Setting Goals: What’s Wrong (and How to Fix It)

Have you ever set a New Year’s Resolution? Or set a weight or a performance goal? Setting goals is a process. If you’ve ever been inspired to or forced to (I taught a health studies course for years, so that is for my students) … and if you’ve ever wondered, why you didn’t follow through or why you quit… then this episode is for you. 

What’s Wrong With Setting Goals (and How to Fix It)

If you’re listening at the start of the New Year when I created this episode and setting goals for a new year that’s healthier, lighter, fitter, happier, more prosperous, or full of love you’re going to find this fascinating. Whether you’re just about to set goals or you’ve already set goals my hope for you is that setting goals is easier, effortless, and that they work for you better after this.

As I release this episode STRONGER I my 12 week program is launching. In every program I like to think that I’ve helped reduce some of the questions about goals make sense when it comes to the how do I do it? For instance if you want to be more toned, loss some of the belly fat specifically, or just overall weight, or you want to sleep better – all things that the right hormone balancing exercise plan can provide, how much and how often do you do? I take care of that. So if you know what you want and you’re still in search of the how to do it, I’ve got you covered. But you’ve only got a few days literally so register right now. If you’re coming later, the doors open a few times a year, and you can be the first to know when it opens again.

Setting Goals and Getting Goals is My Science

I’ve studied the science of behavior change for over 30 years. Including the stages of change, the so-called S.M.A.R.T. goals, and look back at all the goal setting my clients, university students, and the fitness instructors and trainers I’ve worked with in over 35 years and include my own personal experience having gone from someone who hated running in high school to someone who majored in exercise sciences and has completed many marathons and Ironman triathlons

SMART Goal Origin

Did you know that SMART goals originated in 1981 in an article by George T. Doran in Management Review.

This is one of those things that should inspire you to do anything that might be on your goal list. If he can do it so can you. The question is… is there any scientific proof that a SMART goal actually works? When was it adopted by health and fitness?

Indeed, teaching goal setting has become a staple of coaches and trainers and health educators. Yet, goal attaining isn’t actually any research showing SMART goals are more successful.

That’s right.

Despite decades of use there is little or no scientific data that the SMART goal formula either increases goal-setting behavior or produces better results than goal setting without using the SMART formula.

I’d been teaching SMART goals for a decade and a half – in fact as part of curriculum at Iowa State University and I began about 20 years ago to include my observation and opinion that SMART goals alone were dumb.

What IS the SMART method of Setting Goals?

The SMART stand for Specific Measureable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time.

So let me break those each down a little.


S for specific I would definitely agree with.

If you want to be in better shape or exercise more those goals are pretty illusive.

To make them more specific you would define what better shape is for you. Do you want to be faster, stronger, have a better body composition (less fat, more muscle)?

If its exercise more, then consider your habits in the recent past? Say, instead of averaging your 2 times a week exercise sessions, your goal is to exercise 5 days a week. Now you’ve nailed a specific goal.

But I also gave you two different type of examples. Better shape is an outcome goal, and exercise more is an action goal. Which one do you think is easier to control? You can set both, but I encourage you to definitely set your action goals.


M stands for measureable. And we just did that too for exercise more. But for better shape you have to choose if it’s that you want better body composition then you’d measure your percent body fat and body muscle right now. (which by the way I recommend all of our program participants do – STRONGER I participants have to do it to access their videos!)


A traditionally stands for attainable, within a time frame. So you wouldn’t want to say go to the gym every single day this year. Never eat sugar this year.

The other A that I often used is the actions. So rather than the outcome goals of improving body composition (less fat, more muscle) the actions are:

Lift weights 2x a week for major muscles

Do more interval training and less endurance exercise

Include high quality protein at 3 meals a day


R originally was realistic. But that one I challenge. How excited are you about a realistic goal?

Should You Set Realistic or Exciting Goals?

Should you only reach for examples of what you’ve seen before? Then who would ever have broken the record for running a faster mile or built an airplane or become a president of color?

R can and should be relevant. I think that’s obvious but if it isn’t something you want and it’s relevant to you, why bother right? But when it was a business goal or you’re setting for a team like I do for personal training departments or solo trainers, this is definitely important.


T stands for time. In this case, even if it’s a year when you’re going to measure again, I’d suggest you set monthly goals to measure your body composition and weekly to measure your action goals.

That’s a quick description of setting goals and how you’d fit them under SMART. Hopefully, that helps you understand how to focus on those goals you might be setting.

Before I dive into the second half of this episode, I want to thank CBD for Life for sponsoring this episode. If you’ve ever experienced a little soreness after a workout, you know you’ve got a little inflammation going on. After taking a full month off of anything but recovery workouts since my triathlon when I started back I definitely got sore. CBD for Life rubs have been amazing to get my hips and glutes feeling more comfortable. I even gifted some to my 93-year old mom for her lower back. I care about what’s in the products I put on and love that there are none of the toxins in their products – only the body rebalancing things I do want. I’ll link to CBD for Life in the show notes and add the special Flipping50 link where listeners can try it for less. The lavender rub is my favorite.

No Science for SMART

Since we know that there’s no data proving that using SMART goals is better than any other method, make sure that if you use it, it works for you!

The best thing the acronym SMART has going for it is that it’s memorable. SMART. We all know it.

But the system itself should show you anything is possible. This was born out of an article… a system or method born out of the mind of a man with an idea. A perfect example of an exciting perspective not a realistic one.

What’s Wrong with SMART?

There are several things missing from SMART goals. The first thing missing is emotion. SMART goals are logical. Fitness and health goals are usually emotional when they’re followed through on.

There should be urgency.

