High performers and athletes shouldn’t dream big. Or at least, they should dream up some smaller goals in addition to the big ones. That's the key takeaway from a recent TED Talk by Eric Buturac, former professional tennis player and current director of pro tennis operations and player relations for the United States Tennis Association. (Buturac recently wrote an op-ed for about why the best time to see tennis’ greatest stars is the week for the U.S. Open begins.)
In the talk, Buturac recounts that while other players on the professional circuit saw themselves as failures because they weren’t ranked, he found success through small everyday wins. The goal that powered him through was simply to be one percent better every day.
“We all need goals to work toward and setting a reach goal for your future self can help provide direction and purpose to your program,” says Matt Berenc, CSCS, the director of education at the Equinox Fitness Training Institute.
But sometimes, goals can stunt progress. “Where big dreams can fall short is when they are your sole point of focus and you don’t give more of your attention to the daily habits and processes needed to achieve it,” he says. “If you’re constantly being reminded that you have not yet reached your goal, you can find yourself demotivated and challenged to continue.”
That’s why experts use two terms in goal-setting: outcome goals, big dreams (deadlifting 400 pounds or dropping 10 percent body fat); and process goals, small, actionable steps that set you up to be successful today, notes Berenc.
Process goals are the ones that improve you by that one percent every day; and for an athlete, focusing on that process can be the difference between winning and losing, success and failure, says Berenc. Here, how to start.
It might seem counterproductive, but follow Berenc’s advice: Make your goal so easy you can’t help but be successful. “The worst-case scenario is that you crush it and are motivated to do more.”
A runner working toward a future marathon who already logs five miles regularly, for example, might aim for 5.5 miles on two of their four weekly runs. Says Berenc: “It’s not a huge uptick but enough to spark change, keep you progressing, and successful.”
If you’re already where you want to be fitness-wise, a progress goal might involve changing the habits that support your workouts, such as recovery, hydration, or nutrition. “Ultimately, you want to look for your weak spots and address them.”
A process goal always needs to be something you can do pretty immediately, reminds Berenc. That means if the big-picture result is to be stronger, you might eat protein at each meal to support muscle growth or commit to training four times a week, he says. “When you focus on the actionable daily habits, you build momentum with your success and it can carry you through hard times.”
No matter how you keep records (pen and paper, apps, or Google spreadsheets), ensure you’re filing in the necessary stats, says Berenc. Runners will want to log miles, time, and pace; strength trainers, weight and perceived exertion over time. All fit bodies benefit from tracking heart rate, too. “It’s a good marker of your body’s response to training and can help indicate if you are getting better or doing too much.”
Soon, by keeping records, you’ll have proof of your progress and wins, says Berenc. (You’re either improving accuracy or not, performing movement preparation or not, incorporating vegetables into each meal or not.) “This feedback from the system or practice you have set up allows you to make outcome-based decisions,” Berenc says. If something isn’t working, you can adjust course; if something proves too easy, you can add in challenges.
“By focusing only on the big dream, you have not set up an objective feedback loop and it may be months or years to know if you have been successful.” And that, he says, could be time wasted fine-tuning the wrong part of your routine or diet.