Motivation Articles

Expert Solutions: Motivating Goals

SparkPeople Experts and Coaches Weigh-In on Motivation Issues and Dieting Frustrations

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TODAY’S TOPIC: How much should you challenge yourself and how high should you set the bar? Some believe that building confidence by reaching any goal is most important. Others feel that being inspired by high standards or a lofty goal is what will get you up in the morning. Let's talk about some of the pros and cons of challenging yourself vs. taking it easy and aiming low.

NICOLE (SparkPeople Fitness Expert): I think it's important to have both broad and specific goals. A broad goal would be: I want to be healthier. From there, you add specific goals: "I want to lose weight. I want to eat healthier foods. I want to exercise, etc. Within that, I think small and attainable goals are the way to go. If you are a less-than-healthy person, a little overweight, eating a poor diet, maybe even a couch potato, I don't think it's reasonable or motivational to set high goals like: I will run 3 miles 5 days a week.

When it comes to seeing results and meeting goals, I think small goals are best. Setting small goals and continuously improving is going to be great for your self-esteem and it’ll keep you motivated. Small goals would be: eating one piece of fruit each day, trying a new vegetable dish, exercising for 10 minutes 2-3 days per week. Meeting these goals—and keeping track of them in a journal or an online format—is very motivating. Once they're met, set your standards a little higher, and you're always achieving something, and all of these small "somethings" are helping you toward your broader goal of "getting healthier."

JEN (SparkPeople Community Leader): I think people need to place a lot more emphasis on small goals than they do. Time after time I see people who just say, "I want to lose 50 lbs." Then they are discouraged 2 weeks later because they've only lost 2 lbs and think "All that hard work and I'm still 48 lbs away from my goal." They figure it's not worth the effort, so they quit. That's why I think small goals are so important. If you are constantly taking small steps- developing a plan for how you are going to reach each one and maybe a reward when you do- you'll eventually get to the same place, without all the pressure and stress.

I also think too much emphasis is placed on reaching a certain number on the scale. There are so many other awesome benefits that come from eating healthy and exercising regularly. Better sleep, less stress, lower BP and cholesterol, just to name a few. Yet people think if the scale doesn't say that exact number, they have failed. So when people think about results, I think they need to take the whole picture into account.

BECKY (SparkPeople Dietitian): I always try to use both approaches together. The lofty goal is often set (or planted in your head) by those in the ivory tower: Your blood pressure should be…Your HDL should be…Your weight should be…Your % body fat should be…You should exercise…Your fat intake should be…The list goes on and on.

Since everyone enters the race at a different spot and in a different condition, the playing field is vast. One cannot compare their race to others. But this is so difficult in our competitive, cutthroat society. This is why it is important to design and stick to your own race, with your own goals and expectations. Then true success and accomplishment, can occur.

I am currently working with a woman who, because of a complex medical history, weight and depression, was not ever leaving her house. Nine months later, she walks to her volunteer job four mornings a week, lost 20 pounds, and has lunch with two new friends in our hospital café. She may be crawling to most…but she is winning HER race!!!

NICOLE: Jen- I DO think that most people have unrealistic expectations...but can you blame them? We live in an instant gratification, speed-hungry society, so it's no wonder that even if it took you 20 years to gain 20 pounds, you want to get rid of it for your vacation next month.

And that also goes along with Becky's point about comparing oneself to others. If your friend did it, you should be able to also, right? And if the experts say that you should lose an average of 2 lbs a week, and you only lose 1, you think something is wrong with you. That's why I think small and attainable goals are so important. Even my own fitness goals are small. When I increase my time by 5 minutes a week, or increase my running speed by even .2 mph for a whole workout, I feel good! And that motivates me to keep going.

I never used to be very healthy. Fast food and Oreos made up the bulk of my diet and I never even touched a fruit or vegetable. I had a New Year's Resolution one year to be healthier. And although I consider myself to be a VERY ambitious person, my goals were small (just TRYING different fruits and vegetables was part of my plan!). You can't expect to change a lifetime of bad habits overnight.

JOE (SparkPeople Fitness Coach): Having hope that you can attain your goal is so important, and small achievements can go a long way in creating more hope. I think the combination of the lofty goal and the small achievements is what keeps you moving forward.

As far as aiming low or challenging yourself, I think it all depends on your priorities. If you’re going to aim for something big, realize that it will take a lifestyle change. If you’re not willing to make a major change right away, it may be best to aim a little lower and work your way into it.

