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Goal Setting: When Wishing is Not a Valid Course of Action

In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.

I have always liked this quote because it speaks to the heart of obtaining successful outcomes. Today, we’re talking about goal setting and the process that I use for setting goals, planning their success, and what to do after you reach it. 

Today’s episode covers three topics. Each of the focus on some important aspect of setting and achieving goals. First, we’ll talk about selecting and writing down a goal. Secondly, and this is where most people fall short, we’re going to talk about how to actually plan for the success of that goal. Lastly, we’ll talk about some of the common mental pitfalls that stop you from achieving whatever desire you have.

Why are we talking about this topic today? Well, that’s a great question.

Click to download the goal setting worksheet featured in this episode

Everyone I know has, at some point, set a target for themselves. Maybe it’s a marksmanship or fitness-related goal. Or perhaps it was professional. 

What was the last one you set for yourself? Did you reach it? If you did, then I’m happy for you. But most people never really hit all of their marks. 

I’m not here to sell you a quick and easy path to success. Any goal that’s truly worth something to you will take work, and I know you’re tired of having everyone else try to sell you a short cut. 

If there’s anything I’ve learned from talking to the experts, there is no such thing as a short cut

Success looks an awful lot like work.

My goal-setting techniques are a blend of ideas I’ve put together from the world of technical training, the work of performance coaches like Lanny Bassham, and subtle mindset shifts I’ve picked up from the business world. I want to share this with you because I want you to succeed.

Are you ready? Let’s get to it.

What You’re Probably Doing Wrong

If you are like most people in the professional world, you’ve been taught SMART goals. SMART, if you aren’t familiar, stands for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time bounded

To be clear, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with SMART goals. Used correctly, they make for some pretty good guidelines. The trouble is that most people just don’t have enough practice on each of those components.

The thing glaringly lacking from SMART goals is an actual plan. A goal without a plan is just a wish.

Writing Better Goals

With Winning in Mind, by Lanny Basham, is one of my favorite books. My method is derived from this, though a bit less rigid. The first step in a proper goal is to decide exactly what it is that we want to achieve and when. When we talk of specificity, you need to think about the end state and not the process.

For example, take these two goals:

  • Lose 20 pounds
  • Weigh 190 pounds or less

If the person who wrote these weighs 210 pounds today, then what’s the distinction between the goals? They both say the same thing, right? 

They just state different ways of looking at a target.

This is where psychology comes into play along with how we think and talk about our goals. 

Successful people always talk in terms of how they see themselves at the end. If you don’t keep your eyes focused on the outcome, then you’re going to get lost along the way.

A goal without a plan is a wish. Stop bringing me wishes and start bringing me results.

The person who wrote the first goal, “I want to lose 20 pounds,” is more likely to say something like, “I’m trying to lose 20 pounds” to others. 

By constantly speaking in terms of “trying,” they subconsciously program their minds to never really reach the goal. They don’t see themselves as someone who weighs 190 pounds, but someone who is perpetually trying to lose 20 pounds. 

Another example is smokers. Do you know anyone who perpetually trying to quit? Sometimes they get close, only to revert and continue “trying.” This is a self-image problem, since they don’t actually focus on the outcome, “I don’t smoke” but on the process.

So, to recap, step one of choosing a specific goal is to choose the specific end state you envision.

Step two is deciding exactly how you will measure such a goal and under what conditions

To truly demonstrate progress, measurements must be done in a controlled and consistent manner. 

For example, “hitting the x-ring” doesn’t say a whole lot by itself. Am I shooting from a standing, kneeling, sitting, or prone position? Am I shooting outside in calm weather, or in cold/windy/rainy weather? How much time do I have to prepare for the shot? What kind of rifle will I be using?

Training Goals

When I was becoming a formal instructor in the air force, one of the first things they taught us was academic objective writing. The format they use is C-B-R, which stands for condition, behavior, and standard. 

Every objective taught follows this format: under what condition will the student perform the requirement, the actual requirement, and the standard they were held to. We further broke that into knowledge objectives and performance objectives.

