How to set fitness goals and not fail

A recent study finds 73% of people who set fitness goals as new year’s resolutions give them up before the end of the year.

Experts say the reason for these failures is that many of us lack the proper structure to support the behavioral changes our new goals require.


With these odds, setting goals seems like a losing proposition and there are also some unintended consequences of goal setting.

This validates Scott Adams book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big”, in which he declared that “goals are for loser and systems are for winners

“Goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary. That feeling wears on you.

Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous presuccess failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do. The goals people are fighting the feeling of discouragement at each turn. The systems people are feeling good every time they apply their system. That’s a big difference in terms of maintaining your personal energy in the right direction.”

Does this explain why so many goals our fitness goals drop off our radar and why the fat remains?

In a study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology, researchers measured how frequently people exercised over a 2–week period.

The researchers started by randomly assigning 248 adults to one of three groups.

Group 1 was the control group. They were asked to keep track of how frequently they exercised over the next two weeks. Before they left, each person was asked to read the opening three paragraphs of an unrelated novel.


Group 2 was the motivation group. They were also asked to keep track of how frequently they exercised over the next two weeks. Then, each person was asked to read a pamphlet on the benefits of exercise for reducing the risk of heart disease. Participants in Group 2 were also told, “Most young adults who have stuck to a regular exercise program have found it to be very effective in reducing their chances of developing coronary heart disease.”

The goal of these actions was to motivate Group 2 to exercise regularly.

Group 3 was the intention group. After being told to track their exercise, they also read the motivational pamphlet and got the same speech as Group 2. This was done to ensure that Group 2 and Group 3 were equally motivated.

Unlike Group 2, however, they were also asked to formulate a plan for when and where they would exercise over the following week. Specifically, each person in Group 3 was asked to explicitly state their intention to exercise by completing the following statement…

During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME OF DAY] at/in [PLACE].

After receiving these instructions, all three groups left.


Two weeks later, the researchers were surprised by what had happened in the three groups.



In the control group (group 1), 38% of participants exercised at least once per week.

In the motivation group (group 2), 35% of participants exercised at least once per week.

In the intention group (group 3), an incredible 91% of participants exercised at least once per week.

Simply by writing down a plan that said exactly when and where they intended to exercise, the participants in Group 3 were much more likely to actually follow through.

The researchers discovered that what pulls that desire out of you and turns it into real–world action isn’t your level of motivation, but rather your plan for implementation.

In fact, over 100 separate studies in a wide range of experimental situations have come to the same conclusion: people who explicitly state when and where their new behaviors are going to happen are much more likely to stick to their goals.

Going parallel to this research is convention wisdom and years of goal setting mantras.  For example ACE fitness recommends SMART goals and the following guidelines:

  • Your goal should be specific, clear and easy to understand. 
  • Your goal should be measurable.
  • Your goal should be attainable.
  • Your goal should be time-bound.

Looking more like a system is what Men’s Fitness recommends in 7 steps:

  1. Start Now
  2. Define What You Want
  3. Goals must be measurable, attainable and timed
  4. Acknowledge the Hurdles:
  5. Make Sacrifices
  6. Make Your Goal Public
  7. Take Action, Every Day


A systems approach is implied by many in the fitness domain.  However, the emphasis is still heavy on goals setting.  Even though SMART goals and 7 steps look like a system it is still heavy on the goal part.    

I’m not suggesting that you not set goals.  I am recommending that you hack the potential of failure by setting up systems that will support your goals. I agree that it takes goals to achieve.  I also believe that our focus on systems should be higher than our goals.

Systems that are maintained through evaluation, with a mechanism for an objective interpretation of failure.  Consider systems when you set your fitness goals for next year to increase your chances of not being in the 73% that give up in the New Year.



Learn more about Hacking Failure

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Shane Lester

Author page:

Learn more about systems vs. goals through my books.

The Value of Failure  will help you embrace failure and learn from it. 

Hacking Failure is a system that will help you pivot from mistakes and shortcut to success.


Buy both now on Amazon for $3 bucks.

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