Upstream vs Downstream goals

You’ve got goals. You might say that they’re losing weight, getting stronger, or looking good naked. They’re awesome, they’re the reason why you struggle through that 3x a week grind. But these are bad goals.

They’re vague. Everyone knows it. I think I learned in 4th grade that I shouldn’t set a goal like this unless I wanted to end up staring at a picture of someone else doing what I wanted to do (teachers these days).

I wouldn't call these goals, I would call these motivations. As in “I’m motivated to get stronger.” They carry with them a mental picture of who you aspire to be, and they have their place. They’re a direction to take your training in, but they don’t say how to get there. So you might have been around the block before and you say, “okay, let’s get SMART* (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, Time-sensitive) with things.

Specific = bench press

Measurable = let’s increase the weight

Actionable = increase my weight every week

Realistic = 20 lbs

Time-sensitive = 1 month.”

Great, you have a SMART goal to increase your weight by 5 lbs every week until you’re benching 20 lbs more.

But that’s still a bad goal.

It's still a downstream goal. You don’t get the ability to lift 20 lbs more at the end of the month simply because you added the weight to a bar. You gain the ability to lift more from the process of your body healing after you stress your muscles. To do that you need to pay attention to the opposite of downstream goals, upstream goals: things that you have direct control over to move yourself towards your target.

A downstream goal is to add 20 lbs to your bench press in a month. Upstream goals are to rest for a specific time after every set, to set a specific time to finish a set in, or to reach a certain level of perceived effort before stopping your work. In other words, focus on the process to achieve the goal rather than the outcome itself. To achieve that goal of lifting 20 more pounds you need to do the bench press with more intensity and trust the process will make you stronger.

Focusing on upstream goals have several advantages, upstream goals give you faster feedback than the downstream goals. You know immediately if you didn’t take 40 seconds to do your set but you don’t know for 1 month if you reached your downstream goal of lifting 20 lbs. You also have more pressure to achieve them as they are easily doable in the present moment, while simultaneously having less of a punishment for failure.

Let’s take another example, say that your goal is to hold a 15 second handstand in the next month.

That’s a great downstream goal. It’s specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time-sensitive. To reach it you have to think about how you’re going to do that. You’re going to train with the goals of spending 5 minutes in a handstand at the start of every workout, you’ll do a wrist prep sequence before starting, you’ll mentally rehearse how you should have fought for a handstand everytime after you fall over. You don’t have direct control over getting a 15 second handstand, you can’t just decide to kick up and magically hold it if you’ve never been able to before. It’s not a force of will, it’s a skill. And to reach the next level you need upstream goals, no matter your level. 

As an analogy, you may be in some cold climate right now, sick of this winter and want to go somewhere warmer. That’s your motivation. And your goal might be a road trip from New York to Los Angeles. For that you need to pull out a map and plan out what states you’re going to go through on which days. But you can’t forget that knowing which interchanges to take and how far to drive each day is not the actual drive. What actually takes you from NY to LA is stepping on the gas, staying on the road, and making sure you don’t get into an accident.

It seems like obvious advice. But I say it because too many people focus on where they’re going and not on how they’re going to get there. When you’re in the middle of a set you shouldn’t be thinking about how great your life is going to be when you can hold that 15 second handstand. You should be thinking to yourself, “5 more reps.” That’s the focus that gets you results, and more time should be spent on that then where you’re heading. So to reach your downstream goals, set upstream goals and focus on them while you’re working out.