You want it and you don’t want to wait. You are not motivated you are committed. Sharing goals and getting support for those goals is crucial.

There are components of goal setting that you must consider related to whether we’re talking about getting there vs. the trip there. Are you setting goals based on the end result you want or are you setting the actions to get there?

I suggest that you first set a powerful end transformation. Do it without your logical brain or the little voice in your head interrupting you telling you:

  • That’ll never happen
  • I’ve never been successful before
  • I could never do what it takes
  • I don’t have the time to do that
  • I wasn’t born with the right genes
  • No one has ever done that

So stifle those thoughts for now. You’re only dreaming about what would be so amazing you woke up in the morning loving the life you live and the skin you’re in. Turn off your logical brain for a few minutes.

Setting Goals that Matter to You

Make sure you’ve not left these 3 things out. Sure writing down your goals is a part of making them more effective. But that’s still a logical simple task. How you write them down and what you’re thinking will make those goals far more likely to be goals you will follow through on.

#1 See The Transformation

Watch videos of athletes or others doing expertly what it is you want to do. Collect images of those you want to emulate. You have to see it done perfectly before you can do it perfectly.

Mental rehearsal was something I learned about in the 80’s. It was used by athletes  and employed by sports psychologists. One of my favorites was William P. Morgan of the University of Wisconsin. He was the first to connect the antidepressant effects of exercise and sport, which was the start of associating mental health and exercise.

It was used by athletes who traveled long distances to competition without days ahead of the actual competition to practice once they arrived. It was used by athletes who were injured. There was no difference between those tennis athletes who mentally rehearsed a perfect serve or golfers who mentally rehearsed the perfect chip than those who physically did it.

I want to point out here that no great athlete or business person focuses on what they don’t want. They don’t focus on missing the shot, or even avoiding the pond or sand trap, or on losing the sale. They focus on the ball landing perfectly in the exact spot they want it then rolling to a stop in the exact spot the hole is in. They focus on making the sale or a better sale.

Imagine a Goal Getter

Think about anyone who is good at something. It can be anything… cooking, baking, decorating, drawing, running, basketball. Who comes to mind for you?

I can easily think about the golfers in my life. My step dad and my son both are such perfect examples of this. Not only did they spend time practicing the sport. When they weren’t they were reading Golf Digest, watching golf’s greats on TV, and consuming everything golf that they could. They thought about themselves as golfers.

My 15-year old began to wear collared shirts more than t-shirts. Any sport that can get a high school boy to comfortably wear a pink shirt was OK with me. He became a golfer.

So there are three common denominators I walk both my private clients and group programs through. Here they are if you want to crush your 2020 goal setting and goal getting. From seeing the vision…

#2 Feel the transformation

There must be emotion in the goals and the transformation you want. This is the second step but it’s the absolute most important part of what it is you will do.

One of the biggest challenges the SMART goals have in health and fitness is that they’re void of emotion. The process is logical. That can work for a business – so long as the employees are emotional about what they need to do and why – but it’s not very helpful in fitness.

The success of mental rehearsal involved feeling in your body. You needed not just to see a picture in your mind of someone or yourself swinging a golf club perfectly. You needed to feel the club in your hand and the texture of the grip as you laid your left hand and right hand together to align the perfect grip. You felt the club in the air just above the ground.

Setting Goals You Can Feel

If you can create strong feelings inside your body when you think about what it is you really want you can trick your brain. If you repeat the experience of those feelings and imagine what it is you want so clearly, frequently your brain will begin to respond as if it’s reality.

When that happens the brain sends signals to your cells and physically begins to make that come true.

It’s proven in what’s widely known now as the placebo effect. You can get results based on the belief what you’re doing will get results. Now, those actions have to be in alignment and can’t be counter to your goal for best results.

#3 As If the transformation

Act like the transformation has happened. Act and talk “as if.” Behave as if. You, in fact, become someone who has habits of the person you want to become.

If you’re listening and you’ve had a goal, a repeating goal for quite some time, the problem isn’t what you might think. The problem isn’t motivation or discipline. It is most likely that it doesn’t excite you.

Getting Under the Goal When Setting Goals

If you want to lose weight and then you think life will be great there’s probably more emotion tied to the frustration of weight gain than there is to the joy of being at your optimal weight. You may need to ask, what do you really want to change? How is this really going to change your life?

You may also have some negative feelings around wanting that weight loss. If you see it as a vanity thing and that goes against your first nature being to serve others and get things done it’s not congruent enough with who you are.

So shifting a weight loss goal to… I want to be more intimate with my partner and more confident initiating intimacy and getting that part of our life back on track.


I want to have more energy and focus to accomplish the career goals I have and still have time for myself instead of being exhausted. I want to plan trips and adventures over the weekends instead of recovering from work.

Then you have to do a check in with whether you’re focused on the negatives of what you don’t want or the positive feelings of what you do.

Wrong Focus?

One woman was so focused on weight she wants to lose its all she thought about. She thinks about the negative emotions related to the weight she doesn’t like. She thinks about what she’s doing wrong. She thinks about what else she can try.

She’s got only negative emotion about what she doesn’t want.

Based on the process of feeling the transformation so strongly the “as if” part is what makes your brain interpret this as your new reality. It goes about figuring out how to make it happen.

So yes, you still need to pick up the weights and get breathless doing those intervals. You’ll just be creating something bigger that lasts longer than a 20-minute workout.

And if you string together more meaningful workouts you’ll find setting goals far more effective. It’s not just a process you go through at the beginning of a year, or week, or quarter.

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You might also like:

The Art of Change 

Saving Your New Year’s Goals

How to Get Results

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