Goal setting?

A friend of mine contacted me recently to ask a question. Prior to lock down he had been training for a long distance endurance event. ‘The journey and adventures getting to an event are the memories I love’ he said before asking ‘What if we removed the goal?’

It is an interesting and timely question.

Goal setting is synonymous with SMART objectives. And according to the ‘mind tools‘ website, the first known use of the term occurs in the November 1981 issue of Management Review by George T Doran. So goal setting as we know it has been around for just under forty years. And goodness has it been around. From it’s inception in 1981 the concept managed to embed itself so successfully that by the time I entered the world of training and development in the mid 90’s, ‘SMART’ formed the building block of every training session we delivered.

I entered training and development in Public Relations before moving onto Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospital where we taught non clinical skills such as conducting interviews and time management. SMART followed me from the hospital to the police service training unit and was still around when I commenced personal training ten years later.

By the mid noughties many of us were suffering from SMART fatigue. To the extent that I’d given up teaching it in my classes. Most students had seen it a thousand times by then and I was losing confidence in its worth in both the classroom and beyond. This was partly because I believed goal setting to be an inappropriate professional tool in the police service or indeed in any public sector services.

When I started my personal trainers course in 2007, ‘SMART’ was wheeled out once again. I embraced it with a heavy heart, as it was made perfectly clear it was not possible to pursue fitness without a goal attached to the concept.

At least in the fitness world, goal setting made sense to some extent. It provided a purpose to the daily sessions and governed the type, intensity and duration of those sessions. In the context of PT we were taught to question the purpose of each session and make sure our clients understood why they were doing what they were doing. Having a goal, made it easier to understand purpose.

Actually, at this point in my life, goal setting had become a bit more of a priority. Three years prior to this course I had started ‘racing’. This previously unbeknown world had been brought to my attention by colleagues in the police service. In Surrey (where I lived at the time) existed a huge race calendar featuring a variety of runs over various distances and terrains. A secret world where you could pit yourself against people your own age and gender as well as the rest of the field.

Racing was not all about winning of course. It was often about improvement or in some cases not coming last. What I learned most is that people can run no matter what shape or size they are and the majority of those people were in front of me. Racing is often a lesson in humility.

What I also discovered is that running quickly became a lesson in goal setting. I ran my first 10k in around 54 minutes and instantly wondered if I could break 50 minutes. Not understanding either the concepts of pacing or the exponential effort of running faster, I tried to go sub 50 in my next effort and got my arse handed to me on a plate, limping home to scrape in just under 60 minutes.

I obsessed over training plans and played with strength and endurance work, which admittedly yielded results, until a stress event at the end of 2005 left me with fibromyalgia and subsequently unable to run. I never regained the pace of those early days so I decided to change focus and go longer – where I perceived people would be more impressed with the distance and less focused on what time it took me to complete it (that tells you a lot about motivation but more of that soon).

Eventually, entering events (that were physically challenging) became the motivation (the goal) for training. Or at least I convinced myself it did. I used event entries to try and scare me off the couch and into exercise to questionable results. As the years went by I notched up more ‘did not finishes’ which then migrated into not even starting.

When I did finish, those performances were slower and more painful. And yet I carried on entering events in the belief that I needed that goal, stuck in an ever decreasing circle. I don’t think I ever fully appreciated how much toll the fibromyalgia had on my physiology and mental health.

I also don’t think I’m on my own with this phenomenon of trying to use goals as motivation. I have seen this pattern repeated numerous times by others and their experience of failure often matched my own. So, it has come as something of a relief to to see numerous publications over the last couple of years starting to question goal led motivation. That’s why my friends question was so pertinent.

It’s also slightly more complicated than this simple explanation of carrot and stick.

Between 2008 and 2017 I managed a running shop and events company. During that time I came into contact with thousands of people who had invested a lot of time, money, emotion, hopes and dreams into completing an event. Everything from a beginner targeting the local parkrun to long distance triathlons via countless marathons. The process is the same regardless of the distance.

It became evident that a lot of those people had invested so much in realising the actual event that deviation from their expectation resulted in catastrophic consequences. Especially when people placed less value in the training than the completion of the event.

