Goal-Setting Practice That Works

William J. Cioffredi, PT - FounderNew Year’s resolutions: most of us make them, and many fade by the first few months or even weeks. In our work, throughout the year, our purpose is to help people achieve their goals. We track every client, and our percentages are pretty high on helping people hit their target. This kind of goal-setting practice has reached beyond my professional life, and while I don’t profess to have great wisdom on the topic, I can tell you what has worked for me personally.

It’s pretty simple, and involves three steps.

1. Make your ‘resolution’ a specific goal that you can achieve. It’s something you can complete and is done. If your resolution is to exercise three times a week, that’s something you do—not an end result. What is your purpose with the exercise? For example, if you’d like to be able to spend a week exploring the coast with your grandkids in August or bike the Prouty in July, now you’ve created a purpose for exercising three times a week. When people come to us for help and we ask them what they want to accomplish with our treatment, oftentimes their response is something like, “reduce my pain and feel stronger.” While these kinds of responses are understandable, often one of our first tasks is to help the person identify the real purposes behind their goals (lifting their child, carrying groceries, stacking firewood?).

2. Decide that you’re going to accomplish your goal. The keyword, decide, means commitment. If the goal is just to exercise three times each week, something may easily come up that interrupts this plan. Deciding that you’re going to walk that piece of coastline with your grandkids is different. Can you see? The more decisive you are, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to engage and handle the challenges that surely come up along the way.

3. The final step is making a picture of the goal. I don’t mean a concept. I mean a real ‘photograph’ in your head (or even on your fridge) where you see yourself completing this goal. The picture is concrete, and you can look at it anytime you need or want—weekly, daily, or more often. You can map it out into a series of short-term goals, but I haven’t found success without doing number 2 and number 3 emphatically.

I see two keys to this basic process. One, challenges will come up and you will have to persist. It may even throw off your timeframe to fully accomplish the goal. The second sounds contradictive, but is essential: You have to be able to take a loss. It’s what allows us freedom from compulsively having to achieve. You can’t be very decisive if every time something doesn’t go as planned you walk away carrying accumulated failure with you.

And if it doesn’t happen . . . just get going on the next thing. Make a serious effort, but don’t take yourself too seriously.

This past year, I decided I would hike the Presidential Traverse in one day. That’s about a 20-mile hike with about 8,500 feet of elevation change in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. I started in April, using the Dartmouth stadium to sprint and walk the stairs. While I improved over six weeks, I also irritated my hip to the point that I had to stop training for a while. This was a real problem, because you need to do the Traverse around the summer solstice to have enough daylight to complete it. I kept going, but one of my test hikes on the Franconia Ridge left me sore (and slow) enough that I knew it was unlikely I would hit my goal, and the attempt would carry a lot more risk. It’s a narrow window of time, and it was going to pass.

So, I made a game out of completing the Traverse after I turned 60 (last October), which would give me a year to prepare instead of a few months. I found other ways to exercise that allowed my hip pain to resolve, and I’m in better shape now than ever. There is this great picture in my head at the end of the trail, and there’s still plenty of time before the summer solstice.

Best wishes for a happy, healthy New Year.

New Hampshire Presidential Mountain Range


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