An online client recently explained how she’s struggling to come up with a goal. She loves fitness, runs marathons, lifts weights, eats great, etc. But she’s never quite happy with herself. She works her butt off but doesn’t really know what it’s for. She continually circles back around to wanting a smaller mid-section and being leaner. She recently said to me, “I really wonder what goal I should have.” She was aware enough to add on, “I really hate that word – should.”

Here was my response:

Good pick up. Should-based goals typically don’t work out so well. I find it much more supportive to intend a certain direction for yourself based on what you want and value. “Should” is for people who are trying to fit into cultural norms and pressures. What you’re told you should want isn’t necessarily what you actually want. That divergence can create a lot of strife and anxiety if you don’t catch it.

My physical goals, for example, have nothing to do with reaching a certain weight or anything like that. Right now my physical goal looks something like:

“I want to be someone who’s fit and able-bodied. I ride my mountain bike up hills and carry my kids on my shoulders like a champ. I take pride in what my body can do and take very seriously the example I’m setting for my children, family, friends, and clients. I am someone who’s in constant pursuit of learning more about my body, testing my body, and improving my body.”

There’s no rigid target. It’s this fluid, values-based construct that creates space for me to accept where I am right now yet propels me toward action to work hard and improve. It’s this theme that opens me up to imperfection since any slip-up has an embedded lesson in it that I can use to make me better going forward.

The improvement I seek can come in many forms and I fully embrace the notion that it’s not always going to be in weight or leanness. Sometimes it’s how great I felt climbing a mountain. Or how awesome it felt carrying something a friend could not. Or walking into a store with my older 2 girls hanging on my arms. Or falling and taking it like a champ because my body is tough. And yes, sometimes it’s in the reflection in the mirror where I see proof of my hard work paying off.

Again, open and fluid space allowing for total self-care, self-love, flexibility, and action.

If I were to set my goal as, “I want to weigh 185 lbs at 8% body fat,” it wouldn’t motivate me in the least. What’s the “why” behind it? To look shredded? To impress others? That shit really doesn’t matter to me.

I set my goals based on what matters to me. My physique will settle at a place that aligns with the pursuit of these things that matter to me paired with my genetics. If I’m missing my lower ab definition… so be it. If I’m not vascular… okay. I’m happy because I’m getting better at the things I value.

When I reflect on what my body is doing for me, those minute details simply fall by the wayside.

I’m not here to say that seeing crazy definition shouldn’t be what matters to you or anyone else. There are plenty of people who live for that stuff. They typically wind up on stage half naked having other people judge them. And if that’s their thing… I’m totally accepting of that.

For me, personally… I only feel my best when I’m living according to my values. Heck, when I’ve chased leanness before, I felt the opposite of “best.” What I saw in the mirror was awesome. How I felt… hungry, lethargic, and weak… was not. It detracted from my ability to live life how I wanted and no reflection was worth that to me.

To really build out meaningful goals, it starts with who you want to be and what that person does. From there, you can build out process goals that sync up  with these things. This is why I personally focus on skills rather than numbers. If I’m showing up everyday and practicing skills that match my values and goals – and approaching it with an open/experimental mind – I rarely feel bad about myself.

I want to get stronger since that’s something that I value… so I track my gym performance and recalibrate my programming as needed. I want to eat mostly because I’m hungry and not because I’m emotional or stressed, so I do things like eat protein at every meal, load up on fibrous veggies, and track my treats and snacks to bring awareness to them. I want to be an intentional, present person so I journal every day. I want to be someone who’s life is based – in large part – on learning so I have a habit set to read X minutes every single day.

There isn’t some rigid ideal I’m striving for that haunts me every day. These inflexible outcome targets tend to breed perfectionistic thinking that, if anything, detracts from living out your values as they wind up feeling coercive and controlling.

So who do you want to be and how do you want to live?

Start there and then we can begin building out process goals that move you in this direction.