An example of a knowledge objective might look like: “Without reference, recall basic facts about the history of nuclear deterrence to a minimum standard of 70%”

A performance objective might read, “Given a checklist, perform launch control center emergency power and air procedure in less than two minutes without error.”

Do you see where I’m going with this? 

Here is how I would incorporate that information into goals, starting with our weight loss example:

  • Standing on a bathroom scale in the morning after a shower and before breakfast, weigh 190 pounds or less
  • From sitting position outside in calm weather using my primary match rifle, place at least three out of five shots in the x-ring (bullseye) of a standard A-23 target from 50 yards.
  • From a fasted state within one hour of waking up, complete a three-mile ruck over gentle hills in 45 minutes or less

Those three goals are all specific and include measurement conditions

I know exactly when I have achieved my goal, and I can clearly chart progress towards that goal for feedback and review.

I haven’t mentioned time-bounding, achievability, and relevancy, though.

Achievability and Relevancy

Coming back to SMART goals for a second, your goal should be challenging. Easy goals simply don’t motivate us the way that difficult goals do. 

Achieving difficult goals gives us a stronger dose of the positive neurotransmitters in our brains that make us feel good about ourselves. Failing to achieve goals does the opposite, however. Balance those two factors the best you can by picking a goal that’s difficult but achievable.

A common problem is that people often set goals in areas they don’t have a lot of knowledge or experience with. If you do not know a lot about a subject, it is easy to incorrectly estimate what a fair amount of time would be to give yourself, or how difficult a goal might be, or even if you’re tracking the right data points. 

I made this mistake early in my marksmanship journey. The objectives I set myself were certainly challenging, but guys like Shawn at Loose Rounds and John at The Firearms User Network were quick to point out that they were probably too aggressive for my starting point

So what does it mean to be relevant? To me, from the training world, we call this “validity.” Is your goal and your measurement tool actually targeting the right thing?

Here’s another example. A lot of people use the number on the scale as the sole indicator of health.

However, health and fitness experts generally agree that measuring the weight of a person is not nearly as good an indicator of health as using body fat percentage and strength capacity. If you take two women of roughly the same body type who both weigh 140 pounds, but one has a body fat percentage of 20% and the other a body fat percentage of 30%, the former may look like a toned swimsuit model and the other will look flabby. 

But they weigh the same amount.

That gets to timing. You have to have a deadline, but you must be realistic.

As an example, dropping 10% body fat in a short amount of time is also unhealthy and comes with a high risk of “rebound.” The difficulty and proper time programming must be accounted for. 

When you set a goal, do your homework! 

Before we move on to the next part of this, think of a goal right now. Formulate it into the condition, behavior, standard format and say it out loud to yourself.

I’ll give you a moment to think of something.

Ok, got it?

Here’s mine: “Using a home scale with body fat measuring capability, drop at least 5% body fat by December 31st, 2019”

What About Planning?

Now that we’ve covered the act of writing the goal, and even have one to work with, lets move on to the part that most people skip: actually planning to get there. 

To help you get organized with this, I put together a little PDF sheet you saw at the top of the post. You can also get it by clicking here.

Let’s get to brass tacks.

How much do you care about achieving your goal? 

What are you willing to give up to reach it? 

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just wanting it is enough. In his great book, Mastery, George Leonard talks about the concept of homeostasis. Whatever life patterns, social relationships, and obligations you have established to this point are going to fight against any effort you make to change something about your life.

Change is hard, it makes others feel uncomfortable. 

So what are you going to give up?

My fat loss goal is not going to happen by itself. 

It’s going to take eating right, exercising, and discipline. With a new baby around the house, finding time to do those things is hard. 

If you picked a fitness goal, what are you willing to give up or rearrange to find time to exercise. Can you wake up earlier? Can you work out during lunch? Are you willing to put up with ribbing and teasing from friends about your newfound “clean” eating habits while they smash down cake and junk? Are you prepared for the increased time (and fiscal) commitment to buying and cooking your own food?

If these factors bother you more than not reaching your goal, then you will fail.

Whatever your goal, are you willing to trade your life for it? If the answer is no, then stop here and go pick a new goal that you are willing to trade for. 

Failing to reach your goals will only put you in a spiral of frustration and failure, which will hurt any other goals you have.

