Motivation. It’s the thing that ebbs and flows. Sometimes you will feel like you can take on the world. Other times the mere thought of having to make something for dinner is enough to cause you to go off your eating plan. In those moments you need to know why you are doing all this work. This is where the goals come in. They are the little reminders of where you are going and why, they benchmark your successes (or failures), simply and clearly, they motivate and mark your journey. Welcome to goal setting, the art of how to set goals and achieve them.
The Importance of Goal Setting
Imagine we are going on a road trip. What questions would you ask me? Would you want to know where we are going? It’s a fair question. But what if I didn’t know? Would you want to know how long we would be gone? Your job and family would probably want to know, so I assume you would too. Let’s say I didn’t know.
Just for giggles, let’s say you actually got in the car with me (maybe your day-to-day life was really that dull). As we begin our trip I drive down the road and head east. Why east? Well, it’s a good direction, of course. And we go, in search of who knows what, with no idea of how long we are going to be gone, or why we are even doing it. Now is there a chance we would have a great time? Learn new things? Have a great adventure? Yes, yes, and yes. Is it likely? Not so much. There are at least a few things we should have figured out before we rode off into the sunset.
How to Set Goals and Achieve Them
Enter the goals. These little or big guys are your map: the who, what, when, how, and why of what we are doing. We go through life with a good degree of purpose most of the time. Just think of washing the dishes. Do you know why you do it? Because the dishes are dirty, or I don’t want to piss off my wife. Do you know when it is time to stop? When all the dirty dishes have been cleaned, or cleaned and put away. Do you know about how long it will take you? I could keep going, but I’m guessing you get the picture.
We have clear goals and expectations for a lot of what we do. Why would embarking on a fitness journey be any different? Why would you have less of a clearly defined vision for your eating and exercise plan than you have for dirty dishes?
Our goals provide us clear, well thought-out, direction. Direction that has been defined through multiple measurable steps. These clearly defined directions than become something we are accountable to. They let us know how we are doing and what we need to adjust to keep moving forward. If you have no clear goal in place, then how do you know if or when you get there?
Big and Small Goals
If all you want is to do is look better come swimsuit season, you are likely to fail — over and over. If instead, you want to be fit to go on the adventure you’ve always dreamed of, or to be strong and healthy enough to play and train with your kids, if you are doing it so your kids will learn healthy habits, then these are the types of reasons that keep you going even when it’s hard. And I promise it will be hard. Challenges and temptation will come.
Setting Big Goals
Sometimes the hardest part is finding out why you really want this. It’s easy to say you want to wear a smaller size. But why? Are a couple inches less of fabric worth hours of exercise, changing your habits and giving up some of the foods you love? I doubt it. Will shrinking the amount of fabric down change your life? Nope. On the other hand, what do you see when you picture yourself being a smaller size? How are you feeling? What are you doing? How is it different than how you feel and what you do now? That’s where you will find what your real goals are.
These are your big goals. The motivating ones. They are the vision you have for your life. These goals should be celebrated. Once you know your big goal, put reminders in the places where you feel temptation the most. Is it in your kitchen? At your desk? It’s different for everyone. It can be pictures, articles, or anything that makes you think of your goal. It doesn’t have to be personal or explicitly state what you are wanting to achieve. Or it can. It is completely up to you.
Setting Small Goals
Small goals are different. Small goals are the little steps you need to take to achieve your big goal. They define the day-to-day activities that you are going to do. Do you want to go down a couple clothing sizes? What are you willing to do to get there? Are you going to exercise? If so, what are you going to do and when? Exactly how are you changing your eating habits? These are focused on performing an action or a task. To develop these goals most people use SMART goal setting.
How to Write Your Goals
SMART goal setting is a structure you can use to ensure your goals are clearly defined. The idea would be that after a specific period of time you could easily know if you were successful or not. Your waistline does not care if you “feel” like you ate better or exercised more. Your waistline will only change when you do eat less and/or exercise more.
SMART goals not only help us by serving as a yardstick for how far we have come, but they also tell us step-by-step how to get there. It takes out any vagueness or ambiguity. Here is the format for writing a SMART goal:
S – Specific (exactly what you will do)
M – Measurable (numbers, how often, how much, how long)
A – Action oriented (you need to do or not do something)
R – Realistic (something you can achieve)
T – Time bound (how long you will do it)
SMART Fitness Goals: Examples
I will do cardio (walking or spinning) for 30 minutes, 4 days a week, for the next 4 weeks.
