We hear a lot about goal setting in health and fitness. In particular, most professionals are taught the SMART system: that goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, relevant (to one’s fitness goals), and timely (that is, having set time limits on completion).
We are also told that we should set both short and long term goals. Short term goals should be relatively easy to attain (ie, lose 2 lbs in 2 weeks) and should ensure that you’re on track to achieving your longer term goals in the time you’ve set. If you begin to see a trend of your short term goals no longer falling into place, then you know that you’re off track for your longer term goals as well.
Long term goals should be centered around bigger changes (ie, I want to lose 40 lbs) and can also be centered around athletic events (ie, I want to place in a certain bodybuilding competition). Long term goals can provide structure for our short term goals: for example, a specific bodybuilding competition necessitates bulking and cutting phases in the shorter term, and a powerlifting meet necessitates a carefully periodized program to ensure the athlete is at their peak condition in the days leading up to that meet. These goals provide structure to the short term goals, and ensure that we don’t keep setting wildly different goals every twenty minutes ala Leonard from Memento.
However, the secret is that in the end, there should be no goal.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t set goals. You absolutely should. But if you look at things from a long enough timeline (multiple years, a lifetime) you’ll recognize that even your long term goals will vary wildly. You may spend years focusing on building muscle, only to decide that you want to build strength. As you get older, you’ll focus on less intense activities, or take up more cardio. (Even Tom Platz, known for having some of the best legs in bodybuilding, got really into marathon running later in life and lost a lot of weight, or so I’m told.)
In the long enough term, our goals always vanish, or become something super vague, like “I want to be as aesthetic as possible” or “I want to be as strong as possible” or “I want to run as fast as possible” or even “I want to be as healthy as possible.” This is because in the long enough term, goals don’t really exist: we use them as mile markers and stepping stones to get us places, but there’s ultimately no final goal. There’s no end in sight, and we're really bad at predicting the future and foreseeing how our circumstances can change.
What ultimately limits us isn’t our goals, but rather the specifics of our situations. “I want to get as strong as possible,” for example. What does that mean? Do you want to set a world record? Do you want to be as strong as possible without using drugs? While using drugs? Within a certain lift? Within a certain time frame? Sooner or later, something is going to limit us. I want my deadlift to be as strong as possible, but sooner or later I’ll hit a point at which my body starts going downhill and my best lift will have already been behind me. If my goals were the only thing stopping me, I’d be more than setting world records: I’d be crushing them. 2000lb deadlift? 3000lb deadlift? 10,000? 20,000?
Ultimately, our goals are not created only by our will - they are structured and given form by our day to day experiences. If I lose one pound in one week on a hypocaloric diet and it really sucks to stick to that, I’ve been placed into a certain realistic structure: I now know that it’s probably not possible that I would lose five pounds in one week without wanting to tear my own teeth out trying not to eat anything. It’s a combination of our boundless desire (given form by goal setting) and the limiting realities of the world we find ourselves in (given shape by the results we see in the gym). Hegel had a similar argument about how we find ourselves more accurately when we see ourselves through others’ eyes: because otherwise, we probably had strengths and weaknesses we would never have noticed.
In the end, there really is no goal: there’s only the results we see from exercise and our will to do more. This means that our goals should really be just that: continuing to exercise, continuing to see results, whatever our path. All goals boil down to one basic axiom: exercise!
Go out and do it.