In any pursuit, setting goals can be a powerful motivator—until it isn’t. We might set goals that are too lofty, undermining our commitment and motivation. Similarly, overly ambitious goals can lead to imbalance and burnout.

The ideal scenario is setting ‘Goldilocks’ goals: challenging yet achievable, pushing our skills without being out of reach. Think of it as battling a dragon in a video game: initially, it may defeat us, but over time, we adapt and overcome. In real life, while there’s no reset button, the principles remain the same. We learn, we adjust, and we advance.

Unfortunately, real life isn’t as easy to design. When we err in our goal setting, it has consequences. Findings from Stanford University reveal that over 50 per cent of people experience increased stress due to unrealistic performance expectations. But truthfully, we don’t need statistics to tell us this; we’ve all experienced it. The constant judgment against a somewhat arbitrary goals, regardless of their attainability, can be debilitating.

Don’t get me wrong—in sports, setting incremental performance goals is commonplace and effective. Aiming to improve by realistic increments every week or month is beneficial. But when we start to reach the upper limits of our potential, we must ask ourselves: What is the opportunity cost of the energy required to shave another five minutes off our time?

So how can we benefit from the motivation of stretch goals while eliminating the judgment if we fail to meet our targets?

Visualize Your North Star
In one of Hal Hershfield’s notable studies, the UCLA Professor of Marketing found that individuals with a much clearer, more connected vision of their future selves are more likely to make decisions benefiting them in the long run.

Using this premise, instead of judging our present selves harshly, we can follow these four steps to connect with our future selves who have already attained their goals:

  1. Envision yourself in the future, having achieved your goal. What are you doing? How does it feel? Who are you celebrating with?
  2. Journal about this in detail. The more detail, the better to solidify this connection.
  3. Every evening for a week, read your journal entry and visualize this for 10 minutes before bed.
  4. Then, let it go. Having implanted this vision into our subconscious, we can now use it as the North Star for our process to achieve success.

Focusing on the Ritual, Not the Goal
With a clear vision of what we want to achieve deeply ingrained in our minds, it’s time to establish the tactics we believe will get us there.

We all know about SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, Time-based. But instead of creating SMART goals, we’ll develop BRAM tactics: Balanced, Ritualized, Auditable, Meaning-based.

Balanced: The tactics for achieving our goal must maintain an optimal balance with the rest of our lives. Understanding the sacrifices or compromises we’ll need to make in other areas of our lives is crucial for greater fulfillment.

Ritualized: Embed the tactic into a habit we can execute regularly. Decide on the cue (e.g., time of day), the routine (e.g., running for 30 minutes with the dog), and the reward (e.g., celebrating adherence to the ritual).

Auditable: Being able to audit the process we put in place to achieve our goal is key. It’s not about judgment; it’s about calibration. If we’re not maintaining the process we created, we need to reflect on why and adjust. Early on, schedule bi-weekly audits until the process becomes habitual. Trusting our new tactics requires accountability until it becomes second nature.

Meaning-based: We need to reconnect with the ‘Why’—the core reasons behind pursuing this goal, understanding its deeper significance. According to the American Psychological Association, connecting with the meaning behind a behaviour can make it easier to adhere to. Initially, reframing our challenges to align with their underlying meaning may seem arduous. However, you’ll soon see how effective this approach can be.

Within Our Control
Now that we’ve distanced ourselves from the judgment of meeting a specific goal or target, we must embrace how we will approach
the process going forward.

The renowned Stoic philosopher Epictetus once said, “Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are our opinions, motivations, desires, aversions, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.”

In a world rife with anxiety over uncontrollable elements, this wisdom deserves reflection.

Life has undoubtedly become more complex. However, often, we unnecessarily complicate it further. We devote excessive time to stewing over uncontrollable aspects, thereby limiting our potential in areas we can influence.

It’s a Dance
We won’t be 100 per cent successful on this journey; thus, detaching from the judgment of perfection is the first step in maintaining our sense of agency. This doesn’t mean we absolve ourselves from responsibility when we deviate from the process we put in place. It’s about eliminating needless judgment when uncontrollable events inevitably occur.

In this fleeting dance through life, with its many journeys, we can’t afford not to enjoy it.

And remember, when in doubt…Pause. Breathe. And Quiet the Noise.

You may also like: What To Do When You Keep Missing Your Running Goals?

IMPACT Magazine Running Issue Digital Edition

Read This Story in Our 2024 Running Issue
Featuring Canadian Olympic, National & North American Marathon Record holder Cameron Levins. Run your way around the world with some cool, quirky and unconventional races. Train for 10 km right up to a marathon – plus a 25 km trail run and 70.3 program. Strength workouts for runners, spice it up to improve your performance and so much more.