7 Bad Goals to Avoid (and the 3 Steps to Achieving Any Goal)

If you’ve been on a weight-loss journey for any length of time, there are probably some terms you’re a little (or a lot) sick oflike "meal planning." And "food tracking." And "fitness program."

And, of course, "goal-setting."

The thing is, all of them are essential to your success. Especially the goal-setting. But not all goals are created equal. In fact, did you know that some so-called "goals" can even do more harm than good?

Here at SparkPeople, we talk a lot about "SMART" goals, which share these attributes: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely. In a nutshell, goals that do not meet this criteria probably shouldn’t a place in your weight-loss plan.

Although it's true that having an action plan is a crucial part of getting results, you have to be sure you're choosing the right goals to pursue in the first place. But first, you'll need to learn the difference between what makes a goal worth setting and a goal worth forgetting.

7 Examples of "Bad" Goals (and Better Goals to Choose Instead)

1. Bad Goal: "I want to lose weight."

It's perhaps the most common general goal among our members, but it's too vague to be an effective motivator. "This goal is not specific enough," says fitness trainer Anna Kaiser, founder of AKT. "You want to create goals that are clear and detailed so you know when you have accomplished them."

Better Goal: "I want to lose two pounds in 30 days."

A specific goal like this gives you something clear and concrete to work toward. "This is a goal that is quantifiable and allows you the opportunity to focus within a time period that feels attainable," Kaiser says. Then, once you reach it, it's time to set a new goal.

2. Bad Goal: "I'm going to exercise more."

Again, this is way too vague to allow you to effectively measure success or failure. While "more" is always good, you need to include the specific amount of activity you're targeting.

Better Goal: "I'm going to walk (or run, or bike…) every day until I burn at least 300 calories."

Having a concrete calorie goal in mind will keep you moving for a consistent amount of time each day, and you'll enjoy the sense of accomplishment when you hit that target.

3. Bad Goal: "I want to increase from five pushups to seven."

To minimize the risk of failure, it can be tempting to "sandbag" your goals so you'll be more likely to achieve them. But this only creates the illusion of success—deep down, you'll know what your true objective would have been, if only you'd been courageous enough to pursue it.

Better Goal: "I want to do 12 pushups."

Caley Crawford, director of education at Row House, believes setting goals that are on the edge of being achievable—and maybe even a tiny bit too far out—is the best way to go. "Even if you don’t achieve the goal in the amount of time you wanted, you’re still getting further than you would have by setting an easier goal," she points out. "If you’re setting a goal related to fitness performance, I highly suggest setting goals that are a little out of your comfort zone. It’s important to get comfortable being uncomfortable, because those are the moments where your body and mind really begin to change and evolve."

4. Bad Goal: "I want to lose 20 pounds by next month."

While it's good to be motivated and enthusiastic, having an overly aggressive goal can quickly deflate all that excitement. When you set your sights way above and beyond what is healthy or even possible, you're setting yourself up to fall short. And when that happens, you're more likely to get frustrated and give up on the goal altogether. Another danger of an idealistic aspiration is the increased likelihood of seeking out fad diets as a means of fast-tracking results, which can be dangerous.

Better Goal: "I want to lose at least eight pounds by next month."

There's a reason the CDC recommends one to two pounds per week as a healthy weight loss pace—it's safe and sustainable. Plus, it's a realistic goal that most people can achieve without resorting to drastic or dramatic measures.

5. Bad Goal: "I'm never eating chocolate again."

While this may seem like an admirable goal—particularly if chocolate is your weakness—this type of "all or nothing" goal can quickly lead to feelings of deprivation and, ultimately, an impulsive decision to overindulge after a period of time.

Better Goal: "I will cut down to two squares of chocolate per day."

This moderated goal allows you to still enjoy your favorite treat in smart, healthy portions, without gorging on excess calories and sugar.

6. Bad Goal: "I want to run the same distance and pace as {insert name here}."

While it's great to have a support system and fitness buddies, Crawford says it's not a good idea to set a goal that is purely a copy of someone else’s—simply because it’s not yours.

"Sometimes I see people set fitness goals because their friends set those goals, but it’s important to figure out what you want and strive to achieve those things," she says. "Otherwise, you won’t be truly motivated to get there."

Better Goal: "I want to beat my PR for distance and speed."

Ultimately, the only person you should be competing with is yourself. Base your goals on your own previous benchmarks, not a friend's, family member's, co-worker's or anyone else's.

