Set goals the right way

Goal-setting is so powerful that I’m astonished the topic isn’t taught in all schools. I’ll do my best to spread the word to as many people as possible and hopefully you will help me!

Goal-setting, when done correctly, is a powerful thing. One study in 2010 showed a 30 percent improvement by college students following a goal-setting program as part of their studies. I chose this example for a quick visualization exercise: Visualize that 30 percent improvement over a few months time. Then, visualize using goal-setting over longer time periods. The results you will achieve start to build momentum so that you continue growing as a person at an accelerating rate.

The "right" goal-setting process is also important. For example, New Year’s resolutions are a form of goal-setting that typically illustrates the top goal-setting mistakes: setting a too-big goal without breaking that goal down into smaller chunks and having someplace to write down those smaller steps (like here at SparkPeople!).

The Goal-Setting Continuum

On day two, we had you think about why you want to be fit and healthy. Goal-setting is a process that helps you break down your "why" into an action plan step-by-step along this continuum:

  1. Core values: Your "why" from Day 2.
  2. Purpose in life: A more action-oriented version of your "why." For example, one of my purposes in life is to help people reach their goals using SparkPeople. This is an outgrowth of my core value of "helping others."
  3. Long-term goals: These are very big goals for you that align with your values and beliefs. They might take a year or more, but could be shorter as well.
  4. Medium-term milestones: Break these longer-term goals into big "chunks" that we call medium-term milestones. These might last from one to three months, but, again can be shorter depending on the goal
  5. Short-term action steps: A short-term action step starts to bridge the gap into daily planning. These are the smallest units of your goal.
  6. Daily planning and tracking: This is where the magic happens on a daily basis to connect back to what’s most important to you.
  7. Building healthy habits: We include healthy habits in the continuum to show that the more healthy habits you build out of this goal-setting process, the easier it will be to continue with your next goals!

Here are a couple of examples showing how to break down goals:

Weight loss

  • Core values = Be a great parent and a strong contributor at work. Remember that we don’t like people to just have a weight-loss goal standalone. Rather, there should be a strong reason or reasons you want to lose the weight that will make this a much stronger goal for you.
  • Long-term goal = Lose 50 pounds
  • Medium-term milestone = Lose five to eight pounds per month
  • Short-term action steps = Lose about one to two pounds per week, plus a bunch of other short-term actions steps that will help you do this, such as finding new healthy recipes or experimenting with a new exercise class.

Learn a new skill

  • Core value = have fun in life!
  • Long-term goal = learn to play the guitar
  • Medium-term milestones = take two lessons per month from a teacher, perform in front of a friend after two months, perform in front of a group of friends after four months, find new friends who’d like to form a small band
  • Short-term action steps = find person for lessons, purchase used guitar, start practicing one hour per week using online videos

The Power of Small Goals

We typically see a couple of different types of problems when it comes to weight-loss goals:

  1. The person focuses on some type of fad diet that can’t possibly be done long-term in a healthy way. As soon as that diet (which is usually some form of a calorie-deprivation diet) ends, the odds are very high the weight will come right back
  2. The person doesn’t break down big goals. The most common example of this is setting a New Year’s resolution to lose 50 pounds without breaking that down into small action items that can be completed and checked off.

When we first started SparkPeople, we had clients come into our office for coaching. This is where we tested elements of the SparkPeople system. Many of our clients had tried and failed at five to 10 "diets" and had lost all hope they could reach their goal. So we started them off with the smallest possible goals, asking them if they could reach goals like:

  • Eating one fruit and one vegetable in at least three of the next seven days
  • Doing at least 10 minutes of fitness three of the next seven days

When they returned for the next week’s session we asked, "How did you do with your small goals?" Their response was often some form of "Yes, I reached my goal! What’s next?!"

Therein lies the power of small goals. When they are done as part of a smart long-term goal that fits into your most important values and beliefs, then odds are good these small goals will build so much momentum you will be unstoppable!

A good way to visualize this is the story of a SparkPeople member who wrote in saying that when she started SparkPeople all she could do was walk to her mailbox and back, but this was her small goal. No big deal, right? That can’t possibly burn many calories, right?

Well she kept doing this small goal. Then her strength and confidence increased. Eventually she lost 100 pounds and shared a photo of her crossing the finish line of a marathon!

Goal-Setting Tips

Here are additional points to keep in mind. Goals should be:

  1. Inner-Directed: Goals should be something uniquely yours that you really want for yourself. This will increase the odds of you putting in the effort and planning to achieve the goals.
  2. Concrete and Measurable: Goals should be as specific as possible and have at least a rough timeline. If necessary, you can adjust the timeline (and potentially learn lessons along the way when you have to adjust timelines). A goal like "I want to lose weight" is too vague; "I want to lose five to eight pounds in a month" is better. However, since there are often things outside your control with exact weight loss, you should be more flexible with weight-loss goals.
  3. Harmonious: Your goals shouldn't conflict with your values and beliefs or your life's purpose. This dissonance is likely to hold you back.
  4. Realistic and Achievable: It's great to think big, but be realistic about what you want to achieve so you do not set yourself up for frustration. For weight-related goals, keep in mind that it probably took you a long time to gain the weight, so it should take a while to lose the weight so you don’t put too much stress on your body during this change.
  5. Written: You can tell by now that I’m a big fan of writing things down and tracking them. Goals are one of the best things to write down because it makes them real and starts you on the process to go reach those goals.

I'll tell you a secret though: Even though I say above to set realistic goals, when you follow this process, sometimes you have major breakthroughs in life that you might have never thought possible that transform the course of your life. Just look at Susie:

"I so agree with you that they need to teach goal-setting in elementary school! Until I came to SparkPeople I never heard of setting a goal or even to go about it. Fortunately for me, I had joined a team and one of the leaders held a class that involved Coach Dean Anderson's "Mind Over Body series." One of the exercises he gave us was to write our goals. There were a number of us that said how do we do that? So there was a new lesson for us. I always say if it hadn't been for that team I might never have had the success I have had." SUSIEMT