Is Goal Setting Really That Important?

This pic popped up in my memories on facebook this morning. It was six years ago today and the Sunday or Monday morning after winning my class at the Cutler Classic. I was back in the gym ready to start prepping for the next one. Nationals in the summer.

I started competing because I had a lot to prove to myself. That my body was good enough. That my "willpower" was strong enough. That I had what most people don't -- the heart and the drive to not ever quit, no matter how hard it got. That I was... worth something.

The core reason, when I look back and break it down, was that I needed validation that I was good enough. I spent my whole life feeling worthless. I never even really knew that was bubbling under the surface, nor did I know why or how to fix it -- so, like almost everyone, I spent my life chasing external validation. At that stage in my life, I thought that would come from winning a competition. So, I set the goal, and (somehow) won.

But within a very short time of walking off stage, I still felt the exact same way I did before I hit my goal so I had to set the next, bigger goal. A pro card. THAT would be the thing that finally made me feel the way I wanted to feel.

That didn't work out. My body had other plans. It had had enough of my abuse and started fighting back. Thank god it was smarter than me because that's what helped me start to learn freedom. But I digress...

The point is something I've been thinking about a lot lately.

Is being obsessed with reaching goals really helping us? Is that really what we should be focusing on?

Traditional wisdom (along with science) says that people who set firm goals are more likely to achieve them than those who don't. Which I suppose is pretty obvious, if you don't even have a goal, there's nothing to even achieve, right?

But, is living and dying by goal setting our whole lives really making us live happier, more fulfilled and more successful lives over all? I think, not really. Is there a better way? I think, yes.

Stay with me while I work through my current thoughts on this subject.

Almost every single goal we want to achieve is because of how we think we'll feel when we achieve it.

The income, the weight loss, the car, the job, the competition, the game, the whatever... we want those things because of how they'll feel.

"I'll be so happy when..."

"I'll feel so good about myself when..."

So, if the underlying reason we want to achieve anything is because of how it'll make us feel, what if we stopped setting and focusing on achieving goals that we believe will give us that (very fleeting) external validation and instead, focused on our thoughts, beliefs, habits and choices every day? Here's the thing -- two people can set the exact same goal but have two completely different outcomes.

The other 20+ women on the stage with me had also gone into that competition with the goal of winning -- yet, I was the only one who actually did that day.

Every person who sets a weight loss goal, wants to lose weight -- but not every one does.

Every person who sets career goals wants to reach them, but not every one does.

Every athlete who sets sports goals, wants to win but not all of them do.

So, if not everyone who sets goals actually reaches them, this means, it's not the act of having or setting goals that determines success.

It's not the goal itself that determines success or failure.

It's actually all of our day to day choices that determine our results and our day to day choices are determined, almost 100%, by our thoughts, habits, beliefs, and behaviors - not the goals themselves.

So, what is we stopped obsessing over goals and focused instead on those things?

I believe we're more likely to be successful, well adjusted, like ourselves more and happier.

Again, think about it -- if the universal reason that most people set just about any goal is almost always because of how they think it will make them feel, that suggests that the only way to change the way they want to feel about themselves, is outside themselves.

Chasing goals keeps us in the trap of believing that happiness and feeling good about ourselves is out there, some place outside ourselves and far away, at a later date -- we'll feel that way when.

But reaching goals only really feels good for a short time and when it fades, we're left feeling the same way as when we started or back at square one and needing to keep setting more goals to chase having those feelings again.

See because, reaching a goal only changes the way we feel for a moment. Winning my last figure competition felt amazing but everyday working towards it was hell and the high of winning only lasted not much beyond walking off stage with the trophies and getting pics taken. I needed to start all over again with prepping for the next one to make myself feel that way again -- and it would only even work if I won again.

If I had continued to chase the goal of winning more competitions, I would still be spending everyday in a food war over what I wanted to eat versus what I was "supposed" to eat in order to reach my goals... and why? For the potential of a few fleeting moments of approval from judges?

The same goes for any weight loss goal. We set the goal, that magic number that we want to see on the scale then obsess over hitting it for months before usually, ultimately quitting and why?

So it'll feel good to see it on the scale one morning and then what?

We live happily ever after? Nope. Then the battle of being terrified to put it back on and hating ourselves for every ounce it moves back up, starts.

