Motivation Articles

Goals that Help, Goals that Hurt

Remember to Think Positive

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By Dean Anderson, Fitness & Behavior Expert         
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Whether you’re brand new to SparkPeople, or a seasoned veteran, you have no doubt noticed that we put a lot of emphasis on setting goals. From the small first steps you take during the "Fast Break" phase, to the long-range visions that shape the new lifestyle you are trying to create, we know that the people who succeed at permanent weight loss are the ones who have chosen their goals wisely and pursued them vigorously.

But how do you know if the goals you set are "wise"—i.e., the right goals for you? Setting goals that don’t suit you can be the root of much avoidable suffering. You can determine whether your goals are helping you or hurting you in three easy steps:

Step 1: Take a close look at the words that express your goals.
Take a moment to read over your goals. If you keep them written in your head, jot them down on paper quickly before you read further. Done? Now look through your goals for any of the following words: NO, NOT, NEVER, STOP, LOSE, REDUCE, LIMIT, or QUIT. If these negative words (or similar ones) play an important role in the way you have stated your goals, you may be setting yourself up for problems. Here’s why.

Words are very powerful! They focus your attention in one area while other possibilities fade away. When words are negative (like those above), their results are negative. When you say, for example, that you will "Stop eating chocolate," what are you really doing? You are focusing your attention on the very thing you want to avoid—chocolate. IF going without something you want when it is always on your mind were easy, this might work. But, we all know that "out of sight, out of mind, out of reach" works a lot better.

Step 2: Do your goals deprive you of something you want (or think you want)?
If so, you’re just setting yourself up for feelings of deprivation, resentment, and rebelliousness. How many times have you gone a day, a week, or even longer without caving in to a food on your forbidden list, only to find yourself binging on it later, as if out of sheer spite? Contrary to belief, making something off-limits isn’t the best way to maintain control. It'll get that 2-year-old inside us really geared up to do battle.

Step 3: Do your goals set you up for failure?
Framing your goals in negative terms creates an all-or-nothing situation, where even one small slip means failure. And we all know where this leads—"Well, I’ve already blown it, I might as well enjoy it and start over tomorrow," which turns into next week, next month, or next year. Soon you feel like you can’t control your own behavior, but aren’t sure what to do about it.
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About The Author

Dean Anderson Dean Anderson
Dean Anderson has master's degrees in human services (behavioral psychology/stress management) and liberal studies. His interest in healthy living began at the age of 50 when he confronted his own morbid obesity and health issues. He joined SparkPeople and lost 150 pounds and regained his health. Dean has earned a personal training certification from ACE and received training as a lifestyle and weight management consultant. See all of Dean's articles.

