Although different from the typical mental exercises such as meditation and imagery, I still consider goal setting as a mental exercise. This is because goal setting is an activity where you sit down and think or write about your goals and how to achieve them. During this activity called goal setting, you are gaining motivation as well as guidance and clarity about your future. These are the benefits of goal setting, which is why I consider it a mental exercise. Not only do you gain these benefits each time you practice goal setting, but you also improve at goal setting itself.

Let me tell you more about goal setting. Reaching any destination in life requires you to have both the directions and motivation. Goals are meant to motivate and guide you along your journey. Like most things, there is an art to goal setting that helps maximize the motivation and guidance provided by goals. Having goals without sufficient motivation gets you nowhere. Having motivation without guidance also doesn’t get you far. Here are some guidelines for setting goals that provide both motivation and guidance:

Have SMART goals:
S= Specific. General goals such as “do well this season” don’t really offer instructions on what you should be doing to prepare right now in the present moment. A specific goal such as “improve my first-serve percentage” actually tells you how you should prepare. Goals should guide you to take specific actions so you practice with a purpose.
M= Measurable. Measurable goals allow you to check your progress objectively using numbers. A goal such as “improve my field-goal percentage from 50% to 55%” will allow you to later use meaningful feedback. It’s hard to stay motivated if you don’t know how close you are to your goal.
A= Attainable. Goals should be attainable. The reason why smaller/attainable goals are sometimes better than large goals is because easier, attainable goals increase confidence and confidence improves motivation. They are like small stepping stones that initiate action. If goals to are too large, you may hesitate to jump to the next stone because it seems too hard. Procrastinating to write a 10 page paper is an example of having too big of a goal. If you divide the paper into smaller goals (one page per day), it will seem easier so you will have more confidence and therefore, more motivation. However, big goals are needed to prevent limiting yourself. The potential rewards of big goals can provide a lot of motivation. Too often small/attainable goals lead to mediocrity. You need both big and small goals to complement each other.
R= Realistic. Realistic and attainable do not always mean the same thing. A goal may be theoretically attainable but not realistic, meaning you don't really want to put in the effort to reach a certain goal so it's probably not going to happen. You must be able AND WILLING to reach a goal. You may be physically able to increase your vertical jump to 45 inches, but is this a goal that you really want to accomplish? Don't waste you time focusing on goals that, deep down, you know you don't actually want or aren't willing to work for. Unrealistic can also mean unattainable. For example, it is unrealistic for a 5 foot person to make it to the NBA. Even if the person is very motivated, his chances are extremely slim. It isn't worth wasting your energy on unrealistic (meaning unattainable) goals. Whether a goal is actually considered "unrealistic" depends on the probability of success and your level of motivation. If you truly believe you are able and willing to reach a very difficult goal, then it is not a unrealistic goal for you, no matter how many other people say it is.
T= Time bound. Goals should have a due date to add urgency. If you have no due date, you may keep pushing your plans back farther.

Backward goal setting is a great way to set small and big goals that help guide you over time. Start with your main goal such as winning a championship. Then think of smaller goals that contribute to the main goal. It should look like a staircase with the main goal on top and smaller and smaller goals as you go down each step. After you complete the first goal, you know exactly what to do next.

Another way to organize goals is to have outcome, performance, and process goals.
Winning a championship is an example of an outcome goal.
Improving your first-serve percentage is an example of a performance goal.
Learning a new serving technique is an example of a process goal.
The process goal helps you reach your performance goal and the performance goal helps you reach your outcome goal. I like this form of goal setting because it really helps you understand the relationship between different kinds of goals and how they help you get results.

If you just vaguely think about your goals now and then, you won’t get much out of goal-setting. Take the time to practice goal setting once a week. During this time, find a quit place and focus entirely on goal setting. Write your goals on paper and think about how you can achieve them. I recommend doing this on Sunday nights to mentally get ready for the upcoming week. It is also good to do goal setting on special dates such as new year’s day or your birthday when you’re feeling very inspired. After completing goal setting, if you feel very motivated and know exactly what you need to do in the short term and have long term clarity and plans, then you have done goal setting correctly.

However, be careful about spending too much time doing goal setting. Sometimes people become too obsessed thinking about their goals and it backfires when their overthinking causes discouragement and it distracts them from actually putting in work toward your goals. Remember, it is not the goal setting itself that produces results, it is the actual work, training, and effort. Work leads to results, but it is goal setting which helps provide the motivation to work. You need both work ethic and goal setting.

Lastly, I want to differentiate between goal setting and motivational thinking/self-talk. Motivational thinking or motivational self-talk is a form of goal setting, it is just briefer and is in the present moment while you're doing daily tasks. For example, a motivational thought such as "Come on, 10 more reps!" as you're doing push-ups or "I'm going to work hard today!" as you get out of bed, are technically goal-setting. However, goal-setting as a mental exercise is more focused and longer, since you take about 15-30 minutes to focus entirely on writing goals and plans on paper. There is nothing wrong with motivational thinking and self-talk. It is great in fact. You should be thinking this way almost constantly throughout work and training to keep up your motivation. However, it is not the same as goal setting as a mental exercise. Taking the time to do goal setting provides a level of motivation and guidance that you don't get with regular motivational self-talk throughout the day. Also, goal setting improves your motivational self-talk since you will have a better understanding of what motivates you and what you need to do to have a productive day.