What would happen if the event needed to be altered or the weather wasn’t ‘right’ or they picked up an illness or injury or worst case, the event did not go ahead. Another friend of mine, a proficient 2 hour 30 minute marathon runner is still waiting for his perfect race, and he’s run lots of them. Asking for everything to go perfectly on race day is asking a lot.

More often than not, things can go wrong enough to derail the whole experience. Here are some examples:

* London Marathon 2007 was unseasonably warm. Temperatures reached over 30 degrees resulting in a massive increase in casualties. Many suffered cramps or collapsed due to heat exhaustion. Interestingly both Rotterdam and Chicago marathons were abandoned during the actual event in 2007 as climbing temperatures posed a danger to slower participants.
NB If you want a lesson in how heat affects pace google chef Gordon Ramsay’s result for this race. He had declared prior to the race that he would be aiming for a sub 3.30 marathon and crossed the line over an hour later than planned. Each 10 kilometre split considerably slower than the last.
*Ironman Nice in France had unseasonably hot weather in 2008 resulting in the water stations at the top of the mountain running out.
* In 2012 I travelled to New Zealand to compete in Ironman New Zealand. The event was cancelled due to a freak storm hitting the North Island.
*Ironman Nice (still in France) in 2014 suffered unseasonably cold weather on the bike route resulting in many competitors being withdrawn due to hypothermia.
* In 2017 Brighton Marathon experienced very hot weather resulting in the water stations running out of cups and water. Many participants had to go without water for over 13 miles.

The last two years has seen significant challenges in the event industry:
*2019 was a wash out for a number of global Ironman events resulting in the swim portion being shortened or in some cases cancelled. This was not restricted to Ironman branded events. Outlaw organiser One Step Beyond were forced to abandon the cycle portion of their long distance triathlon while athletes were in the swim. This was due to torrential rain flooding the course rendering it unsafe.
*2020 has seen a universal cancellation of events from March onwards. It’s highly unlikely that any mass events will be held this year.

Having experienced a few issues of our own while participating in events, we began to tell people to view the event as a victory lap. Something to be enjoyed. A day to revel in the training completed. The facilitator but not the purpose. Then, if the event did not go as planned all is not lost.

And perspectives are shifting. In the last few years I have witnessed a shift away from goal setting. James Clear in his book ‘Atomic Habits, an easy and proven way to build good habits and break bad ones’ argues strongly against goal setting. Advocating building habits to effect change and instil healthy regimes. This includes exercise.

Many who have followed Clear’s path argue those who use the ‘goal’ theory to find motivation generally fail. Google ‘habits not goals’ and see how many would be philosophers have bought in.

‘The Daily Stoic’ for 14 May preaches that ‘our well being lies in our actions’. ‘If your happiness is dependent on accomplishing certain goals, what happens if fate intervenes?’, it asks. Quite! Even the actor Matthew McConaughey in his 2015 commencement address at the University of Houston states ‘joy is always in (the) process. It’s under construction…alive and well in the doing’.

The recent lock down has provided a real opportunity to burn down our thinking around goal setting and build something much more sustainable instead. In the immediate aftermath after the lock down, a number of wonderful things happened. Many experienced people (including a number of ‘celebrities’ (I’m guessing in a quest to establish their own good habits) have offered regular fitness sessions. And they have been incredibly generous with their time. This, coupled with the evaporation of the racing season on a global scale, has resulted in many would be athletes paring back their training. Moving and relishing in that movement without goal or agenda.

Here, I abandoned Ironman training in March and started to do Qi Gong with Mark Shayler via Instagram every day and Yoga with Adrienne via Youtube three or four times a week. G and I have walked and explored and sometimes ran and have lifted lots of weights. Purely for the joy of doing it and the freedom to explore what feels right. Ironically I am now stronger and fitter than I was after 30 weeks of Ironman training.

So, to go back to the original question, what if we remove the goal? Well, I think for some the chase of a medal will always be too great an opportunity to miss. But for the rest of us, the opportunity of building habits that will contribute to physical and mental well being and ultimately bring us joy sounds just fine.