BLAME HUSTLE CULTURE if you like, but if there’s one idea so ubiquitous within the fitness industry that it’s almost never challenged, it’s that we should all, and at all times, be working towards ‘a goal’ – and preferably a specific, measurable and completable goal.
It’s a belief seemingly so self-evident that it slips by our radar, unexamined. But here’s the thing: I’m not sure it’s true. In fact, when accepted uncritically, I believe this idea has the potential to reduce our quality of life.
Whether it’s the urge to comment #lifegoals on a friend’s workout post, or to share pithy maxims like ‘set goals so big they scare you’, there’s an underlying cynicism inherent to this belief system.
By definition, goals foster comparison. They perpetuate the idea that perhaps things are not good enough the way they are, and that the rewards are to be found at the top of some hitherto unachieved peak.
This is not to belittle the power of goal-setting. Perhaps you feel better when you reach that peak. But if goal-setting is inherent to being a recreational exerciser, then so too are the subsequent feelings of dissatisfaction and unworthiness goals engender.
Will your fitness improve with a goal to work towards? Certainly. Will you have the time to stop and enjoy those improvements? I’m not so sure. It’s hard to appreciate the view from the top when you’ve already fixed your gaze on a newer, higher summit.
Infinite goal-setting can also generate the type of listlessness that makes you question why you’re climbing in the first place. ‘Goal fatigue’, as it’s been labelled, is the exhaustion and apathy described by everyone from athletes to entrepreneurs from hitting endless arbitrary targets, while experiencing no real sense of closure.
So why does achievement so often fail to move the needle on happiness? Well, there’s a biological component to ambition: the reward centres of our brains light up in response to ‘wanting’ far more than they do for ‘getting’. You can blame your more curious, industrious, ever-striving ancestors who made the cut and passed on their genes, not the ones that settled happily for what they had, for that. But we don’t live in the same world of danger and scarcity that our brains evolved in, which means we’re running very old survival software in an environment that no longer needs it, and this can cause bugs.
So what’s the fix? Psychologists often talk about motivation in two distinct forms: intrinsic and extrinsic. When you’re intrinsically motivated, you engage in an activity for the sake of the activity – for the pleasure of participation and personal enjoyment you derive from the process. Think: dancing or good conversation. Those who are extrinsically motivated, however, seek external rewards, such as plaudits and recognition. The problem with ceding your finish line to external factors is that not only are they out of your control, but they often don’t deliver, leaving you unsatisfied, disappointed and perhaps even disillusioned to the point of giving up. And if you don’t give up this time, guess what? There’s another goal in sight, another form of external validation, ripe for the conquering. And so it goes, until you’ve climbed so many mountains, with no end in sight, that you’re sick of climbing altogether.
To be clear, I’m not actually suggesting that no one should set goals, or that anyone who does will inevitably spiral into existential despair. On a personal level, many of the happiest experiences of my life (as well as most of the improvements to my body) have come as a result of pursuing goals. But the real magic never appears at the finish line, it’s always on the path itself.
Escaping goal fatigue doesn’t mean settling for what you’ve got; it means reframing your relationship with goals. Today, I try to view my goals not as an end to the road, but as a landmark along the way. I train for training’s sake. I train because exercise is one of the closest things we have to an elixir of youth and, importantly, I train in ways I actually
To make the shift from a goal-oriented mindset to a process-oriented one, consider that the ultimate goal is to keep doing what you love for as long as possible.
Training for the sake of it, by definition, means to train so that you can continue training. Sure, occasionally it’s fun to run head-on towards a specific challenge. Just remember that what’s more important is that you don’t stop running once you’re done.