Around this time each year, I start hearing from folks about how they’re really struggling to continue working towards the goals they set for themselves at the start of the year. This often leads to them feeling disappointed or guilty about “giving up” on their goals, and I wanted to offer a different viewpoint. I think that acknowledging that this goal isn’t working is a good thing. It teaches us that the current action plan isn’t working and that something needs to change.
And usually, what needs to change is the goal.
If you’ve set goals in the past, you’ve likely set them with the best intentions and maybe even followed the widely taught formula for goal setting known as SMART. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. The SMART goals I often hear are body composition goals such as "I want to lose ___ pounds before the summer" or "I want to be a size ____ in time for my wedding", and performance goals such as "I want to come in first place in my next race". The problem with these goals is that they are outcome based. They all have a specific result that usually ends with a pass or fail. The reason I dislike them is because we do not have complete control over what happens in our lives, and therefore we don’t have complete control over the outcome of whatever we’re working towards. Setting goals around a specific result almost certainly guarantees disappointment and often leads to people not wanting to set goals for themselves in the future.
Let’s take the goal of losing weight:
You could be doing everything you can think of that might lead to the change of the number on your scale. In the process, maybe you’ve developed some really fantastic health-supporting habits such as eating more proteins, veggies or fruit, staying more hydrated, moving your body more regularly, or getting ample sleep and managing stress levels.
But there is a myriad of factors that contribute to body composition that are absolutely out of our control. Not only that, the time it takes to reach a weight loss goal differs drastically from person to person (and is usually not sustainable). By only using a number on a scale as your measure of success, if you don’t see that result, it might feel like a failure. You are discrediting all the amazing habits you’ve worked into your daily routine, plus all your hard work and any of the wins you experienced along the way.
Instead, focus on reformatting your goals into something you have complete control over: your behaviour. A behaviour-based goal focuses on the process, not the outcome. These goals can still be SMART. But your success is based on the actions you took (or didn’t take), rather than on a single outcome that we have variable amounts of control over.
Now, before we go any further, I want to make sure you know that outcome-based goals are not inherently bad. If they are working for you, then that’s great! You don’t have to change them. But, if you’re finding that it’s difficult to stick with them, they definitely have an opportunity for improvement.
So, I challenge you to look at the goals you’ve set for yourself (in any area of your life, not just fitness or health), and determine if they are outcome-based goals. (Hint, if they include a specific result, they’re outcome based). Next, consider the steps you need to take to reach that goal. Then, break those steps down into smaller, actionable goals that feel doable to you.
For example, instead of “I want to lose ___ pounds by summer”, try “I want to move my body for 20 minutes-in a way that feels fun to me-3 days a week”. Or, “I want to go for a 15-minute walk on my lunch break two times per week.” Not only are these more in our control, but they also feel more motivating because you’re accomplishing them regularly. Those small wins make BIG differences to our feelings of success, which improves our motivation, as well as our likelihood of success overall.
Cheering You On,
PS. For other examples of behaviour-based goals, check out my last two posts on setting health-supporting goals that have nothing to do with dieting.