Yes, it’s that time of year again. The last days of December roll around, everyone flocks to El Potrero Chico, and when January hits you take stock of your life and join the roughly half of Americans who set a New Year’s resolution.
The problem is, New Year’s resolutions don’t work. They might be the least reliable form of goal-setting. They’re so ineffective that the whole concept has become synonymous with a failed desire to lose weight or be more organized.
Whether or not New Year’s resolutions are on your mind, 2019 seems like a nice occasion to share some tips for effective goal setting that I’ve learned as a life coach and rock climber. My core message is this: Your desire to set goals is awesome. How you approach it makes all the difference.
Specifically, I want to share a simple activity called the Life Blueprint, and use this to discuss effective goal setting. I use the Blueprint all the time as a life coach, and I think you’ll find that it’s a useful way to frame your 2019 climbing and training goals.
6 Steps for Setting and Achieving Big Goals
The following steps are a guide to setting and achieving big goals – whether in climbing or other areas of your life. I learned most of what follows from my mentors and coach trainers at the Academy for Coaching Excellence, who developed these approaches based on spiritual traditions and research about the mind. This version also draws on my experience as a climber.
It’s worth emphasizing that this is not trendy B.S. and there are no quick tricks. You still have to put in the effort, find the time, stay injury-free, effectively train your weaknesses, learn technique, and level up your mental game. But if you are going to set goals, you might as well do it effectively. Incorporating these steps will increase your chance of success and hopefully make your climbing and training feel more relevant, meaningful, and fun.
1) Before setting goals, start with your intention
Before we even talk about goals, why are you reading this? Okay, you want to become a better climber and you know that setting goals will help you stick to a training plan. But why do you want to get better at climbing? Is it to climb harder grades, or send a dream route? To go to amazing places? To win competitions? To do something fun with your friends or your partner? To cultivate a healthy lifestyle?
Why does getting better at climbing really matter to you?
Don’t worry if you don’t have an obvious answer to this question. Most of us go about life doing things without clearly articulating our intention for doing them. That isn’t good or bad, but research shows that people perform better when – big surprise here – they are committed to achieving their goals. It helps to start by clearly articulating some core intentions for your life, both as a climber and otherwise.
Instead of setting New Year’s resolutions this year, I want to suggest an alternative practice. The Life Blueprint is a simple activity I use with people as a life coach. It’s free and takes about 30 minutes (click through the link and you’ll get a PDF via email with instructions). You can do it now or after you read this article.
Your Life Blueprint starts with a quick Life’s Intentions inventory, has you pick five intentions for the year, and then choose three areas of focus for each. An intention is a direction, aim, or purpose that gives meaning to your life. It’s the “why” behind climbing or anything else you focus your energy on. Writing down your Life’s Intentions is a powerful starting point for goal setting.
Here’s a climbing example from my own life.
My 2018 Life Blueprint lists five Life’s Intentions: to be physically fit and healthy, an adventurer, a loving partner and family member, spiritually developing, and an effective coach. Last year, one area of focus that I put under “be an adventurer” was “go to Sao Tome,” and I credit these four words with the biggest climbing achievement of my year.
Writing “Go to Sao Tome” helped me say yes to an expedition that had fallen through in March 2017 when my climbing partner Sam shattered his foot falling off a highball boulder in Bishop. That summer we were supposed to fly to Sao Tome and Principe (a small island nation in the Gulf of Guinea) to attempt the FFA of a fifteen-pitch sport climb up an amazing volcanic tower in the jungle. The route (“Nubivagant”) had been bolted in 2016 by Gaz Leah and a team, but they hadn’t managed to send a few hard 5.13 pitches.
We called the trip off in 2017, and as I wrote my Life Blueprint in January 2018 it seemed unlikely we would try again. The route still hadn’t seen an FFA, but the moment had passed; people had jobs and limited schedules, and funding it seemed unlikely. But as I brainstormed areas of focus for my intention “to be an adventurer,” going to Sao Tome was an obvious “yes.” It was THE big adventure on my mind. Skeptical at the time, I wrote it down on my Blueprint.
As it turns out, writing down specific goals can significantly increase your chances of success (at least in some settings). For me, it meant that at each critical moment when we considered rekindling the trip, I just kept saying “yes.” Long story short, in August 2018 we spent two weeks in Sao Tome and nabbed the second free ascent of the tower, including one of the hardest pitches I’ve ever climbed.