Member Comments

  • So if you have a bad day, rather than say "I blew it!" maybe something like: "going to fine tune or refocus my goals tomorrow..' you think? - 4/19/2016 1:02:32 AM
  • I don't know that "lose" has a negative connotation - that's what I am on Spark People for! I do believe it is more positive to use it with a reasonable time limit as opposed to "I will lose 20 lbs. by next week" but my positive goal is: " I will lose 2 lbs. by May 15 and will maintain at that weight!" By the end of June, when I have met that goal, I will reset a reasonable time limit to lose another 5 lbs.
    - 4/13/2016 10:09:03 AM
  • VSHAPED
    I read some of the other comments about needing guidelines for setting up positive goals. For me that means making goals for what I will do, not what I won't do. An example: I'm in pretty bad condition physically. I'm recovering from a back injury and have feet problems. Also I'm obese. My current exercise goals are 1. Walk 20 minutes 3 days per week and 2. Ride the exercise bike 25 minutes 3 days per week. Those are doable for me. I'm not requiring myself to walk a certain distance because some days my back a or feet will cause me to walk more slowly. Same with the bike: Some days I'm tired and ride slower than others. But that doesn't matter. What matters is doing the time; that's doable for me. I have a long term goal in the back of my mind to do cardio an hour daily. I'll build to that slowly. For example at the beginning of each month I'll add 1 minute to my biking and waking goals. Eventually I'll add in other types of exercise, stretching and such, but that's another story #:^ ) Another example of positive instead of negative: Instead of making a goal to eat no or less chocolate, you might make a goal to eat a certain amount of vegetables or whole grains. That way you'll have less room for chocolate without focusing on chocolate! - 2/6/2016 7:30:19 PM
  • VSHAPED
    This is a very helpful article. I'll delete my goal to only drink 24 oz diet soda daily. Instead I'll make 2 goals: Drink at least 6 cups of water daily and drink at least 2 cups of tea daily. - 2/6/2016 7:06:26 PM
  • His words are appropriate not only for weight loss, but for all aspect of life. Learning to choose our words carefully helps us not only in setting our own personal goals, but how we interact with others. I will keep these words close at hand to refresh my mind frequently. - 2/2/2016 9:53:26 AM
  • DESPONDENT1
    Many of the comments are very helpful. It is good to see how other people do it so that you can pick and choose what you think will work for you. - 1/4/2016 9:00:53 PM
  • "Lose" is not always a negative goal word, but when your already stressed and down on yourself cause you screwed up and did or didn't do XYZ it could focus your thinking into a negative space. For weight loss goals think of goals more in line with "I want to reach a healthy BMI which for me is 130-160 LBS." So you still have your Goal, you have a it framed in a Positive manner and just need to break it into actions steps. (For me going to the BMI standard to find my Goal was necessary because I am so far into the obese Zone I didn't know what a Good Goal for me is.) Action Step: "I can achieve my Goal by Tracking my food on sparky and exercising x amount of times per week." "I can reach my goal by reducing my weight 10 lbs by New Years." The idea is to make them sound as positive as possible so that on your off days you don't become too discouraged due to the subconscious thought process when you read them. - 12/7/2015 8:26:54 AM
  • Since this article was from Day 3 of the Diabetes Weight Loss Challenge, the first word I wrote when writing my goals was "Lose." I didn't think that was a negative word. I thought that was the purpose of the challenge. - 12/3/2015 10:09:20 AM
  • MOUNTAINLADY789
    i'v never figured out how to make a positive goal - 11/15/2015 8:24:40 PM
  • Awesome article, but I agree with the others as needing some kind of guidance here for setting up goals without negative words. - 10/26/2015 12:41:11 PM
  • I agree COMPLETELY but I wish there were examples for people who struggle. I use goals like "I'll stay within my calorie target 90% of the time" and "I'll try to add 2-3 servings of fruit every day" and "I'll save my indulgences for truly special occasions". This has worked really well for me thus far and I think it's what he's getting at. - 9/26/2015 10:03:35 AM
  • BJPETOSKEY
    I really like the idea of avoiding negative words - and will no longer use "reduce" in my goal statements. - 9/6/2015 11:53:35 AM
  • I think that Dean Anderson's article is very helpful-- and he does give important examples for accomplishing my goals. His advice, "Keep track of calories as a necessary tactical measure" -- is one example. Another example is "Ask yourself if what you are about to eat will help you to reach your goals"---- I am indeed grateful for this information.
    Thank you, Dean Anderson--- - 5/13/2015 2:07:08 PM
  • JOURNEYMAN5K
    I'm with EOWYN2424. With no examples of positive goals included in here, the article is pretty much useless for those of us who can't find the wording to construct positive goals on our own. - 5/8/2015 8:44:46 PM
  • Psychological whiplash and revenge of the inner child.

    Self-compassion matters a lot, the more I practice it. Three years ago, I was *not* self-compassionat
    e.

    If kicking myself in the ass worked, it sometimes seemed to, the results weren't lasting. I was in emotional misery. I'm a strong person and I can do amazing things. cutting myself a break back then? No way.

    I struggle with my weight. Tracking helps as it keeps it "top of mind". If I really want a damn cookie, I'm having it. I just plan to fit it in or change up something else.

    I'm also finding that when I make better food choices with the idea that I can have a cookie if I want it, I feel better about eating better. I'm noticing I feel better.

    My favorite phrase the last several years has been:
    notice * pause * choose

    When I notice I'm feeling deprived or telling myself nasty stuff, I stop to take a moment. Then I choose what I will do. Even if I'm half way down the road doing something before I notice I'm doing it (baby, this is psychology), I can still stop for a moment and choose to go a different direction or keep going if it is really what I want to do.

    This is a very good article. - 4/30/2015 1:21:35 PM

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