms of your fitness. 
  2. Write down what you want to achieve.
  3. Write down the habits you’ll need to get there, and start doing them immediately. 

Do that, and you’ll be taking a big first step toward achieving your fitness goals.

If you liked this article, please share it on Facebook, Twitter, or wherever you like to hang out online! 🙂

What’s your take on better fitness goals? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments section below!

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