How you articulate your intentions for 2019 is up to you. What matters, though, is that you have a clear, easy, and reliable way to remember why your big climbing goals matter to you and how they fit into the bigger picture of your life.
I suggest using the Life Blueprint for two reasons. First, it’s quick, easy to do on your own, and the coaches I’m trained by developed it through working with thousands of people over more than a decade. Second, climbing is a lifestyle sport. You and every other dedicated climber work to balance climbing with other commitments – your work, social, and family life. The Blueprint holds your intentions for all areas of your life in one place.
2) Set goals that are SMART
Use the areas of focus from your Life Blueprint to set your big climbing (and other) goals, and remember to clearly connect each goal to a relevant Life’s Intention. For example:
Life’s Intention: I am willing to be physically fit and healthy.
Area of focus: Pick a big wall project.
Goal: I multi-pitch free climb three times on Yosemite’s El Capitan by June 1, 2019.
Life’s Intention: I am willing to be spiritually developing.
Area of focus: Practice yoga regularly.
Goal: I teach a public yoga class by April 1, 2019.
Each goal is connected to a Life’s Intention and it’s also SMART. You may already be familiar with SMART goals, but let’s review.
- Specific – Is the goal clear and precise? For example, “I multi-pitch free climb three times on Yosemite’s El Capitan” is more precise than “I climb on El Cap.” The former says how many times and specifies that I can’t just go cragging at the base. This is important because my intention behind this goal is to develop fitness and experience on El Cap, while also exploring longer routes so I can pick a route to project in the fall.
- Measurable – How will you know you accomplished your goal? There should be no room for ambiguity. When the date you set has passed, it should be easy to answer “yes” or “no” when asked if you accomplished your goal.
- Attainable – Is your goal achievable? The best goals are a stretch but attainable. Research shows that people put in more effort and are more persistent when goals are challenging but there’s a strong possibility for success.
- Relevant – Does accomplishing the goal really matter to you? This is why I suggest that, before setting goals, you always start with the bigger picture. Write down a Life’s Intention or larger purpose alongside each goal you set.
- Time-based – Does the goal have a clear end date? Start with one or two goals in the 2-3 month range, and consider setting both medium- and long-term goals. Even though the date you choose will be in the future, use present tense when you write the goal (“I climb…” instead of “I will climb…”). This gives the goal a sense of immediacy that psychologically sets you up for success.
SMART is a useful framework you can use to make sure your climbing goals are written in a way that sets you up for success. Check each goal you set based on the areas of focus from your Life Blueprint, and make adjustments as necessary. There’s no magic number of goals. I suggest starting with two or three that you really love.
3) Set goals, not tasks
A “goal” is an object or area toward which play is directed in order to score. This relies on an extended “playing field” sports metaphor that I use as a life coach. The sports metaphor is useful because, as with a soccer match, scoring a goal should feel awesome. You should want it with that same passion and energy we associate with sports.
When you set a goal, you’re making a meaningful promise to yourself that you are really going to do something. Completing the goal should feel like sending a route that’s hard for you. You clip the chains, feel psyched, and celebrate, before moving on to the next goal.
This makes goals different than tasks. Tasks are unfinished items that bring you relief when they are done. You need to renew your car insurance so you can get to the crag, and maybe you’ve been meaning to schedule a follow-up with your physical therapist. These are important things to do, but they aren’t goals. A task might be a meaningful step toward scoring your goal, but the goal itself should bring you joy and energy.
4) Create accountability
So you set a SMART goal to send a certain V9 boulder problem near your house by May 31, 2019. Maybe it’s connected to your Life’s Intention of being a loving family member because you want to make your outside climbing time more efficient this year to spend more time with your family. You’ve got good local bouldering and there’s a classic problem you’ve had your eye on. What now?
An important first step is to create accountability by writing it down. The worst goals are the ones that live only in your head. Connect your goal to a clear intention and write both down somewhere you will see them daily. Popular options: your desk, on your desktop, your phone screensaver, in a planner/notebook, or in your car.
Next, tell someone. If you’re trying to send a hard boulder problem, that friend who boulders hard and has the Mondo crash pad is probably a good place to start. Maybe it’s your climbing partner who usually expects you to drive four hours to sport climb at Rifle every weekend in the spring. Definitely tell the family you want to spend time with, and maybe a close friend.
