The True Power of Setting the Right Goals

By , Elizabeth Babcock, Psychotherapist and Author
When it comes to improving our health and well-being, many of us find motivation failing us when we need it most. It's a common feeling that plagues many, especially when it comes to weight loss, which might mean that weight goals are simply not effective at motivating most people over the long term.
Concern about weight feels like a powerful motivator in that moment when you decide you just can't live like this anymore. You start out intensely focused on the new, better life you deserve but, if you're like most people, that determination doesn't last.
It's especially frustrating when you know you want to change for compelling reasons like wanting to be healthier and live longer. These reasons make perfect sense but, surprisingly, they lack the deeply emotional appeal that most people need in order to stay focused for the long haul. You know that someday if you stick it out, you'll be glad you made the effort. That payoff can seem distant and obscure, though, when what you need is something that feels worthwhile and rewarding today.
Meanwhile, as you strive to achieve those lofty goals for your future, the temptations and challenges of daily life loom large. You know that quality food makes you feel better and will support a better life, but that dessert on the table looks so good right now. You know you need to take more time to prepare quality food, but the drive-thru is so much easier right now. And so it goes with sensible choices getting overruled, one after another, in favor of what is easiest or most rewarding in the moment, especially when life is particularly stressful.

Two Secrets to Success That Actually Work

It's not that you don't care about having a healthier life. You make these short-sighted choices because we humans are neurologically wired to respond most strongly to what's in front of us right now, whether it helps or hurts us in the long run. That's how we're built and that isn't going to change. Therefore, your only recourse is to reduce your exposure to triggering circumstances, not just while you're on-project with specific health goals, but for the rest of your life if you want to preserve what you worked so hard to achieve.
The first secret to maintaining motivation and achieving long-term success, then, is to spend as much time as possible in settings which help you to remain focused and in control and to minimize your time in settings which set you up for failure. This not only supports better outcomes but is also easier and more enjoyable.
The second secret involves identifying goals with strong, personal, emotional value. You might be able to identify such goals by focusing on why you wanted to lose weight in the first place. How were you hoping that weight loss would change your life? What new opportunities and options for enjoyment did you think would become possible? What problems did you think might be reduced or eliminated? What physical and emotional pains were you hoping to alleviate?
The answers to questions like these will show you your real goals, so take the time to consider them and flesh them out at a level of detail that leaves you feeling genuinely excited. If you don't feel true desire for a goal, it will lack the motivating power you need it to have, regardless of how sensible it may be.
Most people start with these deeper reasons for taking on weight control in the first place, but they eventually start focusing on the weight itself more than on the personal goals that started the process. That's when interest fades and the process falls apart.
Any goal you select—be it reducing pain or a desire to buy more flattering clothing—must have an obvious emotional impact for you. You must then keep your primary focus on that goal and your progress toward it, rather than on your weight or the scale.
For example, if your goal is to be able to play on the floor with kids, you'll want to focus on eating foods that provide lasting energy to keep you going. You'll also need to move around a lot more in general to maximize your flexibility and strength. As it happens, those choices also support good health and are likely to result in the loss of a few of the excess pounds you may be carrying.
If you keep your focus on doing what it takes to move toward what you really want, you'll naturally make choices that have a positive impact on your health. Pursue what you want with determination and you basically get better health for free.
Any goal has the potential to be either useful or not, depending on what works for you. If it doesn't inspire you to think about having better health but you can get excited about wearing cuter clothes, for example, then by all means, do it for the clothes! All that matters is that you identify something you really want, which is likely to continue feeing important and worth fighting for to you over time.

Keeping It Real

You might hope that finding the right goal will be the end of the struggle, that everything will then naturally fall into place and you'll glide easily into your happier and healthier life. Sadly, it's unlikely to work that way and it's best that you give up this fantasy now before it derails your future efforts.
Daily temptations will still tax you and you'll still wobble from time to time. That's not only normal, it's actually the most realistic path to lasting improvement. You don't need to get it right every time—you just need to get it right enough of the time.
Reducing your exposure to triggers will make your journey easier, while the right goal will act as your compass, helping you to find your way back in the direction you want even if you get a little lost from time to time.