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We all have ideas of what we want our life to look like. It could be something like weight loss, improving speed on the bike or running, or even cooking more at home.  When you set those goals, how do you go about doing it?

You may have heard of S.M.A.R.T. goals.  

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Action-Oriented
  • Realistic
  • Timebound

Answering the where, when, and how as specific as possible (and making sure the goal is just outside your reach rather than a pipedream) is a great place to start.  Where do you go from there?  Making sure that you have a system for tracking the goal is also of utmost importance. Research shows that it’s very difficult to improve in something that you don’t measure. But measuring can also get out of hand. More on that later.

Four Ways to Track Goals

  • with an app (I like the Strides App– no affiliation- I just like them).
  • using a google calendar
  • For workouts, use something like Strava or Sufferfest
  • use an actual large paper calendar

Another important part of goal setting is setting a behavior-based or process-oriented goal. You can have an idea in mind like “I want to run a 7-minute mile” or “I want to lose 15 pounds.”  However, if that becomes the goal itself, it can be hard to stick to it over the long term.  

The biggest determinant of reaching your goals are your daily actions.

Daily actions are the behaviors that define who we are. Instead of “I want to lose 15 pounds,” you could say “I want to avoid processed foods 6 days a week and eat home-cooked meals for dinner 5 nights a week.” The difference is the goal is based on a specific ongoing behavior.  You want to adopt certain eating habits because you want to identify as someone who is healthy- and a healthy person probably eats a certain way most of the time. It’s not necessarily about doing something until you reach an outcome, it’s about changing your behavior.

As author James Clear says in his bestselling book, Atomic Habits. (Listen to the podcast about it here)

“Outcomes are about what you get. Processes are about what you do. Identity is about what you believe.”

Identity is “I’m someone who generally eats healthily” or “I’m someone who trains 5 days a week.” With that change in identity comes the process-oriented goals and guess what else? Likely the lasting outcome you want.

Tracking Gone Wrong

Tracking our goals and habits is something we are used to doing as athletes. Cyclists with a goal of getting faster look at hours trained and miles ridden as benchmarks or milestones on our way to our bigger goals.  If you’re trying to lose weight, you may be tracking calories and the number on the scale.  Maybe you’re tracking how much extra money you could make this month as part of your savings plan.

Measuring things are good. They help keep us focused and analyze if we are moving in the right direction.  But sometimes we can have an unhealthy relationship with numbers. We can get obsessed with the numbers themselves for the wrong reasons- maybe you should have trained less this week because you’re tired but you felt like you had to hit your hours because you’re measuring it.  I have definitely fallen into this trap. Maybe you were initially posting more to social media because you wanted to build community but now you’re too fixated on the number of likes. I got stuck there a few years ago as well.

Goodhart’s Law states – “when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” 

What does this mean? It means that you might sacrifice quality of the thing you’re measuring to attain a number. You want to train a certain number of hours per week, but what if the quality of training declines and you get more and more fatigued? You want more likes on social media, but you really don’t have a lot of control over that so you end up feeling bad about yourself or exiting a platform (when really the initial intent was to connect with others and have fun). Maybe you’re trying to attain a certain grade on a test, but being obsessed with the grade degrades the learning process (how many times have you forgotten everything the day after an exam?). One last example is you want to have podium race results, but you choose less challenging races that don’t help you improve as an athlete so you can get the podium result.

We should be measuring the habits and commitment to the process, not measuring the outcome. Measurement IS useful, but only when it is guiding you and adding context to a larger picture. Measurement is helpful when it emphasizes a quality process to the thing you are measuring. Having a multi-faceted process that isn’t reliant on just one thing can also improve results. For good training, you need to sleep well, eat well, train well, and recover well. It’s not just about riding a certain number of hours. I liked this article about Goodhart’s Law if you want to go deeper.

Key Takeaways on How to Set Goals

  • Choose SMART goals
  • Set behavior-oriented goals focused on daily actions
  • Track your progress
  • …but be careful about how you measure your process



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