Why goals aren’t enough

Goals are an incredibly effective aid to behaviour change – they guide and motivate people, plus they provide a way of monitoring progress. I set goals with all of my clients, whether these involve changes in small habits or achieving long-term outcomes. I also set goals for myself with my own training, for the same reasons as I mentioned above.

But I was having a discussion with a client last week about goals, and she was saying how she feels they don’t mean that much to her – she says the fact that she enjoys and feels confident about exercise is much more important to her than setting goals to do with weight or fitness. This reminded me how important our values are in creating lasting changes to our behaviour.

There are two problems with relying purely on goals for motivation: 1) goals don’t provide any reward until you actually achieve them, and therefore they often aren’t enough to motivate people in the moment; and 2) a new goal must be set each time we achieve one, otherwise momentum may be lost.

So how do we actually stay motivated, when goals alone aren’t enough?

The answer is that you have to be clear about your values.

Goals are just outcomes, not processes. Values are different to goals in that they cannot be reached as such; values are the things you feel strongly about – your moral principles, and ways of feeling or behaving that reflect these moral principles.

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Just a few examples of values are: taking care of your health, being a kind friend, challenging yourself, being honest, taking care of the environment, maximising your potential, or feeling competent in life.

Goals are most effective when they represent our values, and hence guide us towards behaving in ways that are in correspondence with these values. You can feel strongly about a goal, but this is generally the result of the goal being based on a value.

And why are values so effective?

Values are effective because they feed intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is characterised by an enjoyment of the actual process of a task in some way, whether that be the feelings experienced during it or the knowledge of progress being made throughout it. Intrinsic motivation stems from the desire to improve and challenge oneself, gaining personal mastery over a task. This is a much more potent form of motivation than extrinsic motivation, which is the motivation to do a task for an external outcome such as gaining social approval, losing weight or earning money.

So what my client was referring to when she said she was more motivated by the enjoyment she now gets from exercise, was that she was intrinsically motivated. She values exercising because it means taking care of her body and honouring her health, and the fact that she enjoys the process of it keeps her going.

Intrinsic motivation lasts, because there are no goal-posts to keep shifting. If you enjoy the process, relish the challenge and get a kick from seeing improvement, you will always be motivated.

So on whatever journey you are undertaking right now, ask yourself these few questions:

1) Why does what I’m doing matter to me? Why do I want the intended outcome? Carry on asking yourself why until you can’t provide another answer.
2) How will achieving the end goal make my life better?
3) What will this journey allow me to do? What will I be able to do better once I have achieved the end result?

These questions should help clarify what’s really important to you (i.e. what you value) about your endeavours. If you can connect with the “whys” behind your activities you are more likely to feel motivated and seek out other ways of achieving what you want to achieve. Reflecting on your values allows you to identify different types of goals within your journey, and hence provide a range of opportunities to experience satisfaction and improvement, things that we are innately wired to seek out. It can also stop you from being fixated on a single type of outcome (for example, weight loss or apperance) – you may realise that what you’re doing matters for many other reasons, and hence begin to appreciate the journey more.

For example, I value running because it allows me to challenge myself, appreciate nature, do things that I haven’t done before, use my muscles in the way they were meant to be used and maximise my cardiovascular health. My goals represent these values, which improve my life because I feel physically and mentally good in myself, I can do lots of different activities easily and subsequently feel a sense of freedom. My journey with fitness has allowed me to build confidence in myself and my ability to take on challenges.

Why do you care about what you’re doing?

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