The Weakness of Conventional Goals

To begin, there's nothing inherently wrong with your conventional goals to get stronger, leaner, faster, more powerful and so on. Conventional goals are needed, helpful and in many cases necessary ... AND they are inadequate and insufficient for most people. Conventional goals fail us more often than any of us would like to admit.

Furthermore, if you are interested in your greater abilities as a human being, conventional goals almost always fail to yield post-conventional capacities. Occasionally I see conventional goals creating a training or "practice" environment for eliciting post-conventional capabilities; however, these are what I call a form of "accidental progress." These certainly happen but they are rare (my suggestion is not to wait around for a miracle).

So, conventional goals are good in many ways. The more specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and defined in clear timelines the better, or so the researchers tell us again and again. However, they continue to be ineffective for most of us and they are largely impotent at eliciting integrated adaptations to the complex demands of your life.

We will briefly unpack inefficiency but we will save post-conventional integrated adaptations for another blog. I will que you into some important tips for how you can move forward.

1. First, conventional goals tend to be focused on outcomes. 

That means they happen in the future. Keeping your eye on the future is fine, but if this is the posture of your mind during your training it will take you ten times as long to get to where you want to go. Sometimes much longer. Depending on the specificity of the goal you may never get to your desired destination. There is no short supply of drives for future change that yield negligible results.

2. Conventional goals often obscure the path to getting to your future destination. 

The more your attention goes toward getting to your future destination the less you pay attention to what you're doing right now and how you're doing it. Having a future aim and direction is important; however, these outcome goals only find their pragmatic strength when held in a larger context that focuses your mind upon the specific actions most essential to getting there. This brings into focus how you are engaging in the required activities. Getting the right steps is essential. What you do is paramount, but how you execute and engage the "whats" often differentiates those who achieve more and those who fail to. So once you have your outcome and you know the necessary steps to get there, focusing on the outcome more will often hold you back.

I often use the analogy of a tire making contact with the road to explain this. The broader or wider the tire, the more contact you have with the road. In contrast, skinny narrow tires slip easily because they have very little surface area in contact with the road. Future oriented goals are like narrow tires aimed at getting down the road but they don't do a great job of bringing your attention into the immediacy of activity.

3. Conventional goals require lots of motivation and energy. 

Perhaps you have too much energy and motivation, in which case have at it. But most people lack these often seemingly scarce resources. It takes quite a bit of self-generated mental, emotional and physical energy to get you from today to your goal that may be 6 weeks away or worse yet, 3 or 6 months out. How do you sustain it? This is inevitably what we all end up asking ourselves unless we fear our survival depends upon attaining our goal. Get big enough goals with enough fear and anxiety around failure and sure you'll be "motivated," however we now have a nice recipe for adrenal fatigue, burn out and a life that is stamped with the "you're miserable" stamp across your forehead.

So what's an alternative? 

My recommendation is goals that take aim at the immediacy of your life. Elite athletes call these "process goals" as these are the cues they must focus upon, moment-to-moment, if they are to be successful, in some cases safe. For example, a downhill skier thinking about future goals at 80 miles an hour down a mountain often results in an 80 mile an hour barrel roll down the mountain, hitting snow fencing at 60 mph, a knee surgery and 18 months of rehab.

While this becomes plainly obvious in elite competitions, it is fairly easy to "check out" mentally during strength training and start thinking about your goals - or worse yet, something entirely unrelated. Your mind and body split, and in this separation goes any chance at progressing with greater efficiency. Just like the elite athlete, if you are interested in your higher capabilities it can be found in the integration of body and mind. This means your mind is focused upon the specific cues you need to execute on right here and now.

My book Strength to Awaken gives you what is perhaps the most nuanced set of post-conventional process goals found in any training manual, so if you're interested in diving deeper, don't hesitate. This book can save you decades of wasted effort. For now, I want to challenge you to differentiate between your outcome goals and your process goals.

Outcome goals are established, preferably with an expert, outside of the gym, before your training begins. Process goals are clarified again and again moment-to-moment in your training. Know what you're going to do before you even start. Then, once you begin focus your mind exclusively upon the quality of engagement you have with your training.

Mind and body come together and then the fun begins.

~Rob McNamara

PS: If you're looking for some process goals that might evolve your training, sign up for my free 12 training tips - you'll learn some within these short tips. You can find it in the sidebar at the top of my home page.
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