I am going to eat 5 servings of vegetables every day for the next 2 weeks.
For the next week, I will not have any soda or sugar sweetened beverages.
With these goals anyone could tell if I achieved them. If I only had 4 servings of vegetables and not 5, then I haven’t met my goal. What if I have even 1 sugar sweetened beverage? Well, then I didn’t make it. If I did spinning for 30 minutes on 5-6 days per week of a 4-week period then I accomplished that goal.
NOT Good SMART Goals:
I will exercise more.
I will eat less.
ln the next 30 days I’m going to lose 10 pounds.
The reason they aren’t good is simple — in the first two, I’m too vague. It is hard to say whether or not I really did “more” exercise, and what I even meant by it. Does 3 minutes more count? What if I exercised harder but for less time, would that count? How about eating “less”? Less volume, less often, or less unhealthy foods?
In the last example, I haven’t said what I am going to do. The 10 pounds is an outcome of doing (or not) a bunch of other things. It by itself is not an action. That said, you can still have that as a goal, you just need the smart goals to back it up and get you there.
Setting up for Success
It is important to make it as easy as possible to follow through and as hard as possible to fail. To achieve that, you need to think about your specific goals. What are you going to do or not do? What will your temptations or barriers be and what could you do ahead of time to mitigate them? This can be putting your gym bag in your car the night before or packing a healthy lunch with snacks in case you get too hungry in the afternoon. If you know you like sweets, you can ensure you have something sweet, yet healthy, available when the craving strikes.
If your goal is to walk 10,000 steps per day you can park a little farther away so you can easily get a few extra steps in. Are you pressed for time and struggle getting in an entire workout? Split your workout into two or three mini-workouts throughout the day.
The more you come up with ways to ensure your success, the easier accomplishing your goals will be. On the other hand, if you do run across times where you struggle with your goals, ask yourself what you can do to make it easier for you the next time. Use each failure as an opportunity to learn more about your habits and choices. It’s also important to remember that when we first set goals we may overestimate our abilities or underestimate how hard it will be. You may find you have barriers you never thought would come up. I’m sure you aren’t the first to struggle with it. Once you know why you tripped up, you can start working to make it easier for the next time.
Measuring Your Success
Now that the work of writing your goal is done, and the stage is set for success, we move onto measuring your actions. The first step toward achieving your goals is to have a way to track them. It can be as simple or complex as you like. I prefer to just use a calendar. I put my tracking calendar in plain sight. It doesn’t have any personal goal information, but it means something to me.
I usually put my goals in two areas: eating and exercise. If I exercised that day, I put a backslash across the day. If I followed my diet plan, I put a forward slash. Any day I did both would have an “X”. I like that method because it is easy to do. It also gives me a very clear visual of exactly how I’m doing without having to think about it or flip (or scroll) through a bunch of information.
Some people prefer to track progress in more detail. Keeping a food diary that adds up exact calories, tracking exactly what exercise was done, how much weight was lifted, etc. These methods are great if they work for you. Either way, you want to be able to know on any given day how close you are to achieving your goals for the day, the week, or the month.
Each person will have their own preferences. What matters is that what you choose works for you. If what you’re doing isn’t working then try something different. There are tracking tools and apps to meet anyone’s needs.
Reward and Punishment
In order to achieve your goals it helps to have a reward and punishment system in place. By punishment, I don’t mean anything masochistic. Both your reward and punishments should be something good for you. The only difference is that you should like your rewards and not enjoy your punishments.
I’m sure you are all wondering what in the world I mean by punishment. We all have those things we know that we should do. I should clean out my garage, scrub my grout, go through my closet, etc., but I just never seem to find the time. If you are unsure of what things you could or should do, ask your loved ones. I’m sure they will be quite excited to give you a list. All those chores…
In the beginning especially, I like to reward smaller achievements and have bigger rewards for longer blocks of time. For example, you can have a weekly small reward like watching a movie, sleeping in, having some more “you” time, and a monthly larger reward like a new outfit, new cookbook, or new piece of equipment/fitness related item. You can even do bigger picture rewards like a weekend away after 6 months of doing well. It’s important that you value whatever reward you pick. You want to look forward to it and be willing to work and sacrifice to get it.
Punishments on the other hand are done on a daily basis. Let’s say my goal was to go to the gym on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for 30 minutes. If I didn’t go to the gym Monday, I could either do the punishment that day, or if I let Tuesday be a make up day, I could do the punishment only if I didn’t make up the workout on Tuesday.
