“Just Do It” Won’t Get You to Your Goals

Effective strategies for goal attainment


Rule number one for achieving goals: don’t take advice from athletic apparel company slogans. “I am what I am,” “impossible is nothing,” and of course, “just do it” may be effective at selling sporting goods, but they contradict proven methods for reaching your objectives. By suggesting that an individual, through sheer willpower, can achieve unfathomable success, these slogans promote ideas opposite to effective goal attainment strategies:

  1. Set specific, manageable goals. Completing objectives requires a series of small, achievable, well-defined steps, not vague goals.
  2. Our willpower is extremely limited. We have to put in place incentives and disincentives to nudge us towards our goals. Relying solely on motivation and self-control does not work long-term.
  3. Involve others in your goals. Humans are social creatures and benefit from support (or pressure) of others. Individuals fail, but groups succeed.
  4. Pursuing goals is about the process. Progress will not always be in the right direction, and often the process is more important than the outcome.
  5. Overcoming failure productively is required. Dealing with success is easy, but how setbacks are handled determines if you attain your goal.

Below, we’ll walk through each of these five concepts in more detail. Then we’ll see how I put these into action when training for — and completing — a 100-mile ultramarathon.

Set SMART Goals

Goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART). You can have lofty objectives, but they have to be well-defined. For example, “I want to learn a foreign language” is vague, has no measure of success, is not tied to anything in your life, and has no time limit. To improve this goal, it can become “I want to learn German at a high-school reading and speaking level for my trip to Germany 18 months from now.”

Moreover, once you’ve established a long-term goal, you need to break it down into a series of small steps and objectives. Also, formulate recurring checks to quantify progress (or lack thereof). For the language example, the individual actions could be “I will study with my tutor 2 hours a day” with monthly proficiency exams to make sure you’re heading towards the overall objective.

Smaller goals help you build up confidence while quantifying your progress allows you to gauge how effective your approach is. The sooner you can find out your method isn’t working, the sooner you can course correct. Keep in mind that the overarching goal won’t be achieved in a day, but, over time, the little actions move you in the right direction.

Create Incentives that You Nudge Towards The Goal

The portrayal of our reward system has drifted negatively in recent years: we’ve learned how smartphones are engineered like slot machines to hook us, how Facebook keeps us on the site by promoting extreme posts, how sugary foods created an obesity crisis, etc. Fortunately, the same innate tendencies that have so effectively been hijacked can also be gamed for positive purposes. To get our reward system to pull us towards our goals, we need to put in place systems that help us make the better choice along with positive rewards (incentives) for good behavior and negative rewards (disincentives) for undesired behavior.

First, let’s get rid of the willpower myth, the idea that by sheer force of will, we can change our behaviors. Counting only on internal self-control is guaranteed to fail beyond the shortest time scales. Don’t view this too pessimistically; it does not mean we can never change habits, it only means we need the proper external infrastructure to help us make better decisions.

The art of making this infrastructure is called choice architecture. The key is to make the right choice easy and the wrong choice (which puts you further from a goal) hard or impossible. As an example, to avoid unhealthy foods, you can have your spouse do the shopping with a specific set of foods to purchase, so the only foods you have in your kitchen are the ones you should be eating. Other architectures include setting strict filters that block time-wasting web sites, never saving credit cards and shipping addresses to avoid impulse purchases, and setting default savings rates at 5% instead of 0%.

To further take advantage of our innate desire for pleasure, we can create incentives/disincentives. For instance, you could only watch your favorite show when on the treadmill. Or you could set up an automatic donation to an organization you despise every time you miss a workout. Building a habit requires dozens or hundreds of repetitions, and accompanying positive actions with a reward makes getting there much more comfortable.

It’s only by understanding what drives our behaviors that we can gain control over them. Fortunately, the same reward system that drives us towards poor practices can be mastered to push us where we want to go.

Involve Others

America is a culture that celebrates individuals, from sports to history to “genius solo” tech entrepreneurs. Our narrow-minded focus on the individual obscures the fact that any significant achievement results from collective efforts. The individualistic attitude also discourages seeking out help, pushing us to grit our teeth, and just get it done. In reality, involving others in your goal plan makes the process more enjoyable and increases the chance of success because you have support (or pressure) behind you.

