Jul 312011

Why Goal Setting Is So Important

I finally figured out and understand at a visceral level why goal setting is so important.

As I’ve stated elsewhere, based on my extensive work and research with entrepreneurs and achievers of all types, the strength of your willpower is perhaps the most important differentiating characteristic for those who accomplish “great things” versus those who don’t.  My interaction with “super-achievers” has been even more intensive lately as I write and prepare to release my latest book, called 10 Steps to Greatness:  The Super-achievers’ Little Handbook.  This more intense interaction with those who’ve achieved “greatness” has convinced me more than ever that having an indomitable will to succeed is the single most important characteristic of those who most everyone would agree have achieved exceptional levels of accomplishment in their fields of endeavor.

Ok, so what does all this have to do with the importance of setting goals?  Well, today I experienced first-hand something that I’ve experienced many times before without a similar “a-ha moment”:  a simple goal can keep you on track and keep you from quitting, no matter how much you might like to do so.  Let me explain the circumstances of this “a-ha moment” and how it drove home the importance of short-term goal setting as it relates to the all-important matter of willpower.

Today I was going for a standard weekend workout, which consists of 2.5 hours of aerobic exercise of varying levels of intensity.  In this case, the workout was a combination of running and cycling.  As is customary these days, I do the running first, and then finish off the workout with cycling.  The difference today, which hit me in the face as I walked out the door to get started, was that although it was just 6:15am, the heat index was through the roof.  Although it was pretty early and the sun had not yet come out, the humidity made it feel like being in a sauna on full blast – not an ideal environment for an intense workout.  We decided to give it a go anyway.  My wife wanted to do just the first half of the workout with me and we decided to do it at a quick pace.  So by the time we finished the first half, I was already relatively spent, but I decided to take an energy gel and another electrolyte pill and push on through the rest of the workout.

When I arrived at the one mile circuit for cycling, which is about four miles from our house, I knew I was going to be in for a tough hour and roughly fifteen minutes.  The sun had come up and it felt like a sauna with no roof and a strong sun shining in.  That was the first point where I would have liked to have quit and said, “I’ve done enough already; there’s no need to push it,” however we’re preparing for a couple of upcoming races and I knew if I could just push through it, it would be excellent preparation for those races, which will take at least 2.5 hours and may be in relatively high heat conditions as well.

Even though I wanted to “soldier on,” I was feeling pretty lousy, so I knew I needed something to keep me going and not throw in the towel.  That’s when I remembered one of the articles I’d written relatively recently about the Navy SEALs Pool Competency Test and how short-term goal setting could get you through pretty much anything that’s very uncomfortable and challenging.  So I decided to give it a try in this pressure cooker heat environment.  I calculated exactly how many miles I needed to do to reach my overall goal for the day, taking into account that I’d also ride another four miles to get back to my house.  The calculation led me to realize that my cycle computer would read 202 when I reached that number.

So, from then on, whatever negative thoughts came into my mind were quickly replaced simply with “202”.  I would not allow myself a single negative thought.  Into my mind would pop, “man, this is ridiculous,” only quickly to be replaced with “202”.  Then would come up “who would ride this many miles in a sauna without a roof,” which would be quickly erased by “202”.  And so on.  I’m not sure how many times this happened, but it was a bunch.  And you know what?  It worked.  Before I knew it, I looked down at the cycle computer and it read 200.3.  I was virtually ecstatic.  I knew it was just a couple more miles and I could head for home.  Without this approach I’m pretty sure that all the suffering I was feeling would have caused me to head for home much earlier.  [Note:  I was sure that I had everything covered from a hydration and general fitness perspective, so I wasn’t worried about serious physical problems – this is obviously extremely important any time you’re “pushing the envelope,” especially in high heat conditions.]

Why did this work?  As I was going through this experience and coming up to my “a-ha moment,” and when I wasn’t saying “202” in my mind, I was asking myself that question:  “why does setting simple short-term goals and focusing on them help you get through tough challenges?”  At some point, it occurred to me that the effectiveness of this approach is strongly linked to the importance of willpower in success and extraordinary achievement.  The human will can be absolutely incredible, but we need a way and a reason to access it.  We need a simple and powerful “why” to keep pushing on through exceptionally difficult circumstances.  In the immediate- and short-term, that “why” is a simple, clear, easily understood goal (or goals).  For me in this case, it was “202,” which I knew would get me to my overall mileage goal for the day.  This only explains the immediate- and short-term, of course, but we must get through them before we can get to the medium- and long-term.  The graphic below shows how this “virtuous cycle” works.

