Definition of goal: the end toward which effort is directed
What is a goal? I mean, there is the definition above. But what is it really? Is it how you define success vs failure? Is it how you measure progress? Or is it just a ... timeline or … placed upon a series of events over which we have limited control?
To better understand goal setting and what it means to you we must first break down the two types of goals as outlined in modern sports psychology. Within the goal context we have outcome goals and process goals.
Outcome goals are what we are familiar with. As the name suggests they are defined by a specified outcome. In sports it might be winning a championship or batting .300. Often times they are pinned to the performance of the athlete but also to the performance of those the athlete is competing against. There must be winners and losers. Since many of us learn our life skills on the field or court then the sport model of goal setting becomes that which we develop.
Process goals are ones which tend to be a bit more esoteric. They are goals that are oriented towards bettering performance but not the end result. By improving aspects of one's performance, aspects that are wholly under their control, the hope is that it will improve the outcome.
Let’s use MMA as an example, as it is the sport that I am most familiar with. A fighter has an upcoming fight with a very experienced opponent. The outcome goal is to win the fight.
But there are many variables to that goal that are completely out of our fighter’s control. The skill level of the opponent, the conditions on fight day, complications that may arise from training camp injuries or weight cuts. The … are endless.
What about a specific process goal? Let's say we know that said opponent has great defense but not great knockout power so the strategy is to take the fight into later rounds and to win based on superior condition. The outcome goal is still to to win the fight but our process has to be based on what is under complete control of the fighter and their trainers. So increasing conditioning would be the process goal. To even further focus, we would set a goal to get their heart rate between rounds to 110bpm or to develop a resting heart rate of 50 bpm. These are goals that can be achieved through training, are measurable, and are not dictated by outside influence.
Your Goals And Your Motivation
motivation (noun)- the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way.
the general desire or willingness of someone to do something.
When talking about goals and goal setting for general population we cannot do so without exploring the idea of motivation. Even in elite athletes motivation can be a crucial factor in success.
As with goals, motivation comes in two differing forms, extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is that which is driven by an external force. For instance, you may be motivated to get a promotion because there is more money involved. Intrinsic motivation is that which is internal or inherent. Something that is done because it brings a sense of personal satisfaction. For instance, you may be motivated to do yoga because you leave with a feeling of well being.
When exploring our goals it is important to try to find our individual motivation behind them. Many times our surface reasoning for changing is not the primary driver. For instance, when I ask a new client why they want to join The Forge Bk the standard answer is “I want to get into better shape”. Ignoring the fact that in shape has completely different connotations for different people, the first follow up I ask is, “why?”
Sometimes it can be as simple as wanting to improve their 5k time but oftentimes the why can run much, much deeper. Childhood trauma, depression, anxiety, fear of not being loved. These are all things that are often tied to weight loss and fitness. While I am not qualified to address any of those issues specifically, if I better understand the drivers behind a client’s goals I can better understand the behaviors that are keeping them from reaching said goals.
Most goals start with an extrinsic motivator. Wanting to start eating better to lose 10lbs for summer or wanting to start going to the gym to get bigger and fill out a tshirt better. The hope is that these goals become more intrinsic, meaning that at some point we internalize them and start to gain joy from the process instead of just chasing the result.
Why Intrinsic Goals Matter Most
At this point you may be asking yourself, “why does it matter if my goal is motivated by an outside or internal source?”
For right now, it might not. If an external motivator is what is getting it done for you at this moment than it is the right motivator for you right now. The reality, though, is that external motivation just cannot last. At some point you will lose motivation, discipline will fade, life will get in the way. If you are relying on something outside of yourself for motivation then it is completely out of your control. If, however, you can develop an intrinsic motivator you will be in control of your own destiny.
Intrinsic motivators can be things like satisfaction from beating a personal record (vs trying to beat the other ppl in your Crossfit class), losing weight to feel and move better (vs losing weight to get a six pack and show up your 20 year reunion), or reading a book on sports psychology to satisfy curiosity about human behavior (vs reading to complete a blog post).
So why is intrinsic motivation such a hard thing to quantify and get people to engage in? Well, for one, it is not sexy. When clients engage in goal setting exercises it is hard for them to envision 12 weeks down the road and their new found feeling of lightness that has come with weight loss, allowing them to engage in everyday activities with more satisfaction. No, in the initial motivation it is much easier to envision them holding up the pair of pants that they will have to donate because they lose x-sizes on their waist. And that is okay. We use these external motivators to initiate change. Intrinsic motivation is what will sustain it.
That is why intrinsic motivation is so important. There are millions of 8/10/12 week success stories of weight loss and new found love of the gym. It is when those short term goals and that initial fire to change starts to fade that we see the weight creep back on or the “motivation” start to fade. It is because the motivation was dictated by something outside of ourselves. Long term success comes when
An important thing to note is that all motivation exists on a continuum. There will be times that our motivation floats from an external motivator (increased gym frequency right before summer anyone?) to a more internal (committing to structured gym time for stress management and a feeling of well being). These might sway back and forth and can exist in concert with one another, it is not an either/or. Try to use your external motivators for little boosts to build your internal.
What about discipline?