Involving other people can be as simple as telling them your objectives. Depending on what type of motivation you respond best to, you can ask them to be encouraging or to kick your ass when needed. Furthermore, there are likely thousands, if not millions, of other people with the same goal. Thanks to the Internet (a massive collective effort), you can find these people to train with them, get advice, and push each other towards the same end.

Rather than telling as many people as possible, seek out a few people who can hold you accountable. Posting about goals only for self-promotion is a terrible move because the purpose is not to advertise (and it’s in poor taste) but to get people you respect on board with your plans. Humans are social creatures, and one of our most reliable drives is for social approval from members of our tribe. Setting out towards an objective is not a solo undertaking: rather than traveling down a lonely road yourself, find the right group of people to push you towards your goal (and at the same time help pull them along).

Commit to a Long Term Process

Sports-themed commercials almost always spend the entire ad on moments of triumph. Months, years, or decades of training take a back seat to 30 seconds of glory, portraying success as only a matter of wearing the right shoes and sinking the winning shot at the end of the game. However, success should never be viewed as a single instant, but as a non-linear process.

We need to realize two points:

  • Achieving large goals requires large amounts of time
  • Success is not inevitable, even when following all the “right” steps

It’s easy to get motivated to take the first steps towards a goal, but working towards a lofty objective requires months or years of repeating small steps. Goal attainment is not a matter of being “inspired” but of being process-driven. I started to learn to code dozens of times, on each occasion, completing an introductory tutorial in a few hours before getting bogged down in harder content and giving up. It wasn’t until I acknowledged I would spend the rest of my life “learning to code” that I was able to put my head down, practice for a few hours a day (with others), and gradually improve.

Many goals, from losing weight, to exercising, to learning new skills, to career advancement are best viewed as lifelong processes. You’ll hit markers of competency along the way, but you shouldn’t be wholly focused on a single point in time when you’ll be done. There’s always another hill to climb.

Furthermore, even when we take 100% of the right steps, we still can fail to achieve a specific goal. Randomness plays a more significant role in life than we are willing to admit, and success is never inevitable. When we look at successful individuals or companies, we commit the survivorship fallacy: we only observe the 0.1% who triumphed, and not the 99.9% who might have done the exact same actions but lost out due to chance.

If we are concerned only with a single objective, then, when we don’t reach it (maybe through no fault of our own), we’ll be devastated. Instead, if we are focused on executing the correct process, then we can pick up where we left off and try again, perhaps learning something valuable from falling short.

In a random world, all we can hope is to nudge our chances of success upwards through our continual practice of positive behaviors. Over the long term, focusing on the process improves (but does not guarantee) your chances of success. When we encounter inevitable setbacks, we have to accept them as part of the process and get back on the track.

Respond Positively to Setbacks

The world of sports demonstrates many instances of champions coming back from setbacks, from Michael Jordan returning to win three championships with the Chicago Bulls after a lackluster stint in baseball, to Monica Seles winning the Australian Open after being stabbed on court, to Muhammed Ali returning to boxing after a 4-year hiatus in the prime of his career when he refused to fight in Vietnam. Great athletes, and all successful individuals, never suffer setbacks, but they do choose to respond positively to them.

Setbacks fall into two categories

  • Those in your control
  • Those not in your control

When a failure is due to your own actions, then you need to change your process. Seek external feedback, take time off if necessary, form a new plan, and try again with a different method. When a setback is genuinely out of your control — the weather, a referee, other’s actions, the world markets — do everything possible to prepare for it to occur again, then stop worrying about the obstacle, get back in the right mindset, and continue your process.

The road to a goal is not a straight series of wins, but rather, a winding path with many backtracks. With a growth mindset, we can view these reversals not as catastrophes, but as a chance to learn, get a novel perspective on our situation and return to our process with an improved approach.

The Slogan-free Method for Running an Ultramarathon

In April 2019, I completed a 100-mile ultramarathon in 27 hours at the Potawatomi Trail Runs. If there were a sports-apparel commercial made about the run, it would show the triumphant final 30 seconds of the run with slogans like “just do the impossible” or “I have no limits” superimposed. Fortunately, I did not watch any commercials to inform my training, but I did formulate and execute a plan using the five principles.

I’d wanted to run an ultramarathon since early in high school (around age 15) when I read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. For the next eight years, I tried to will myself into running 100 miles, with the attitude of “if I just think about it long enough, I can make myself do it.” Given the failure of that strategy, in December 2018, I adopted a more practical method after forcing myself to commit with an economic incentive.

