Most people only see the end results—the amount you lifted, the muscle you added, or the title you earned—and they think they're qualified to comment on it. What most people don't see is the grind.
In my case, they didn't see the 10-plus years of work I put into my physique and my strength. They didn't see the bulging discs or the torn pec. They didn't see how the longest I was ever out of the gym for the last 10 years was five days, during my honeymoon. They didn't see me spending my late teens and all of my twenties never, ever stopping.
I think many of the top natural bodybuilders and generally successful people out there are the same way. Their "secret" to success is simply time and consistency. Where other people encounter setbacks and stop going to the gym, or hit plateaus and get discouraged, these individuals break down all barriers—mental and physical—and keep pushing through.
Goal setting is crucial to this approach, but it's not as simple as sitting there waiting for the big one to come to you. Goals happen in ascending layers of time, ambition, and ease of achievement. "A goal properly set is halfway reached," says author and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar. This is the system that has worked for me, and which can set you up for a lifetime of success!
Long-term goals: One Year or More
When I say "a year" here, don't get attached to the next calendar year. It's more like "in a matter of years." For example, I got to a 699-pound deadlift in 2010, but it took me until 2014 to break 700. In 2012, I hit a 617-pound squat. It required training my ass off for three more years to hit the 668-pound world record.
The easiest kind of goal to set is a long-term goal. It may be "I want to win my pro card" or "I just want to be 180 pounds with abs." Whatever it is, a long-term goal is probably something at least 1-10 years away. You should really have to work for it. One thing it is most definitely not is an "ultimate" goal, because once achieved, it almost always shows you other new long-term goals.
For example, when I was just getting into bodybuilding, I told myself at age 17 that I wanted to win a teen show. I did that at 19. Then I made it my goal to win the open class at a show, which I did at age 22. Two years later, I hit my goal of a pro card. Then my goal was to place top five at my first series of pro shows, which I did at age 28. After that, I made it a goal to squat 600 pounds before age 30, which I did.
As I got further into powerlifting, my goals grew to reflect that. I decided that I wanted to place top three at the National Championship. I exceeded that goal by winning in 2014. Then my goal was to medal at worlds, which I did, taking the silver. Academically, my goal was to complete my PhD in six years, which I did.
Long-term goals should be definitive game changers in terms of how you view yourself and your progress. String a few of them together, and they're the story of a career—or a life.
Short-term goals: six weeks to six months
As great as your long-term goals may be, they're virtually useless without the proper short-term goals. I see people all the time who have compelling long-term goals but haven't learned how to set short-term goals to keep them motivated.
For example, if John's goal is to be 180 pound with abs, but he is currently at 150 pounds and 15 percent body fat, he is looking at a very long time to reach his goal. Simply aiming for it won't work. He needs something far more achievable to aim for first. Otherwise, he will only see his lack of progress relative to his long-term goal. But with proper short-term goals along the way, he can see progress being made on a regular basis.
I always did this in my bodybuilding, lifting, and academic career. Whether it was focusing on what I had to do to get a new 10-pound PR on squats, gaining 5 more pounds of lean mass, or finishing a new study, I always set attainable short-term goals to keep myself motivated.
Short-term goals should be achievements you can reasonably accomplish within a few months. Continually hitting these short-term goals will build your confidence and help you stay motivated so that you realize that progress is being made, even though your long-term goal may still be a ways off.
Microgoals: Every Damned Day
Microgoals don't have to be huge. In fact, they should be small, because you're going to bust out hundreds or even thousands of them in pursuit of your long-term goals. Microgoals can be as simple as "go to the gym and get my squat workout done" or "prep food for the week." They're not sexy, but they are crucial.
Think of it this way: Whatever your long-term goal is, your short-term goal should act as a scaffold for that, and your microgoals should act as a scaffold for those. They all build on each other. When you are looking at your long-term goal, ask yourself, "What do I have to do every single day to get myself closer to that?"
Take it seriously, and there's no looking back. One day of not knocking out your microgoals is one day more you have to make up. Your days add up to a life, so every single one is critical.
How to Put It All Together
That's three tiers of goals, all massively interrelated. Sounds complicated, right? If it's all just stored up in your head, it definitely is—and you'll definitely forget it. So the answer is to write your goals down!
This seems clichéd and silly, but I'll be damned if it doesn't work. A goal is nothing more than a dream until you put it in words—and especially on paper. Then it becomes a goal.
As I write this article in my office, there's a list of goals on my wall that are placed into "long-term" and "short-term" sections. I already have half of my long-term goals checked off, and I'm not about to change an approach that has worked well. I'm just going to keep grinding.
Putting your goals on paper gives them power and will help give you reasons to stay focused when the hard times come. Because make no mistake, they are going to come. Anyone can have big goals, but you have to know why you want that goal and spend plenty of time fixating on it on a regular basis. What are your reasons for it? Why will you be different? Your reasons will be what get you through the frustration.
Are Your Goals Really Consistent?
One final note: Be sure that your short-term goals support your long-term goal, rather than sabotage it.
I see this a lot in physique sports. People need to make improvements to their physique, but they say that they have trouble staying motivated in the offseason. In order to give themselves external motivation, they diet for shows. Unfortunately, if you are constantly dieting for shows, you will not make the necessary additions and improvements to be successful in the long run.
What this really comes down to is attention span. The ability to be focused and work hard for short periods of time is commonplace. The ability to grind for months, years, or decades? That's special.
If you need constant external motivation such as competition, you need to go back and examine your reasons. Motivation has to be intrinsic to weather the storm. Whatever you want to do— bodybuilding, figure, bikini, powerlifting, losing 50 pounds, getting a better job, a degree, or whatever else—it has to be your passion! You've got to be so passionate about it that you can't stand the idea of not pursuing it.
Find out what you love, and then take the steps of setting proper long-term, short-term, and micro-goals to get you there. Then just keep marching forward and achieve your dreams!