7. Bad Goal: "I'm going to cook healthy recipes for every meal."

In a perfect world, this might happen. But in real life, while juggling work, family and home obligations, it's almost impossible to prepare a nutritious breakfast, lunch and dinner each day. Before long, you would almost certainly fall short, which could dampen your overall motivation and lead you straight to the fast-food drive-thru.

Better Goal: "I'm going to prepare at least five healthy meals per week."

This is a more realistic objective. You can fill in the gaps by batch-cooking extra servings and then freezing and reheating them, or choosing sensible versions of frozen or prepackaged foods.

The 3-Step Action Plan to Achieve Any Goal

Once you've identified some goals that you feel good about, it's time to create a plan to start moving toward them. Howard Jacobson, Ph.D., co-founder of WellStart Health, recommends following these three steps to achieve truly empowering goals.

Step 1: Focus on what you want, not what you fear.

As Jacobson points out, most people start exercising or eating better because they're afraid of an eventual outcome, such as becoming morbidly obese, developing diabetes or becoming a burden on their loved ones.

"Fear can be a powerful motivator in the short term, so if that’s how you started your journey to better health, no worries—but fear is only a motivator for as long as you’re afraid," Jacobson warns. "Once you’ve lost 30 pounds, or seen your blood sugar normalize or regained the ability to walk miles, that motivation dries up. You're 'out of the woods.'"

He sees this as the main reason that people yo-yo back and forth on their healthy diets and workout regimens—as soon as they start feeling better about themselves, they lose their driving fear and often "celebrate" success by reverting to their old, unhealthy habits.

If you notice that you're chasing a goal that's rooted in fear, try flipping it on its head to focus on a positive, forward-looking result instead of avoidance. For instance, instead of "I don't want to have to use a walker or wheelchair," you might instead say "I want to be able to walk a mile unassisted," or instead of "I don't want to be obese," you could phrase it as, "I want to be lean and muscular."

Step 2: Convert your goal from outcome to process.

Plenty of people set goals. What separates those who achieve them from those who don’t, says Jacobson, is nothing more mysterious than follow-through. "Achievers identify relevant actions and take them consistently," he says.

Once you've identified where you want to be, the next step is to adopt a set of habits, behaviors or routines, Jacobson says. For instance, if your goal is to lose 30 pounds and become lean and muscular, the path to achieve that lies in following good nutrition practices and sticking to a sufficiently challenging exercise regimen, so look for action goals that will get you there. That might include things like "I will add a fruit or veggie to every lunch and dinner," "I will walk for a minimum of 20 minutes per day" or "When offered dessert at a restaurant, I will ask for tea instead."

By focusing on the action steps instead of only the end result, you'll find yourself naturally progressing toward the goal. Jacobson likens it to a car's GPS navigation: You enter the destination address, then redirect your attention to the next turn, then the next, then the next. "The destination is necessary to the process, but once entered, it fades into the background of your consciousness," he explains.

Step 3: Use your goals to create a new identity.

For most people, their New Year's resolutions are a distant memory by February. Jacobson says that's usually because their aspirations were at odds with the sort of person they believe themselves to be. "They can have a salad to kick off lunch and dinner for only so long before their existing identity reasserts itself: 'Who are you kidding? You hate lettuce. You are a fast food lover. You know it’s just a matter of time, so why don’t you stop this charade right now and get it over with?'" he says.

That's why Jacobson says the third step is so important: to leverage the daily steps into a brand-new identity. "If you eat a salad twice a day for a week, that’s 14 affirmations of your new identity as a healthy eater," he explains. "So when the existing identity of 'junk food junkie' starts arguing, you have plenty of evidence to deploy as counter-examples."

By this stage of the process, he says, your goals might sound something like this:

"I’m the sort of person who begins every lunch and dinner with a salad."
"I’m a bipedal human who walks at least 20 minutes a day."
"I’m a responsible eater who doesn’t mess with highly processed or super-rich desserts."

Every time you act in accordance with these identity goals, according to Jacobson, you reinforce them. "By the process of elimination," he says, "your old identity loses power until it goes so dormant that it might as well be extinct."

Every achievement, no matter how large or small, starts with a goal. Once you've taken the time to choose the right ones, and have identified an action plan that is compatible with your lifestyle and personality, you're well on your way to progressing down the path toward the results you want.