After a particularly encouraging run, I plunked down the $200 entrance fee, ensuring the sunk-cost fallacy would not let me back out. I had given myself 100 days to prepare and ramp up my training (at the time, I was running around 60 miles per week). My plan and execution were designed in line with the proven five principles:

  1. The SMART goal was easy to define: complete the 100-mile Potawatomi Trail race on April 4–5, 2019. This was broken down into actionable steps: increase my weekly mileage from 60 up to 140 miles — 24 hours of running a week — which was further sub-divided into individual runs of 8–30 miles. Using another tactic, I gave myself three tiers of goals, A: finish under 20 hours, B: finish under 24 hours, and C: finish the race. The A goal was a stretch, and if I only achieved C, that would give me room to improve in future iterations.
  2. The first choice infrastructure I built was canceling my unlimited subway transit card. At the time, I lived 8 miles from work, and, with no other option, for the next four months, I would have to run back and forth twice a day from home to work to home. As a positive incentive to up my mileage, I choose my favorite audiobooks as in-run entertainment. As a result, running was associated not with unpleasant feelings, but with the enjoyable experience of reading a favorite book. The disincentives were evident: the entrance money and the flights (from NY to IL) had been purchased. As importantly, I had told some good friends about my goal, and they were sure to (good-naturedly) tease me for years if I didn’t finish.
  3. In addition to telling friends who could kick my ass when needed, I involved family for positive support. My brother signed up to run the 100 with me, providing an incentive to train so he wouldn’t beat me (he’s three years younger). Not a day went by when someone didn’t offer support, criticism, advice, or humor to make the training process more enjoyable.
  4. From firsthand experience, I know it was easy to get motivated about running, do the first training run, and then quit the second day. Early on for this race, I accepted that every weekday for the next four months would consist of waking at 5 am, running 8 miles, working for 9 hours, and running 8 miles. The weekends would feature up to 60 miles with strength training and yoga as needed. It took two weeks to get into the right mindset, but then I was able to commit to the process entirely. Eventually, I came to relish the training process. While many extreme athletes recommend embracing suffering, I think it’s more productive to re-frame training as a rewarding routine.
  5. Cataloging all the freezing rain, minor injuries, and moments of doubt during training isn’t necessary, but, needless to say, there were plenty of obstacles to work through over these 100 days. The most significant setback came two weeks before race day when I sprained a glute muscle, making it painful even to walk. At first, I was furious that an injury might derail my chance of even starting the race after all my training. Reluctantly, I came to see the sprain as a positive, because it prevented me from over-exerting myself in the final two weeks. My plan had been to taper down to around 60 miles a week, but three weeks out, I was still at 120. With the strain, I could only manage walking for training, but, fortunately, the injury cleared up by race day, and the forced rest meant I was not exhausted at the start.

Race day(s) — the race lasted 27 hours — featured its own set of challenges from running in pitch black to sleep deprivation, to mid-race rain showers, to a series of creek crossings which guaranteed wet feet for the whole race. Each time a setback came up, I tried to view it as a positive and or at least keep making forward progress. I didn’t believe I could finish until the final few steps, but eventually, I crossed the finish line at 27 hours.

Finishing the 100-mile race is one of my proudest moments, surpassed only by watching my brother finish the race 4 hours later. The primary lesson was that my training plan was formulated for a C race, allowing me plenty of room for improvement in 2020. The next iteration of the training plan will be re-formulated for an A performance.

Athletic company slogans are designed to appeal to our desires for immediate success: buy these clothes, and you too can reach great heights while looking like everyone else! However, anyone who wants to achieve their goals within hours or days must have shallow objectives. To achieve ambitious, meaningful objectives requires developing precise goals, building incentive/disincentive structures, the involvement of others, a long-term mindset, and dealing productively with failures. Although it may not sell many clothes, we must learn that excellence does not require a single inspired action, but rather a series of small actions that, when repeated thousands of times, ever so slightly nudge the odds towards positive outcomes.

Book Resources

Choice architecture, persevering through difficulties, developing internal motivation, building positive habits

Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Cass Sunstein

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth

Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance by Alex Hutchinson

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

Understanding our behavior and thoughts

Behave by Robert Sapolsky

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely

As always, I welcome comments and constructive criticism. You can reach me in the responses below or on Twitter @koehrsen_will.



Will Koehrsen

Senior Machine Learning Engineer at Cortex Sustainability Intelligence