1 a : control gained by enforcing obedience or order
b : orderly or prescribed conduct or pattern of behavior
c : self-control
2 : punishment
3 : training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character
4 : a field of study
5 : a rule or system of rules governing conduct or activity
As we can see by the definition above, the word discipline actually covers a pretty wide swath of potential meanings, all of which have some relevance to our greater understanding of motivation and how it relates to our goal setting.
Let's start with definition 1a. A traditional manner of discipline, such as that obtained in the military or any institutional facility is one built by “breaking” one's individuality and enforcing conformity. It has been a viable form of creating a uniform and effective fighting force. It’s efficacy in institutional settings where it is imposed without volunteerism is questionable (I would argue that our prison system is a terrible example of imposing discipline on others).
1b shows more of the idea of communal discipline that is gained through tradition or Culture. Especially apparent in Japanese society the history and cultural significance of honor created a form of self-policed discipline.
1c is what many people think of when they think of someone who has “discipline”. A steel will, unwavering focus. Whatever words we use to describe this trait it is often a monolithic force that encompases all of one’s actions. Here is where things start to get complicated for discipline is a trait that can be trained but it is still highly dependent upon motivation. It is not an all-encompassing trait as some might have you believe which we will get to shortly.
Definition 2 is also quite important to the discussion on discipline because words matter. If we associate discipline as punishment how can we reconcile it with successful actions? Using guilt as a form of motivation is as old as time (or at least as old as Jewish mothers and the Catholic Church), but it is rarely effective. Regardless, there will always be an association between discipline and punishment.
Definitions 3-5 deal more with specific disciplines as opposed to the actions of discipline so they aren't really applicable in our discussion. To briefly touch on them, the in depth study of any practice (or discipline) will aid in the creation of structure and boundaries which are the bedrocks of disciplined action.
So how do I define discipline as it applies to fitness? I look at discipline as the development of rules, values, and guidelines as they pertain to certain areas of your life. These rules and values become your discipline but also allow for autonomy as you navigate between the lines. It should be an act of freedom not one of oppression.
But as I stated earlier, it is not monolithic in nature. Discipline is heavily influenced by motivation. If you have a high level of intrinsic motivation to complete an activity the discipline required to achieve it is very low. If, however, you are being pressured to achieve something due to an extrinsic force the discipline required to complete a task is much higher. So it works on a continuum. The two are inextricably connected.
A great example of this is some of the Special Forces Operators I have worked with in the past. I’m talking Green Berets here. The elite of the elite. The most disciplined men on the planet. Guess what? They struggle with nutrition and diet just like you. When their motivation is low due to focus on other areas (while not on deployment, working on a study heavy rotation where training exercises might be low, etc) I hear all of the same things.
“I don’t have time to prep food.”
“I’m too tired when I get home to cook something.”
“I need a couple of drinks/french fries/pints of ice cream to relax.”
So does that mean these guys are lacking discipline? Hardley. I have worked with CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, celebrities, entrepreneurs, and award winning artists; all of whom work harder, longer, and more efficiently than anyone else around them. Yet they still can’t control their weight because they aren’t sufficiently motivated to do so.
This might be explained by the theory of ego depletion. Ego depletion is the idea that your willpower, self control, or discipline draws upon a finite amount of mental resources. So if you are utilizing the majority of your mental faculties on work or study tasks there will be less of those resources available when you are faced with a difficult decision that requires willpower to resist. There have been some controversies in being able to replicate these situations in studies but recently the scales seem to be tipping in favor of ego depletion as theory.
If this is the case it certainly explains high performers in multiple areas who can’t seem to be disciplined in others. In the past we may have just written it off as a way to blow off steam or relax but instead many now look at it as something that is inevitable due to low self control in that area.
So How Do I Get Discipline/Motivation?
The golden question. What can you do to be more motivated? How can you increase your discipline? To me it’s a simple answer that requires a complex set of actions: develop a mindset of mastery.
A mindset of mastery is looking at the longview of a practice and basing your goals on process orientation versus outcome. Mastery takes years or decades and can’t be gained by just working harder or through hacks. It is only through repetition and mind numbing consistency that mastery can be gained.
Mastery is built upon hundreds or thousands of small habits. Small things that, on their own, don’t contribute much to the task at hand. However, when in concert with one another they become a powerful set of values that, you guessed it, look just like what we recognize as discipline.
Unfortunately, mastery is not an easy answer. It’s not a quick fix. It’s not a hack. You can’t speed up mastery. But you can develop it more efficiently by having a mentor or coach or teacher who has attained some level of mastery in both the practice and in helping to teach the practice of others. By enlisting the help of a good coach you can avoid some of the mistakes that I see people making over and over again becoming more and more frustrated at their lack of progress.
So, are your goals killing your progress?
From here it is time to establish how to set better goals. Use outcome goals to periodically test progress and reach for more but try to resist putting hard timelines on them. Instead, use your process goals as the markers that you are developing a mindset of mastery rather than just checking off boxes in a race to an arbitrary number.
Let your goals be progressive in nature, let them mold you as you develop them. Develop a mindset of mastery and you won’t need to look to motivation or rely on discipline. You will just do.