Health & Wellness Articles

6 Characteristics of Effective Goal Setting

Plot Your Strategy for Weight-Loss Success

Once you've created your vision statement for weight-loss, you probably know the general direction you want to move. The next step is to work out the particular short- and intermediate-term goals that will get you moving in that direction, followed by concrete action steps you can take right now to get going.

If you’ve checked out the other resources available here at SparkPeople, you know that effective goal-setting is a major foundation of the program. There is a wealth of detailed information and practical suggestions on this subject in the Resource Centers, on the Message Boards, and built-in to the program’s stages and features. This article will simply summarize the basic elements of good goal-setting, so you will know how to formulate your own specific goals.

The 6 Characteristics of Effective Goals
  1. Challenging: Your goals should be realistic and suited to your present capabilities. You can’t go from habitual couch potato to world-class athlete overnight, or recover the “look” you had in your 20's if you’re pushing 60 right now. Small, progressive steps toward reasonable, long-term goals are crucial to success. But your goals should also push you to extend yourself beyond where you already are. Otherwise you will get bored and quit the game.

    Example: It's great to work on drinking those eight cups of water everyday, but people do not lose weight from water drinking alone. Get thee off thy butt and go do something that makes you sweat. Then you'll need the water and it won't be so hard to drink.
  2. Attainable: Don't take the challenging characteristic (above) too far. Make sure you can actually achieve what you're setting out to do. Otherwise, you will get frustrated and quit the game.

    Example: Sixty minutes of aerobic exercise may be better than 30 minutes, but two hours may not be—especially if you're so worn out afterward that you have to stop exercising completely for a while. You can always build up the time and intensity of your workouts as your fitness level improves over time.
  3. Specific: Trying to "do your best" or "do better" is like trying to eat the hole in a donut. There's nothing there to chew on or digest. You need to define some very specific, concrete, and measurable action-steps that tell you what your goal looks like in real-life terms. Include how you will measure your results so you can tell whether you are getting anywhere.

    Example: If you want to get a handle on emotional eating and you've decided that keeping a journal may help, set aside scheduled time to do your writing each day; set up some specific changes in your behavior that you want this work to produce (like not eating after your last scheduled snack); and create a time interval and/or method to figure out whether your journaling is helping you reach that goal or not.
  4. Time-limited: Goals need to come with deadlines, due dates, and payoff schedules. Otherwise, they'll fade into the background with your daily hubbub, and you'll quit playing the game. If your long-term goal is going to take a while to reach, create some intermediate- and short-term goals. These will make your larger goal seem less daunting and keep you focused on what you can do here and now to help yourself get there.

    Example: If your overall goal is to have the weight off in one year, make sure you set up some intermediate weight goals to serve as check points along the way. Otherwise, those small things you need to do every day, and the small successes you achieve, can seem so insignificant compared to how much further you still have to go that you may lose interest.
  5. Positive: Goals should always be framed in positive terms. Humans are not designed to white-knuckle their way through life, always trying to not do things or to avoid certain thoughts, feelings, actions or circumstances. We are much better at approaching what we DO want than avoiding what we don't want.

    Example: If you want to reduce the amount of “junk” food you eat, frame that goal in positive words like increasing the amount of calories you eat from healthy foods, and identifying which healthy foods you want to eat more. Instead of trying to eliminate chocolate treats, for example, plan a low-fat yogurt with fruit for your sweet snack. If you do this for a few weeks, your brain will disconnect the habitual association between treat and chocolate and make a new one with the yogurt and fruit. And you’ll be just as happy with this new treat!
  6. Flexible: Good strategies and goals are always flexible, because nothing in this world stays the same for very long, and staying alive and on course means being able to adapt to changing circumstances.

    Example: You are always going to run into circumstances that make it difficult to stick to your diet or exercise plan—special occasions, unexpected schedule conflicts, even just a really hard day where you need a break from the routine for your mental health. Your goals should include some contingency plans for dealing with these problems so that you don’t fall into that all-or-nothing thinking that lets one difficult situation become an excuse for ditching your whole plan.

    And remember, meeting your goals is 90% attitude. No one is perfect, and you’re going to have days where you just don’t do what you set out to. Make sure you build up some good stress management habits and tools to help you deal with those days without losing sight of your long-term goals, or losing your motivation.
For more ideas on strategies and goals, see:

The 10% Solution
Goal-Tracking Tools
1 Step Back, 2 Steps Forward

This article is Step 7 in SparkPeople's Mind Over Body series, a 10-step program to ending emotional eating and creating a permanent healthy lifestyle. View the full series here or continue to the next step.

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Member Comments

  • I use short term, mid term and long term goals. It really helps one walk through the steps of weight loss and healthy living. Thank you for all your wonderful articles.
  • Very informative article. I think I can use this it will help much.
  • My neurologist gave me such good news about my Bell's palsy, that I was making extraordinary progress, that I felt at least momentarily invigorated. I did more walking and some mild calisthenics, which I have not felt like doing since stricken. I have been inspired by being involved with Sparkpeople to watch my portions more carefully, too. All toward a goal of losing more weight and getting my blood sugar down more. I have not made as much progress as I would have liked these past 30 days with Sparkpeople because the Bell's has left me feeling exhausted most days and forgetting to eat until I feel like fainting. I am anticipating that better and am ready with appropriate snacks.
  • mind changing....thank
    s Dean Anderson and Sparkland!!! :)))
  • Same article, same me - and I lost the 3 pounds I'd planned to lose in 21 days - slow and steady for me. It's the only way.
  • I'm on day 20 - will weigh in tomorrow. Last week down 2-1/2 of the 3 pounds I hoped to lose - before Christmas. It's been a hard week tho - not in terms of food intake but in terms of life events. I've not been nearly as mobile this past week and I feel it but can't do much about it.
  • Again, another great article. This program has helped me set realistic goals and I plan on continuing after day 21, tracking and doing the challenges as a mainteneance program!
  • I really like the reference to positive language in goal setting!
  • I love Dean's articles - he has a wry sense of humor and he's a realist. His "examples" help me to use his hints and make them applicable to me.
  • Thank You , this lifted me up a bit , Now to sit my mind to get thing rolling in the right direction.
  • I appreciated the article. Thank you so much for the guidance.
  • I read this, or a similar article at the start of the year when I first started. I made all my goals SMART - like I used to at work - I did not achieve any of them in the expected time frame and felt that I wasn't achieving. For weightloss and exercise I am no longer using timeframes. I have the targets and milestones. I am achieving them, slowly. Improving myself one choice, one day, one week at a time.
  • This is a great article on goal setting! It's really hard to set goals but this helps simplify it.
  • Helpful article - Thanks! I will incorporate this in my goal setting. I find goal setting so hard.
  • great ideas. It keeps to the wise mantra of "little steps at a time" which is SO good for overall success. However, I will never find yogurt and fruit to be just as much a treat as chocolate! ha! but, in my own defense, the only chocolate I consume is very dark, like 85% and I limit myself to 60 calories of that per day. It is my reward at work, to keep me going as a shift nears the end. Oh, and I do have dark M&M's in the evening. I have a dispenser that gives out maybe three at a time. PERFECT little taste as I wind down.

    So yeah, I'm going to have chocolate, but I know how to be sane with it. Good article.

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.

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