Goal Setting - Willpower - Virtuous Cycle

So, how can you put this goal setting “virtuous cycle” approach to work for you?  First, you must decide what, if anything, that you are trying to accomplish at this moment would make it worth “turning yourself inside out” (to use an expression the Tour de France commentators love) in order to achieve.  Is there anything you care that much about achieving to put in a “superhuman” effort?  We’re not just talking about a sports or exercise setting here.  The reality is, no matter what your field of endeavor, if you want to accomplish extraordinary things, you will need to put in a “superhuman” effort sometimes, if not very often.  Second, you need to decide what you are willing to do to achieve something extraordinary.  How far are you willing to push yourself?  Third, you need to do it!

The key is that you know what “it” is.  Do you know what it takes to be great in your field of endeavor?  If not, find out.  Once you have discovered what it takes to achieve greatness in your endeavor, formulate your goals accordingly.  You’ll need short-term, medium-term and long-term goals to keep you on track, focused and interested.  Make sure the short-terms goals build toward the medium-term goals and that the medium-term goals put you on track to accomplish the long-term goals.  Once you’ve done this, make an agreement with yourself regarding what “price” (pain, sacrifice of other activities, etc.) you are willing to pay, then, to quote a famous shoe company, “Just Do It”.

Once you’ve used this technique of having simple, clear short-term goals to access your willpower and get through difficult challenges, let me know how it goes.  For my clients, we’ll be talking in any case.  For others, shoot me an email or, if you have comments to share with everyone, please leave them below.

Paul Morin



  • Hi Paul,

    I surely have experienced that first-hand. When I was training for the Avon breast cancer walk, I started interval training on the boardwalk. At first, my short-term goal was just to spring from one telephone pole to the next. As I got in better shape, the goal posts were further apart, but still kept me rewarded by consistently achieving small goals that added up to the big mileage. During the Nia white belt training, I practiced the same idea. My short-term goal would be to make it through one song, then I rewarded myself with a sip of water. Stringing together 7 or 8 songs got me to the 1 1/4 hour duration that my Nia instructor set for our training sessions. You have me thinking now about how to apply that to business. When I first started blogging, I set a goal of writing one post a day for 30 days. I made that goal, but then stopped setting more goals, so now I only blog sporadically. I don’t need to post every day to reach my goal, so I am going to set short-term goals of 3X a week for my blog posts. I’ll let you know how it goes, and thanks for the reminder.


  • Hi Laur,

    I’m happy you found the post interesting and useful. The approach you mentioned in your comment is exactly what I’m getting at: setting short-term, clear goals that keep you going, when in the absence of such goals it would be too easy to give up. Let me know how it works out in the context of blog posts. I too will be applying this approach to many different endeavors, to see how it works.


  • Emily Stoik

    Wow, your new book sounds so awesome, Paul!! Can’t wait to hear more about it!! Thanks for this great advice on setting goals–it is so important to stay organized and clear on both the short and long term! Thank you!!

  • Thanks, Emily. Hopefully you are correct and it will be awesome … it’s about greatness, so it better at least be great. 🙂 I’ve purposely kept it from being a large volume that no one will read. Instead, it will be a handbook, with 10 Steps to Greatness, as well as several related quotes from historical greats at the end of each chapter.

    My pleasure regarding the goal-setting advice. If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy a couple of others regarding goal-setting, one of which goes into a lot more specifics. If you click on the goal-setting tag or category on the right side of the blog, it should come up.

    take care,

  • SEO Services

    Yes!! Could not agree more!! I love the diagram, by the way :):)

    This is so important in business because you HAVE to have goals in order to actually achieve goals!!

    Thank You for this kick in the butt inspiration!!

  • Thanks, Brandy. At this point, I agree — you MUST have goals. I didn’t always feel as strongly about this, but the experience I mentioned in this post, which I’d had many times before, but never triggered the “a-ha” moment, has made me believe that goals are absolutely essential. I think this is particularly true of short-term goals that help you get through difficult challenges that inevitably arise.

  • Ah, what a familiar feeling – the physical feeling of exhaustion and the desire to quit is palpable in this article. I know it well. It does become more interesting when that feeling translates into business or personal goals. There is no physical exhaustion, and yet an equal, if not greater amount of willpower is required.

    If I am trying to build a top-notch personal blog site, it is incredibly easy to flip over to one of the many social networks and ‘take a break’ or simply give up. I will keep this post and the helpful diagram in mind as I encounter those feelings. Thanks for the insight, as always!

  • Thanks, Barrett. I’m happy you found it helpful. I’d say the key takeaway, whether for sports, business or some other endeavor, is set some very short-term goals that you can use to get you through the “quitting moments”. Paul

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