Sharing your goal creates accountability and it’s also a chance to ask for support. “Do you want to train for this project with me?” “Would you check in with me next month and see how it’s going?” People love supporting you and your psych is contagious, so spread it around.
5) Focus on the next small thing to do
Achieving big goals takes time and effort and there’s one thing you can be sure of: your mind and circumstances in your life will give you lots of reasons to give up.
One of my goals last spring was to send a route called “Honey Seeker” at The Dry Canyon, a beautiful, chossy limestone cliff band south of Tucson Arizona, where I was living at the time. The climb was at my limit and not my style (bouldery horizontal roof crux), but sending it felt important. For me, it represented a return from over a year of tendon injuries, a commitment to training my weaknesses, and a sort of homage to the climbing of southern Arizona before I moved.
As you might expect, lots of obstacles came up. My Prius couldn’t make it to the crag. The crux beta the few former ascensionists used wasn’t working for me. My partner was graduating and her parents were in town for the weekend. It was getting hot in April when I was working the route. The day before sending I arrived to find that the bolt hanger protecting the crux had completely fallen off.
Was it worth spending my last few Arizona climbing days at a dusty crag trying an unknown route that I might not send?
Of course, when I sent the route on a hot afternoon in May, it was entirely worth it. The key to success – as with all big goals – was to keep focusing on the next small thing to do. When the doubts come up – as they always do – I just did the next small thing. Text my climbing partner. Replace the crux bolt. Give one more evening send burn.
There will always be excuses for not sticking with your goals – you will have work trips, the weather will be bad, family obligations will consume your vacation days, your climbing partner might bail, you will definitely feel tired, and you will often wonder if the effort is worth it. The reasons for giving up won’t go away, but you can learn to shift your attention to something else.
When you feel overwhelmed or the going gets tough, try this: Ask yourself, “What is the next small step that will move me forward towards this goal?” Do your hangboarding routine, go for a run, schedule the next climbing day, book the ticket. Identify one small thing you can do now and do it.
6) When psych is low, choose to be willing
About a year ago I was at the Virgin River Gorge falling off the warmups and watching Michaela Kiersch project Necessary Evil. She sent the route a few days later, and this summer she reflected on her process of working the route in a Rock and Ice article about setting goals.
“For me, deciding that I want to do something isn’t enough. I need to decide that I am actually going to do it.”
Michaela has clearly figured out a key insight at the core of what I do as a life coach: succeeding at challenging goals is primarily a result of your mindset. As one of my mentors, Maria Neemeth, writes in her book Mastering Life’s Energies:
“People who are successful are willing to do what they don’t want to do. They are willing to do what they are afraid of doing. They are willing to do what they don’t know how to do. They have learned to say yes to their lives.”
Saying yes to your life, and succeeding at your big climbing goals, is about the subtle difference between wanting to do something and just doing it. “Wanting” emphasizes external circumstances – the usual things we complain about when things aren’t going the way we want. But what makes great climbers great is their choice to keep trying even when the psych is low, conditions are bad, and everything seems stacked against them. You also have this capacity.
So, try this next time you’re falling off your project, halfway through a discouraging training session, or suffering on that five-mile approach. Acknowledge all the reasons your mind is giving you to quit, then think about the goal you’re working toward and the Life’s Intention that’s behind it. Ask yourself, “Nevertheless, am I willing to do the thing in front of me?”
Saying “nevertheless, I am willing” cuts past the excuses and justifications that have held you back when going for big goals in the past. Those limiting thoughts will always be there, so you might as well get comfortable with the ones that come up for you around climbing. But by simply shifting your focus to being willing, you energize yourself to take action. Those actions, step by step, make up the milestones that will define your career as a climber.
About the Author
Remy Franklin is a life coach who works with climbers and other athletes to mobilize the power of personal transformation for social change. He has sport climbed up to 5.14a, enjoys placing cams, and has fallen off lots of boulders. Remy has climbed around the world and has a growing passion for big wall free climbing. You can find him at remyfranklin.com and on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube.
Cover Photo: The crux pitch of Nubivagant, Sao Tome & Principe. | Photo: Jacob Kupferman | @kupfermanphotography