Goal Setting is NOT a To Do List

Goal Setting is not a To Do list

The Fosbury Flop

'You have all the reason in the world to achieve your grandest dreams. Imagination plus innovation equals realization.' - Denis Waitley

Something I often see with people working on a goal setting program for their training is that it looks more like a to do list than anything else. While for some people, to do lists are motivating (unfortunately that’s not me), often this isn’t enough.

To Do List goals are tasks you can complete by just showing up. For example, I have a long-term goal of improving my fitness level, so I set a short-term goal – “My goal is to work out 3 times a week.” This is a To Do List goal. I go to the gym 3 times and I’ve reached it. Where is the motivation? Where is the challenge? What’s pushing you to improve on your longer range goal?

Effective goal setting programs have at least two really cool effects on people. First, they inspire persistence in an individual. Athletes who are using goal setting properly will stick with a task for longer periods of time than those not using a goal setting program. This has a couple of benefits: 1) overall, they spend more time practicing; and 2) when they hit an obstacle, they are less likely to give up.

“The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept
Were toiling upward in the night.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

This second point leads right to the second really cool effect goal setting has, namely, those who set effective goals are more likely to come up with new strategies or innovate new techniques to overcome hurdles they face. By continuing to work at a problem, there is more opportunity to solve it. A great example of this is the track and field high jumping technique called the “Fosbury Flop”.


Olympic Gold Medalist Dick Fosbury - Mexico, 1968

As a young, high school athlete, Dick Fosbury struggled to make even the minimum height requirement for competition using the then popular straddle technique. However disappointed, Fosbury was undeterred and set his sights on finding a way to reach the necessary heights.

Trying different techniques over the course of several seasons, Fosbury finally settled on a backwards, head first style. With practice, he was able to refined his technique and started to see results, placing at his state’s championships in his senior year in high school. Fosbury followed that up with an NCAA national championship and finally an Olympic Gold Medal in Mexico. Would Fosbury have persisted in the high jump if he wasn’t challenged in high school? Would he have developed the Flop technique if he didn’t challenge himself to be better?

This is the essence of goal setting. To be effective, the goals you chose have to be challenging. To persist and innovate, the goals you choose need to be difficult and that’s why To Do List goals don’t work nearly as well.

Let’s revisit my earlier long-term goal of improving my fitness level. Now there’s a lot of detail missing from this goal (e.g., specifics about what kind of fitness I want to improve, etc.) but I want to draw your attention to the importance of challenging yourself with your goals.

Just showing up to the gym doesn’t cut it. While there may be challenges to getting there (e.g., work or family commitments, etc.), none of these are directly related to reaching my long-term goal. My goal needs to be a specific challenge.

Do I keep a to do list? Of course. And go to the gym 3 times is on it. But at the gym I set up the challenge. My short-term goal. If I know that I can currently do 25 push ups in a minute, I want to set my goal beyond that. My goal is to do 35 push ups in a minute.

Will I reach my goal just by showing up? No. Will I be able to reach my goal right away? No. But, if I don’t make the goal challenging, I won’t push myself beyond what I can do now and I won’t improve my fitness.

So when you set your next training goal. Think about what you can do right now and where you want to be in the next month. Now set a goal that challenges you to become better and you will do just that.

“Man’s reach should exceed his grasp.” – Robert Browning

Leave A Reply (7 comments so far)

The comments are closed.

  1. Lonnie Gribnau
    7 years ago

    Hi John,
    I loved this article. I took your recent webinar course and spoke with you on the
    phone before I signed up. I am from Montana. I have had to change my training
    in agility to compensate for my severe osteoarthritis. I am also overweight and
    am actually doing really well in shedding those pounds. It can be quite discouraging
    at times when I am limited with back and knee issues to do normal things like
    house cleaning, walking myself and the dogs. I use trekking poles and that does
    help me walk faster. I have trained my dog to work well with a ‘go on’, I get lots
    of lateral distance and am training discriminations with verbal commands, etc.
    My plan is to get stronger and slimmer so I can run a bit…..at present I trot.
    BUT your piece inspired me more because we have come a long way and are
    often competitive at trials. I have a wonderful little bc. Your article has helped
    me to continue to think outside the box with what will work for us.
    I am just working on my website for Life Coaching and my website is
    http://www.unleashedlifedesign.com I only have the homepage written and am
    planning to change the header and LOTS of other things soon. I was hoping you
    might read just the home part and tell me what you think. I tried to share enough
    about myself to get people that I can help.
    Thanks, Lonnie

  2. Merka
    7 years ago

    I fall into that category …confusing “to do list” and “goal setting”. Thanks for your example. Now to work.

  3. MRB
    7 years ago

    Thank you.

    I’m really big on to do lists but I get no focus without a good goal. And I do have trouble telling the difference between a to do item that needs breaking down into pieces and a goal or direction or focus or priority set that lets me decide which tasks on the to do list I should be doing first.

    I do have to be wary of the “how can I improve or be better” vs getting the right things done. Perfectionisim is not perfect when it comes to getting where you want to go.

  4. I love this post. We should all set goals that can really challenge us. Great point!

  5. Barb
    7 years ago

    Thanks for your posts on goal setting. The goal gods know that you’re writing them just for me! Thank you. I’m working on it!

  6. Melissa Wallace
    7 years ago

    I like to use the acronym SMART when developing objectives. While this acronym is often used in goal setting for performance evaluations, it is useful for any objective you want to achieve. Even Weight Watchers uses it in their program. Just Google it.

  7. Wendy Atkinson
    7 years ago

    Somedays, my daily goal IS to complete my to do list, which is always a challenge. Thanks for the blog John.

Follow me on Twitter