3 Insights On The Importance Of Setting Goals

If you hire a personal trainer, the first thing they’re going to tell you is that you need to set goals. This is  a sign that they’re a good trainer. Everyone knows setting goals is important when developing athletic skill. But, knowing the underlying logic of goal setting is what's going to turn it from a simple exercise in “positive thinking” into an effective tool that drives your performance to new heights. Understanding why goals are important allows you to leverage their power.

Insight 1:

The goal setting process is in itself a product.

You should have two types of goals. Let’s call them “performative goals” and “process goals.”

Performance goals are naturally built into your athletic schedule as times when you have to perform for people other than yourself. Meets, games, or competitions are all the focus of your training effort, and it’s easy to use them as motivation. After all, you’re performing for other people and you don’t want to look like you don’t know what you’re doing.

But process goals have to be created artificially, and involve detailed attention and honesty to your development as an athlete. Only you know if you’re developing a skill that you could develop as a specialty that will allow you to innovate in your performance. Remember, the process is the product.

Insight 2: 

Process goals allow you to analyze your progess more deeply.

Performance goals are simple. You want to win. Success is then binary: you either won or you didn’t. This is great for introducing a shot of adrenaline-fueled motivation, but the starkness of the binary is not great for helping you craft a more intricate evaluation of your performance.

By introducing process goals, you can turn the “win-lose” binary into a gradient of evaluation. If you’re evaluating your performance as a soccer player for instance, regardless of whether you won or lost, you can evaluate things like how your ankle control was during hard runs downfield. How was your awareness of your peripheral vision during split-second pass decisions? By thinking in terms of process goals, you can measure progress more accurately than the “win-lose” binary evaluation allows.

Insight 3:

The human brain responds better to multiple small rewards than to a few big rewards.

Something interesting happened to slot machines in the 1990’s. Anthropologist Natasha Schull found that casinos realized that they don’t need to increase the size of the jackpot to get patrons to play more. Instead, they can increase their revenue by rewarding players with smaller rewards released more often.  The rise of addiction gambling is a product of casino-designers tapping into the dopamine (reward) system of the brain, which responds more strongly to small incentives distributed irregularly and densely through time. Put more simply, your motivation systems respond better to many small rewards than a few big ones.

This means that you can increase your motivation by making your goals as specific as possible, and by allowing each practice to be a chance for you to succeed at a few of those goals. It’s no accident that fitness apps like MapMyRun give users a badge for almost every workout they do—no matter how small, consistent reward is more motivating than gigantic-but-rare rewards. By setting process goals, you can harness the neural architecture of motivation to maximize your performance.