A quick scroll on social media this time of year will inundate you with New Year’s Resolutions posts. Although it’s easy to become numb to the flood of content, the advice is timely. For many, the New Years period mirrors the powerful desire for a new beginning. More often than not, that “new beginning” is health related. It’s intuitive then to set some goal, the next question is “how can I achieve it?” SMART goal setting is a well-known tool used to achieve a goal. However, today we’ll briefly cover the underlying principles relevant to the pursuit of any goal. Firstly, we will cover goal-directed versus habitual decision making. Secondly, we will cover value, capability and agility. Lastly, we will use these ideas to craft an intelligent goal-achieving process.


Goal direction versus Habit

In recent years researchers have been studying how our brains control decision making processes. Reseach suggests our brains switch between automatic habits and specific goal driven behaviour due to contextual cues, intrinsic and extrinsic influences. Goal directed control refers to making choices based on measure actions versus outcomes. Habitual actions require minimal conscious thought. Practically, consider someone who has developed a habit of working out regularly. They may have first begun by goal-directed intentional behaviour, driving forward due to the promised reward. However, having achieved their initial outcome, say, fat-loss, they continue to exercise habitually. Moreover, without going into detail, different brain regions are implicated in goal-directed and habitual actions, so, once a person is accustomed to performing a specific-task they may continue to do so even when the incentive is gone because neural regions support this habitual behaviour (1).


Principles in practise

It’s obvious that behaviours respond to changes in the value of the goal. In short, if you value something, you’ll probably go for it! When a more attractive goal emerges, individuals often drop prior behaviours. This can happen with both positive and negative reinforcement. For example, in one study, rats were subject to a sound paired with a physical shock (1). This resulted in a freezing response. The shock was removed, yet the sound continued. Over time, the rats unlearned the freezing response. This demonstrated that behaviours can be influenced by outcomes (in this case, negative,). Moreover, the desire to pursue behavioural change is impacted by how likely someone feels like they can achieve it. Setting realistic expectations and outlining the processes to achieve them likely means an individual will feel capable enough to pursue their goal.


Smashing a strength goal


Being agile is an important consideration when looking at the long-term viability of a goal. Sometimes conflict emerges and circumstances warrant a previously desired outcome and goal-directed behaviour to be no longer practical (2). Without being willing to shift, compromise or change gears, an individual can make life harder for themselves trying to remain on track. For example, someone may desire to work out a certain amount due to an upcoming fitness event. However, competing work demands interrupt their ability to train. In that example it might be better to evaluate whether or not it’s practical to compete. A work around could be to pursue the minimal amount of work to maintain current fitness and sign-up for a later event. This will prevent the individual from backsliding, help them reduce some stress and avoid burn-out.


Let your goals be process driven

Goals need to be specific, measurable, achievable, time-bound and results driven, “SMART ”. However, it’s critical to understand the principles underlying the process. Do you actually care about the outcome? Secondly, it may be useful to plan your goals as a hierarchy. If your goal is to lose fat, find a supporting objective that results in a new habit. For instance, it could be to participate in four group fitness classes a week. This shifts goal-directed behaviours into habit by reducing their mental cost and creates positive outcomes secondary to the long-term goal (i.e., always “feeling good” after a workout, even if that’s not related to fat loss directly). This will all require careful consideration about the resources such as time, expertise and necessary tools (i.e. a gym membership). Lastly, don’t be afraid to be agile when circumstances demand it. 

If you’re looking to finally smash those New Year’s Resolutions in 2024, you need to work with Coaches who are “SMART” about the goal setting process. At Sydney Strength Training we offer expert coaching that considers your unique needs and provides the roadmap to your success. Get in touch with us today.



  1. Fractionating the all or none definition of goal-directed and habitual decision-making (nih.gov)
  2. Habitual Behavior Is Goal-Driven – PubMed (nih.gov)