So either we stay stuck endlessly chasing new goals to continue creating those feelings or we get stuck in the "on track" / "off track" mindset.

Because what often happens whether you reach that weight loss goal, or not? One of two things -- we keep chasing the next goal (fix) or we briefly stop working at it and go back to all the same habits, mindsets and behaviors that caused the weight gain in the first place.

So, there's no real support in place to make it last -- just this notion of "I did what I needed to do to get here and I feel great today so now I can stop".

The Things That Actually Determine Our Results

Remember those thoughts, habits and beliefs that I spoke of earlier? Remember, the things that actually determine our results?

Let's circle back to those for a minute because not only are they the things that actually determine our results, they're also the things that make us believe the lie that all the things we want to achieve, to feel the way we want to feel, are outside ourselves.

I wanted to win a figure competition because I felt worthless and thought it would make me feel like I was worth something.

People want to lose weight or get that job, or buy that fancy car/house/handbag (etc)... usually for very similar reasons. They think it'll make them more confident, happier, like themselves more -- because they don't feel enough exactly as they are. They think all those feelings can only be found outside themselves.

And what happens when people don't feel enough or value themselves as they are? They engage in self destructive and self-sabotaging behaviors, it actually makes it even harder to reach their goals.

I cannot even tell you how many times I binged and then over-exercised to "make up for it". I was a self-sabotaging machine. It's a miracle I was ever even successful and reached any goals myself because I literally self-destructed and sabotaged allll the time.

And that's one of the biggest reasons most people struggle with food and their weight -- they're engaging in self-sabotaging and self-destructive behaviors as a result of their thoughts, beliefs about themselves and habits.

So, what if, instead of setting external goals outside ourselves, we thought about why we wanted that thing (how the weight loss, competition, job, etc would make us feel) and then focused all our energy on changing all of the thoughts, habits, beliefs and behaviors that were keeping us from feeling that way now?

The goal in sports is to have the best score but the athletes who win don't do so because they stand around staring at the scoreboard. They win because they do the daily work to get better every day. As three-time Super Bowl winner Bill Walsh says, “The score takes care of itself.”

The same is true for everything. Goals are good for helping define your direction but I say stop focusing on them.

Instead, focus on why you want to reach them and put all your energy into: 1) figuring out the underlying thoughts, habits and beliefs that are keeping you from feeling that way already and 2) changing those things you learn to create those feelings from within so you're never at risk of losing it.

That way, you won't spend your whole life chasing goals outside yourself for the feelings of worth and fulfillment you're after. You'll just live it AND you'll create better results because when we believe we're worth more and deserving of goodness, the destructive habits and behaviors that create self-sabotaging and self-destructive behaviors, stop.

So, I say sure set a goal for some direction but put all your attention and focus on your daily thoughts, beliefs about yourself, behaviors and habits ...the score will take care of itself.

I created cognitive eating to help with this process. Click here or contact me if you need help or want more info.

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About The Author

Roni Davis
Cognitive Eating Founder

Writer, Producer, Host - It's All In Your Head Podcast

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Roni Davis spent over two decades struggling with weight, food (mindless, emotional and binge eating), an eating disorder, depression, panic attacks, and an anxiety disorder. She's also been a nationally qualified champion figure athlete, written for bodybuilding websites, was featured in a national fitness magazine, by and spent almost a decade helping people transform their bodies as an award-winning personal trainer and nutrition and wellness coach.


After over two decades of her own personal weight & food struggles and almost a decade in the weight loss/fitness industry, Roni left the fitness industry and bundled everything she learned from her own recovery, from her time as a trainer & nutrition & wellness coach with everything she learned in her mindfulness-based cognitive behavior coach training, to create Cognitive Eating.  This allows her to guide and support people to live healthier lives through behavior and habit modification at the brain level, where it counts and will actually stick.

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NOTE: While counselors or therapists often use CBT to deal with mental illness or a patient’s mental/emotional conditions and/or processing trauma, MBCT & cognitive eating does not. My roll as a coach, in its most simple form, is to encourage, coach and/or act as a facilitator of a client’s self-reflection, decision making, planning for the future, and creating life changes. As an MBCT & cognitive eating coach, I am obligated to refer clients in need of mental or physical health therapy to an appropriate licensed professional.  

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