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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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

    you have a very interessing website thank you
    .com - 2/17/2015 5:24:26 PM
  • Excellent article. So many people mistake objectives for goals. The objective is in the vision statement. The goal is how to get there and this article says it extremely well. - 9/7/2014 12:43:12 PM
  • Cramperella, you make a good point, but I would say your goals are still challenging to you. You may consider them modest, but by what or whose standard? Challenging does not mean impossible. Different people have different challenges, so do not disagree. Rather, look at it differently, which it sounds like you have. - 9/7/2014 12:42:00 PM
  • While I agree with most of the tips, I beg to disagree with the first one. I think it depends on where you are on your journey and what baggage you carry. For myself, suffering from an eating disorder and with years of yo-yo dieting failures behind me, having a challenging goal is a recipe for another failure. This time my goals are so modest that many would consider them insignificant, but they have resulted in more success than I have experienced in years. - 9/7/2014 11:56:00 AM
  • good reminders - 7/10/2014 6:13:13 AM
    Good advice. - 7/4/2014 10:56:58 AM
  • I always find these kinds of ideas easy to remember and apply if I create an acronym. Here's what I came up with CAST F P. Cast for postivie! - 4/4/2014 11:38:09 AM
  • This is a thought proving article, and helpful in my goal assessment. - 12/7/2013 6:56:10 PM
  • Great article. I love reading every article. Keep them coming. - 9/10/2013 7:24:33 PM
  • Well-written article. Last night I started a motivational journal in addition to my daily journal for prayer and life events. I'm keeping track of all my Spark Goals and challenges. I'm adding positive quotes, things I'm grateful for, and things I want to do for others. I planned rewards for several goals, and my next step is to create a rewards calendar to see when I can get the prizes for my efforts. Some things include exercise equipment (like resistance bands, ball, etc.). Or a lovely set of stylish salad plates to hold my healthy meals. Things that will enhance my lifestyle change and help along the journey. Thanks for keeping us motivated with this informative article. - 12/12/2012 7:47:59 AM
  • Excellent article with applicable strategies for my weight loss journey. - 10/27/2011 4:12:44 PM
  • Very helpful to go through the steps. I am journaling as I go. Anyone have example vision statements? - 10/23/2011 10:52:20 PM
  • This whole series is full of important ideas that go beyond counting points and steps. Thank you Dean, you are my hero.
    I want to stop relying on eating to manage my feelings. It keeps me fat and adds to my unhappiness. Have lost 16+ so far.
    Best wishes to all! - 6/13/2011 6:24:53 PM
  • I saved this to help me get set up better on my journey. Thanks for all the articles, they really do help! - 3/3/2011 2:47:12 AM
  • I printed this one out, but I needs some examples of NOT being vague to myself... - 9/23/2010 3:17:02 PM

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