Saying that you have a goal to lose fifty pounds is sort of like a Miss America contestant saying that her goal is for there to be world peace. Neither “goal” says anything about strategies and behaviors that will help you achieve that goal. But goals really are important. So let’s figure this out so that you can be sure that you choose goals that will work for you and are not some notion of what you think your goals should be:
Jay — You don't want to just try something because someone else said to do it — think about it critically. Is it realistic for you? Is it something that you can actually do with your schedule, responsibilities, and other concerns? For example, someone once recommended to me that I order meals from a food delivery service and eat that food exclusively. But the food cost $30 a day! Damn, that was over half my grocery budget for the week because I was a student putting myself through school. Instead, I spent some time looking up good recipes and healthy substitutions in cooking online, and I incorporated those into my meal prep. Even if friends have the best of intentions, they may not be practical or feasible for you right now at this stage in your life. A good friend suggested I sign up for a class with her at a gym that costs $200 for two weeks of sessions. Hell, I'm not about to spend that much money! Instead, I go for walks or runs or hike on trails — something that fits in the constraints of my life.
Set Short-Term Goals to Achieve Long-Term Results
Janice — When you’re enthusiastic and committed to changing your life, it’s hard to take small steps. As one of my patients explained it to me, “the long-term goals feel so far away, and the short-term goals don’t seem worth it.” In fact, though, short-term goals really are essential to prevent you from experiencing what my college-age patients refer to as “rage quit.” Apparently, the term is usually used in the context of video games; but I think it sums up what a lot of people experience on diets. You lose your way, and you quit in a state of rage toward the person or book or commercial that recommended yet another unsustainable or even idiotic diet. And then you feel rage toward yourself. You deserve better than that.
Another reason to appreciate short-term goals is that for any goal you set, achievability is paramount. In this way, there are many opportunities for success, and the process continues to be reinforced because successes build on one another to move you toward your larger goal. A study of overweight men and women showed that “setting small, achievable behavior change goals” was associated with weight loss (1). Again, it’s a matter of maximizing opportunities for success.
Jay — In a previous post, I explained how I knew that having an “ultimate goal” of losing a hundred pounds wouldn’t help me figure out where to begin. The idea felt overwhelming to me — a hundred pounds is a big number! So I re-evaluated what my goal would look like in my mind: I wasn’t going lose a hundred pounds — I was going to lose one pound, and I would do it a hundred times, one week at a time. By identifying my ultimate goal and then chunking it into smaller, manageable pieces, I now had a powerful tool for turning my aspirations into reality.
It's up to you to decide what a “short-term” goal means to you. Maybe you will set a goal of taking two brisk walks this week. Maybe your goal will be to choose, shop for, and cook a healthy dinner over the weekend. When you’re going through a tough time, you may want a really short goal: tonight, for example, you’ll have berries for dessert instead of pie. You decide —they’re your goals. Think about how great it will feel when you're successful. Here’s another thought: if the over-arching goal is to eat and move in a physically and emotionally healthy way, then you are already living your goal. The weight loss is a by-product that is sure to follow.
What keeps you going isn't some fine destination but just the road you're on, and the fact that you know how to drive.
Imagine this: you've just eaten berries instead of ice cream. This happened because you made a choice, you set a goal, and you achieved the goal. In fact, you know that you can do it again. Pause for a moment, and congratulate yourself. Thank yourself for taking care of yourself and for carrying out your intention. Think about how your body is thanking you. This is success.
Saying “I’ll try to do this” is not setting a goal — it’s just wishy-washy and cheats yourself out of summoning up resolve. We’re not talking about self-punishing grim determination here — just a certainty that declining this cookie, ordering grilled vegetables instead of French fries, not buying the chips “for your family” — these are achievable worthwhile goals that you have set for yourself and that this time, today, that goal will not be derailed.
How do you reward yourself when you reach a goal?
Jay — buy that cute workout outfit you’ve seen in the storefront, get that tattoo you’ve always wanted, plan the trip you’ve dreamed about. I’ve heard of some people who will buy a charm bracelet; and when they reach a certain milestone, they add a charm. It’s the visual reinforcement and something to work towards that motivates them, and not the food.
Janice — thanks, but I’ll skip the tattoo. Maybe some new underwear or makeup would be nice, though.
This Can Be Tough
What if you don’t meet your goal? What then? Suppose you have set a goal that you will not eat ice cream tonight, and then you do eat the it. Are you a failure? No, you are not a failure. You ate ice cream, that’s all. Perhaps your goal simply wasn’t realistic at this time. An “achievable” goal means that it’s achievable for you. What was the barrier? Was it that there was ice cream in the house and you heard it calling to you from inside the freezer? Was it that you thought you could watch everyone in your family eat a sundae after dinner while you had strawberries? Then maybe in order for this goal to be truly achievable for you, the ice cream has to go. At least for now. Maybe for now, your family eats ice cream only outside the house. Maybe for now, everyone eats strawberries for dessert at home (which is a good thing anyway).
So now you’ve figured out how your plan got derailed. Okay then! Now you’ll get rid of the ice cream, and tomorrow you’ll be ready for your achievable goal. You’re feeling positive; you’re looking forward to what comes next. There is no place here for telling yourself that you’re lacking will-power or that you’re a failure. Neither is true. Starting right now, you’ll have lots of other opportunities for success. Stay with us.
Oh, by the way, the photograph of the gorgeous beauty contestant in this post? She’s a transgender woman. We all travel different paths to reach our goals.
(1) Kozica S et al. Initiating and continuing behaviour change within a weight gain prevention trial: a qualitative investigation. Plos One/DOI 2015: 1-14.