Setting Goals That Matter

I’ve previously written about motivation and having a plan, but I read something recently about goals that made me think.

The other day, one of my favorite comedians made an interesting point on instagram. He wasn’t even talking about fitness or sports, just life in general.

Someone had asked him about how to be successful in comedy, what his goals were, and how to be noticed. He took a rather nihilistic view of things and said fame was all luck, there was no secret to being successful, do what makes you happy, and that having goals is a waste of time.


Goals Are a Waste of Time

In a vacuum, this appears ridiculous and I was prepared to dismiss him out of hand. However, he followed up with this reasoning: if you make a goal and then achieve said goal, what next?

He argued that goals are not worth making because they are false motivation. Or at best temporary motivation.

The more I thought about what he had to say, the more I began to partly agree with him. A goal, or a short-term one, is temporary and insufficient for long-term motivation. Once achieved, it no longer serves a purpose.

You feel good to have accomplished it, but then it is gone. Then what? What do we, as athletes/fitness-motivated people, make of this thought?

Goal, Plan, Motivation...What’s the Difference?

For one, we must recognize that a goal is different than having motivation or a plan. A specific goal obviously can be motivating, and a plan can help get you to a goal or even be geared just toward a specific goal. But the goal itself is not necessarily motivating and it certainly isn’t a plan.

Any given goal cannot be our sole motivation. That is a recipe for long-term failure. Even a goal that takes years to accomplish, once achieved will no longer motivate you.

Is our comedian right? Are goals a waste of time? I say no. They are very useful as short term motivators. However, they should always be framed in the larger context of our ultimate motivations.

Dopey Challenge: 4 Races in 4 Days

For example, last year my wife and I were training to do the Disney World 5k, 10k, ½ marathon and full marathon...4 days in a row (affectionately known as the ‘Dopey Challenge’).

Once we chose this goal, we found a training plan which was 30 weeks long, and dove right in.

For the next 30 weeks we had a very concrete goal to keep us motivated, and a plan to get us there. 30 weeks is a long time. The longest training plan I’ve ever done.

But what came next? How did we keep going once the goal was complete?

What’s at the Core of Your Motivation?

And this is where I only agree partly with our comedian friend. Goals are useful, but they need to fit into a larger plan. Some people talk about short-term and long-term goals, but for me that description is still inadequate.

Any goal, however long it may take to achieve, must point toward whatever it is that is at the core of your motivation. There has to be something inside of you pushing you forward. Without that, Michael is right, it is all empty.

But if you place your goals within the framework of your overarching motivations, they are incredibly powerful. In my experience it is even synergistic. Each one nourishes the other. Goals feed motivation, and motivation fuels goals.

The Dopey Challenge was amazing. We had so much fun doing the races (What other marathon has a roller coaster at the halfway point?) and accomplishing our goal. And then we got home it was on to the next goal. My motivation for all of my fitness is the desire to be active and fit for my whole life. When any short-term goals are framed in that context, my motivation does not wane.




Eric Salinger is a general surgeon who currently lives in San Luis Obispo, CA. He grew up in Wisconsin, and was a competitive swimmer from the age of five until he graduated from Pomona College. When he isn’t fixing hernias or removing gallbladders, Eric enjoys all manner of fitness activities: lifting, biking, hiking, running, swimming, or anything else that gets his heart rate up. He is always looking for new and different workouts to keep things exciting. He loves travelling with his family, listening to and playing music, and good food and wine.