Everything should be based on results. Why else would you work so hard? The key is realizing there may be more ways to measure results (like Jen mentioned) than you initially thought of. Emphasis on the outcome is a tricky one, because so many things can happen between the time you start and the time it ultimately takes to reach a goal.

JEN: Nicole- I agree about comparing oneself to others. People think there is something wrong with them because they can't lose the weight, when our society has set people up to fail! Super-sized meals, video games, etc. -- all of it has become the unhealthy norm in our society! Then people see pictures of skinny girls in magazines and think that is reality and there is no reason they shouldn't look like that, so they become even more depressed. Again, I think the focus is on the wrong thing - the number on the scale. So many people think that if only they were skinny, they would be happy and healthy. I've known a lot of depressed and unhealthy skinny people.

BECKY: Small Goals = BINGO! Recently I worked with a woman who went from eating 5 Danishes at night, down to 3 and lost 1-2 pounds a week. Small but effective...slow and steady wins the race.


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Member Comments

  • (12-yr-old article. Updating??) - The woman eating THREE (instead of 5?) danishes every 24 hours. Sounds like a race toward diabetes. Or maybe a liver ailment, or "just" overweight or obesity. How about skipping the pastries? Sounds like an addiction. Since that was 12?years ago, really hope she got help to change!
  • Thanks for sharing.
  • Great stuff and motivation!!
  • Great article. To keep me going. Thanks


  • 1. I only put a couple of kilos on my ticker at a time - it helps watching that ticker move faster than it would if I had had 60 kilos on it!
    2. Only at the start of a month do I make a change (if I need to). For example...April I looked at portion sizes, May I stopped all grazing, and in June I have been making sure there's sufficient protein in every meal.

    These little goals have been contributing to a more consistent weight loss and increased health.
  • Loved this article.... besides,
    There's an enormous amount of great motivational "stuff" on Spark People - and the more I read, the more I understand about "The Journey" towards a healthier me.

    I began this trip as a way to make me be accountable to myself for the things I was eating every day. As I read it became very apparent that I was missing most of the picture...goal setting was a huge part. I have an "End Goal" but have taken the advice of "10% Goals" in the interim. That's working for me. I watch my daily/weekly calorie deficit like a madwoman... I also have a weekly goal to have a deficit every week - the amount is not always fixed because life is different week to week... but EVERY week has the deficit goal. Since I started in February of this year, there have been only 3 weeks that I didn't log a deficit - and all three weeks I was travelling. The goal then shifts, to make that up in the following week or two.... it's always with the "End Goal" in mind.

    IT CAN BE DONE - You can do whatever you make your mind up to do!! Thanks Sparkers!!
  • When I sat my goal to lose 50 lbs by march, I also thought this is unrealistic, and excepted that I would be happy with what ever I lost. Weight is far so much easier to put on and oh so hard to take off. I know our bodies is not like anyone else,what works for one person might not work for the other. I loved this article it keeps me focus on me, what I can do.Thank You
  • DEB_LEA
    Excellent article. I think it really does help to have the smaller (more easy to attain) goals as well as bigger, longer range goals. The problem I've had in the past is that i get to a certain point and then revert to old bad habits. Keep your eye on that long-term goal of improved health & fitness!
  • Great Article! This website is helping me so much!
  • Thank you. I was about to give up.
  • I want to do the danish diet!!! LOL
    For real, I really need to take a lot of this in. So much of this article is talking directly to me!!
  • 120FITNHEALTHY
    This article is so true. I am now 149lbs at 5'7.5" tall. A very short year ago I was 127lbs and trying to lose more weight. The weight was not coming off the way I wanted to it to and I was addicted to the scale. Because I was not losing the 2-3lbs per week as I wanted I use to binge to get over the disappointment hence gaining more weight until now.

    It took me over 30lbs later to realize that the reason I was unhappy with my weight then is because of my screwed up mentality about the weight loss PROCESS.

    Right now I want to be 120 but this time I am doing it the healthy way. Step #1 is I have thrown out the scale. I do not need to know how much I weigh everyday. Step #2 is that I am focusing on health and loving me through it all. and Step #3 is that I am being good to myself
  • I am cutting my Danish consumption down from 5 to 2 a wek, LOL! Yep, large goals with attainable and measurable small goals is one of the tools of healthy lifestyle success!
  • Goals are more than numbers lost on the scale! How did I not know that before. Staying within calorie limit, reaching my target km each week, walking the stairs in lieu of using the elevator at work. All goals worth celebrating. Thanks
  • I've always believed in setting a large in general goal and then breaking it down into smaller chunks that give you the hope and excitement to make it to the end when you reach a smaller one