The gym is a laboratory for cultivating a positive mindset. Think of your time in the gym each day as an opportunity to train your focus on identifying small victories.
Most of us have had the experience of coming to the gym, reading the workout, looking at the scores or times of others on the whiteboard, and setting a performance goal based on our evaluation of that information. Some days we are the person who sets out to beat someone’s score, and on other days, we are the person who sets out to get at least the same number of reps as someone else. It’s not inappropriate to pay attention to how others have performed. In fact, this information can be useful when we encounter a new workout; it gives us some idea how to strategize and scale the workout.
However, if we’re not careful, setting specific micro goals based on what others have done can lead us to feel disappointed if we don’t hit our target. And, alternatively, setting goals based on comparisons with others can limit us from meeting our full potential on the days when we feel energetic and strong. Maybe we could have lifted a bit more, or moved a bit faster, or done one more round because we felt healthy and strong, but instead we stopped short of our potential because we had already met our goal for the day.
While goals are an essential step in developing our potential, they can also become a source of consternation, and in some cases, they can restrain progress. When you set out to establish a micro performance goal for a workout, consider the whiteboard, but pay more attention to how you’re feeling that particular day. Some days are better than others. This is no less true in the gym than it is at work or at home. Ride the gains wave on the good days and respect your limitations on the not so great days. More importantly, learn to know the difference between good days and not so good days. What signals does your body give you about the sort of day you’re going to have in the gym?
Finally, learn to attune your focus to small victories, even—nay especially—on the not so good days. For example, maybe you didn’t hit your specific performance goal that day, but even so, you improved your form, found a way to be more efficient in cycling reps, or the coach’s cue finally “clicked.” These too are victories worthy of recognition.
In short, set reasonable daily goals, do your best to accomplish them, avoid becoming attached to them, and learn to identify and celebrate the small victories. The gym is place of discovery and learning, not only a place for exercise.