Remember, the punishment does need to fit the crime, so to speak. If you were going to work out for 30 minutes (plus drive time to and from the gym) your punishment needs to take just as long. Now the question you would ask yourself isn’t “do I want to go to the gym?” but the question becomes “would I rather go to the gym or clean out my garage?”. It’s an entirely different question and it will likely have an entirely different answer.
The first time I ever assigned myself a punishment was when I was in college. It was a school project I did on goal setting. My goal was to get to the gym three days per week for a 30-minute workout. At the time I was a slow at typing. I always wanted to be faster, I just didn’t want to practice. Therefore my punishment was to type the alphabet for 45 minutes. Without TV or anything else to distract me, it was just me and the good old abc’s. Was I perfect at achieving my goal? No. But I also only skipped about two workouts that month. Not only was I in better shape, but I was also faster at typing come the end of it!
So, both rewards and punishments play an important role in keeping you on track. They make you better, your house cleaner, your yard nicer, and you – lean, strong, and sexy.
What to Do After You Achieve Your Goals (or not)
I like any goal to go on for at least 2-3 months. Behaviors are hard to change, and while I gave 2, 3, and 4-week examples above, I would go through a few of those cycles before closing out the goal (unless of course you are progressing up to the next step). You want to keep the goal going long enough so that the behavior becomes hardwired. Whatever you did to achieve your fitness goals, you will need to keep doing to maintain the results. This is a long game. You are building a new lifestyle.
You got this!
Once you have crossed the 2-3 (or 6!) month mark, it’s important to first take a moment and be proud of what you did. Be proud of the work and sacrifice it took. By now, you’d be an expert in the reward system. Do something special — you’ve earned it!
Once you’ve done that, it is time to go back up to the beginning. Are you close to achieving your vision? Are you already there? If not, create the next goals and the next steps to keep you moving forward. If you have accomplished your vision, or big goals, ask yourself what you want next. Where do you want the next journey to take you?
It was a miss…this time
On the other hand, you may find that week-after-week and month after month, you keep missing your target. If this is the case, then it is time to sit down and really look at your goals and your vision. How badly do you really want to achieve that vision? Do you want it badly enough to make the necessary changes? If not, that’s ok. To be successful, the pain of being where you are needs to be more than the suffering you will experience changing all your habits. When you are truly ready (when you hate being out of shape more than you hate exercising) it will come together.
The other thing to consider is if you were overly aggressive in setting your small goals. Were they really realistic? If you usually drink 5 sodas per day, maybe going to zero was too big of a change. Maybe one a day would be more doable, or going to 12 ounce cans instead of 20 ounce bottles would be something you could achieve. If you don’t workout at all, maybe running 45 minutes a day is a little overly aggressive. Even if you did run track in high school, you just aren’t there anymore. So, cut yourself some slack. Maybe find something you either want more, or consider dialing down your expectations a little. Small wins are better than no wins.
This last piece to remember is that you will mess up sometimes. Sometimes it is just a meal, just a day, or just a week or so, and you stop trying. Life spins up a storm and all your new habits go out the window.
Blowing your eating plan at lunch is only made worse by blowing it again at dinner. And really, does this make any logical sense? If you overate at lunch, how in the world does that make overeating at dinner a good idea? You just get back on that horse, and back on track for dinner. Let go of what was done and move forward. Life will go sideways. By staying on your plan most of the time, you will be successful. Don’t expect perfection.
Like anything else, motivation will come back again too. You will suddenly drop below a weight you thought was impossible. You will fit into clothes you never thought you could, or you will put something on and think, “Damn! I look good!”. These are the pieces that fuel us. Hold on to these achievements. Enjoy the rush of pride and motivation. Over time, the impossible will then become your new norm and the motivation will wane. Eating healthy is a lifelong endeavor. It’s not something you go on and off of. Enjoy the ride. Cut yourself some slack. Set yourself up for success, and enjoy your life. It’s a great journey.
Goal Challenge #1: Define your big goal or vision at the level where you feel it, see it, and taste it. What is it?
Goal Challenge #2: Write 2-3 SMART goals that will get you started on your journey to your big goal.
Feeling sexy? Share your goals in the comments!
What do you need from me to take the next steps? Let me know — I want to hear from you! Take a moment to comment on the article below. While you’re at it, join my Facebook group here. You can also find me on Instagram and Twitter. Talk with you soon!