5 December, 2021

How To Set Goals Like an Olympic Champion

3 min read
football

Virtually every Olympic athlete shares the same goal: winning the gold medal.  (Although a few seem to be there just for the parties – we’re talkin’ about you, Bode).

Seriously, though, the interesting finding from research by sports psychologists is that successful athletes set goals in a very specific way that is far more precise and detailed than just setting one big goal.

The best news: we can all use the goal-setting strategies of elite athletes to achieve more in our everyday lives.

Here’s the most crucial principle: supplement the big, long-term goal with specific, challenging, near-term goals.  Then focus more of your effort and attention on those near-term goals.

An athlete who wakes up each day to focus only the gold medal (or the Super Bowl, or the World Series, etc.) will quickly become overwhelmed.  He or she will start to wonder: How can I get from here to there?  As two experts on sports psychology, May and Veach, put it: “Repeated daily focusing on long-term goals is often counter-productive.  The focus is too far into the future and prevents the athlete from completing the intermediate steps essential to ultimate success.”

What happens when you focus on near-term goals?  According to the scientific research, lots of good stuff, including…

– Heightened performance and success
– Greater likelihood of accomplishing goals and making life changes
– A stronger sense of confidence and self-efficacy
– More determination and persistence, particularly after setbacks
– More enjoyment and intrinsic interest in the topic

What happens when you don’t set near-term goals, or focus too heavily on long-term goals?  I call it “goal-mismatch,” and it’s a perfect recipe for procrastination and rumination – thinking about goals, but not taking action toward goals.  It’s also a recipe for general unhappiness.  People who focus too much on their long-term goals view those goals as more difficult, more pressure-filled, and less enjoyable, while their near-term goals seem less relevant and satisfying.

Who avoids goal-mismatch, and successfully leverages the power of near-term goals?  The scientific research points to many examples, including…

– Successful athletes, as we described above

– Successful students.  Research conducted at Stanford University found that students struggling in math significantly improved their grades, and their psychological well-being, by focusing on near-term goals

– Successful business and military leaders.  Effective leaders often “segment” or “compartmentalize” complex tasks or missions into smaller, “bite-sized” sub-missions.

– Resolution-keepers.  Less than 20% of New Year’s resolution-makers become resolution-keepers.  One of their key success strategies: focusing on near-term goals.

– Happy people.  Those who are most satisfied with life are those working toward enjoyable, moderately challenging goals of high short-term importance.

It’s easy to use the power of near-term goals to achieve more success in your everyday life.  Just don’t go overboard by making goals “too near-term.” For example, students asked to make general monthly plans and goals perform better than those asked to make highly specific daily plans.  They spend more time studying, study more effectively, procrastinate less, and get better grades.  Monthly planners experience more flexibility in crafting strategies for accomplishing their goals.  They more easily adjust “on the fly” and are less easily “derailed” by changes in circumstance.  A daily planner who gets a mild case of the flu quickly finds his daily goals unattainable, resulting in disappointment and a loss of momentum.  General planners enjoy the process of planning more, gaining a sense of designing their lives, while highly specific planners get the sense of their lives being controlled by their appointment books and PDAs. 

The bottom line: Set weekly or monthly goals, and work aggressively toward them while giving yourself some flexibility about how to achieve them.  Do this, and you’ll not only get the maximum performance boost, but you’ll also be setting goals like an Olympic champion.

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