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Winning Mindset Series: Effective Goal Setting

When we talk about EFFECTIVE goal-setting, we move beyond SMART goals and dive into subjective influencers. Enhance commitment and performance by learning how to incorporate biological and environmental considerations and set yourself up for success in 2023 and beyond!

Purpose of Goals

Humans are ultimately wired for survival which usually means moving toward pleasure and away from discomfort. However, (as runners know all too well) discomfort is sometimes necessary to endure. Goals essentially assist the brain in filtering through discomforts in pursuit of higher, life-enhancing rewards!


When your body has an itch to change directions, get curious. We are lined with a robust security system. Any alert is directing us toward something useful or away from destruction.

Characteristics of Effective Goals

Effective goals are designed to set one up to successfully achieve a desired or intended result. These goals are specific, yet flexible, and consider a person's habits, knowledge, abilities, overarching values/beliefs, tendencies, and environmental supports. In a nutshell, they contain MEATS.

What's MEATS?

Goals that see the highest rates of completion and long-term commitment are:

Meaningfully Challenging

Easy to Comprehend & Incorporate

Assessed for Feedback

Totally Supported


Meaningfully Challenging

Human motivation dives DEEP. People are innately motivated to seek autonomy (a sense of control/freedom), competence (a sense of purpose/value and security/capability of caring for ourselves and others), and belongingness (a sense of community; animals are more likely to survive in packs) because these psychological needs bolster survival. Deficits in these key aspects of psychological well-being reduce the sense of satisfaction and follow-through.


Goals that have roots in one or more psychological needs have a greater likelihood of adherence and achievement (as they are innate in nature). Consider how your aspiring achievement supports your sense of choice/freedom, abilities and purpose, and relationships.

Easy to Comprehend & Incorporate

Easy to Comprehend:

One does not need a step-by-step, but there must be some clarity and understanding of the process and end goal.

Ask yourself:

☑ Am I clear (enough) on the end goal?

☑ Am I clear (enough) on the process?

☑ Can I visualize success as I am NOW (e.g. not going from 0 running days to 7 days/week)?

For example, if the goal is qualifying for Boston, one needs to know the distance (it's not a "5k marathon"), the qualifying time, the course/terrain, how to train for it, equipment necessary, etc. While this goal seems feasible for the seasoned runner, a new runner might need to take a smaller bite and start with completing a 5k--the new runner cannot (yet!) comprehend this idea of running 26.2 miles let alone a BQ.

Easy to Incorporate:

Once one develops a routine, it moves from a conscious effort to an automatic and unconscious process. In fact, the behaviors become so unconscious that it is difficult to see alternatives (that might pose objectively easier)! Since habits tend to take on a life of their own, change must come on gradually and with relatively low effort.

Ask yourself:

☑ Does the process align closely with my current habits?

☑ Do I have the knowledge of what the journey might entail?

☑ Are my abilities adequate?

Take weight training. Adopting a weight training program (usually) requires a gym membership, knowledge of the equipment/sets/reps/weight, and some degree of mobility. If the closest gym is 20 minutes away and the individual has no idea what to do when they arrive, that goal of weight lifting might need scaled back to just showing up at the gym 3 days per week and hiring a trainer.


Vagueness gives too much freedom to our unconscious and emotional brains, and we'll just operate on autopilot toward whatever feels good. Change requires conscious thought and gentle action. If you can’t imagine yourself doing it now, set that on the shelf for later (and label as a longer-term goal).

Assess for Feedback

Even if the goal and process are clear, it’s reassuring to check-in. Plus, notes of progress lead to rewards (i.e., a little hit of dopamine)! However, careful in measuring too much too often. Just doing it for the data or hardware can “kill the vibe” (diminishes motivation).


B-A-L-A-N-C-E. Checking in maintains mindful (conscious) attention, but too much too often leads us astray from the meaning behind the challenge. Thus, identify a single (primary) marker for progress and an assessment schedule, but ALSO identify other (secondary) markers for success to maintain flexibility and dopamine (during those times of high resistance). If motivation begins to dip, reduce the frequency of assessment and shift a little more attention to those other “little wins.”

Totally Supported

Identify internal and external activities/feelings/people that facilitate (or hinder) progress.

Internal (often controllable)

External (often uncontrollable BUT workable)

  • Sleep/fatigue

  • Physical status

  • Motivation

  • Emotions

  • Thoughts

  • Weather

  • Family/friends

  • Community/Neighborhood

  • Job Responsibilities

  • Traffic


Change is hard and inevitable. Someone is going to bring pork to the BBQ and tempt your vegan loyalty, it's probably going to rain on the day of your long run, a kid is likely going to get sick--life WILL happen. Identify those likely hurdles and plan ahead. The more currents we can direct in our favor, the easier it will be to stick with and achieve your goals.


As mentioned, clear enough is good enough as change is inevitable. Identify the who, what, and where with the how, but with wiggle room in mind.

Specific considerations might include:

  • Who’s going to do thing(s)? Who ELSE could do the thing(s)?

  • What thing(s) (in detail) are they going to do?

  • Where are they going to do them? Where are the alternatives?

  • When is this all going down? What's the plan B?


As mentioned, lots of structure diminishes autonomy. Successful change accommodates balance between the emotional (“what I want”) and reason (“what I need”) brains. Like bowling lanes, we just need enough clarity to stay out of the gutter.

In the End

Goals bring together dreams and reality. Giving those dreams life thus requires a blend of conscious thought, introspection, and navigating inevitable change. REGULAR mindfulness practices enhance the ability to realize and interpret internal signals and unconscious processes.

In the process, signals might alert the need to abandon the goal. Like dating, scan for those red flags. Not everything is meant to be at the time we want. Reassess, rework, and redo!

Ultimately, BE KIND to yourself. Life doesn't come with instructions--we're all doing our best with what we know and where we are. If the journey isn't panning out the way you hoped, is that a fail or just a detour? It's your story to tell...


Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (Eds.). (2002). Handbook of self-determination research. University of Rochester Press.

Linehan, M. M. (2015). DBT® skills training manual (2nd ed.). Guilford Press.

Vedantam, S., & Milkman , K. (2022, December 26). You, But Better. Hidden Brain. other. Retrieved January 30, 2023, from

Wood, W. (2019, December 30). Creatures Of Habit (S. VEDANTAM, Interviewer). NPR Hidden Brain. Retrieved January 30, 2023, from

Goals Worksheet
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