Don’t Let SMART Fitness Goals Stop You From Dreaming Big
If you have big plans for 2023—big deadlift, marathon, body size change—I really hope you haven’t turned them into a limited SMART goal test. But I hope you set SMART goals for yourself to help you through the process. Let me explain.
How are SMART goals different from dream goals?
SMART goals have long been touted as a goal-setting hack, but the truth is that they were invented for managers to set quotas and the like for their companies (the original “A” stood for “assignable,” for example, to an employee). ).
A SMART goal, as they say in the fitness world today, is specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time bound. Taken together, this means that you set a deadline by which you expect to achieve a particular measure of outcome. In other words, you’ve turned it into a pass-fail test.
And since you don’t want to fail this pass/fail test, setting the right SMART goal means you need to set the bar low. The goal has to be achievable, remember? Looking at it this way, SMART goals are not goals in the way I understand the word, big dreams that inspire us to keep moving forward. But we can use them as benchmarks along the way to what I will call our dream goals.
How to dream big by setting process goals
I’ve written before that SMART goals are overrated , but to be honest, they provide a good basis for process goals . Process goals are something that is completely under our control. They are Achievable by definition. For example, running three times a week is the goal of the process. Eating vegetables at every meal is the goal of the process. Following a program that tells you to do five sets of eight deadlifts every Tuesday is the goal of the process.
And the purpose of the process is to guide you on the path to the big dream goal. I like to think of it this way: the goal of your dream is a big mountain in the distance. You know it’s there, but you don’t know exactly how far it is or how difficult the journey will be. Your process goals are what will keep you on your way to that mountain. We pack our bags. Putting one foot in front of the other. Or, as Peloton instructor Tunde Øyenein put it (right before telling me I wish I had beaten my time on her last burpee): “Goal is desire. The standard requires us to be accountable.” We need both.
I can’t stress enough how important it is that we allow ourselves to dream big. “Take 1 minute off my time in this year’s 5k race” is achievable, but why limit yourself to that? “Running 5K in less than 20 minutes” is a hell of a dream (especially if you currently have about 30 minutes), but it’s worth the effort. The path to this mountain may be long, but it will not pass by itself.
How Your SMART Goals Can Support Your Dream Goals
So let’s start charting this path. As with any trip to a distant mountain, you won’t know what the road is like until you get there. So focus on what is right in front of you and what you can control.
Here is an example of how you can set some SMART process goals to guide you towards a big dream that may or may not be achievable. Let’s say you’re a runner and you want to run faster. You can plan a trip like this:
Dream Goal: Run 5K in 20 minutes or faster (someday)
- Build my aerobic base by running a few more miles every week until I run 20 miles a week.
- Do a time trial on the track, both as a reference and so I can calculate my training pace.
- Follow the Hal Higdon Intermediate 5K workout program as written.
- Run the Big Local 5K in my city this spring.
- Write down your time, evaluate your strengths and weaknesses, and decide on a new set of summer learning goals.
See how each of these is a SMART goal?
- All of them are specific enough that you know what to do every day. (I have named a run and selected a specific training program, but obviously you will choose your own.)
- They are measurable: you collect miles, you note the number of programmed workouts.
- They are achievable: you have complete control over whether you go out for a run or not. (Obviously, if you don’t have full control over this due to life circumstances, you should write a different set of goals to account for those circumstances.)
- They are important: they all set you on the path to becoming a faster 5K runner.
- They’re time-bound: With this structure, you can sit down and schedule every run on your calendar for the next three or four months. (You will work backwards from the race date to find the start of the training program, and so on.)
These goals define your process and then you can reevaluate. After Big Local 5K, do you want to do a more specific 5K workout to get faster? Do you want to train for a marathon because of the base building possibilities and because you like the idea of a side quest? Or maybe you find that your other life goals conflict with this – perhaps you would rather take a vacation in the summer to do more paddling and return to running in the fall?
So you can still dream big, but you know you’re always on your way to those big goals – at least as long as you want to. Aim for the moon, and if you don’t make it to it, at least you’ve built a damn good rocket ship along the way.