Once you’ve got your goal, and put a fair deadline on it, and you really need to put a deadline on it, it’s time to plan for it.

First, list the things that might stop you from achieving your goal? Let’s look at few for our my fat loss goal.

  • Time – required to exercise, cook, and eat slowly
  • Financial resources – It might cost more to buy high quality whole foods in the right quantities
  • Social relationships – People might give me a hard time for not participating in team lunches, happy hours, and social events
  • Convenience – It’s easier to buy lunch than worry about the logistics of packing, carrying, reheating, and then cleaning containers.

Really take the time to sit down and think about this. List everything that might hold you back.

Now, what are you going to do about it? How are you going to compensate for those things that will hold you back? The next step is writing down your countermeasures.

  • Time – Wake up earlier, pick efficient workouts, eat small meals
  • Financial resources – Build a budget that involves less Starbucks or other niceties (Satellite Radio? Luxury cell phone plans? Good beer/wine habit? Comprehensive cable/satellite TV packages? If you aren’t willing to give those up, then this goal wasn’t important enough to you to begin with)
  • Social relationships – Pre-build list of comeback quips, form new supportive relationships, get others to join you
  • Convenience – Embrace the suck.

The next step in the process is listing out the intermediate goals on the path to your final goal. If I want to drop 5% by December 31st, I want to set intermediate goals to keep myself on track- say dropping 2% by November 15th, for example. Maybe some of the countermeasures you came up with deserve their own goals, such as determining your actual caloric demand and macronutrient breakdown within the next seven days.

Repeat this process for each sub-goal. 

I said this wouldn’t be easy. It takes time and thought. But by doing all these steps, you are planning for your success rather than hoping.You’ve crossed over from wishing to doing. As you begin checking off all of your small goals, then you get that hit of feel-good neurotransmitters each time, and it motivates you to keep going. 

Done correctly, achieving your end goal should feel almost automatic. 

The next question you need to ask yourself is, “What next?”

You should always have the next goal ready to go. For me, I already know that once I hit a certain body fat percentage, I want to pivot to strength goals. Maybe it’s a ruck time.

What’s next for you?

The Mindset

Before closing, I want to talk about mindset. 

Not long ago, I was listening to a business podcast and heard part of an interview with Marie Forleo, she’s a big motivational speaker and life coach popular with women. She’s on a book tour for her new book, Everything is Figuroutable. 

For the few minutes I listened to the interview, she said something that resonated with me and want to share it with you.

Too many people say, “I can’t” instead of “I won’t.”

When it comes to achieving goals, it’s easy to say, “Oh, I can’t do that” and brush off the inconvenience of changing habits. 

“I can’t wake up before Six AM for a workout”

“I can’t afford training”

“I can’t…fill in the blank”

You have to realize, you have to know. You have to accept that all your excuses are lies.

The truth is, for 90% of these circumstances, what they reall mean is “I won’t”

“I won’t make time to go to the gym”

“I won’t cut back on coffee, beer, and eating out to afford training”

“I won’t achieve my goals”

By switching your mindset from saying “I Can’t” to saying “I Won’t” then you are subconsciously admitting that the reason you don’t achieve your goals is internal. It’s not a problem of the outside world holding you back, but of your own motivations and priorities.

Jocko Willink once addressed this behavior bluntly. At some point, you have to accept that all of your excuses are lies.

It’s a hard realization for a lot of us, but it’s the first step towards owning your successes and failures along the way.

Wrapping Up

Alright, thank you for listening to today’s episode. Let me know what you think about it down in the comments. While you’re there, why not tell me the goal you’re working on right now?

If you’re brand new to The Everyday Marksman and want to support the show, click the big green “Subscribe” button at the bottom of the page. 

If you’ve already been listening for a while and want another way to support us, all I ask is that you share the show with someone else that you think would benefit from what we’re doing here.

That’s it for me, have a great day!

Picture of Matt


Matt is the primary author and owner of The Everyday Marksman. He's a former military officer turned professional tech sector trainer. He's a lifelong learner, passionate outdoorsman, and steadfast supporter of firearms culture.


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