We all have ideas of what we want our life to look like. It could be something like weight loss, improving speed on the bike or running, or even cooking more at home. When you set those goals, how do you go about doing it? Have you set goals and ultimately lost motivation or simply got out of the habit?
With the impending New Year, many of us like to think about what we want to accomplish. In fact, fresh starts are a great time for habit change (link). I’m here to help you set goals for the new year or any time that will actually keep you on track.
In this guide, you’ll learn:
- The mistakes people make with setting goals
- how to set process or behavior focused goals (instead of outcome goals)
- how big of a goal is too big
- strategies to avoid the self-sabotage of all-or-none thinking
- SMART Goals: the actual elements of setting an achievable goal
- some ways to track your goals
- how to stay motivated with your goals overtime
- define what success looks like
The Mistakes People Make with Setting Goals
It’s normal to look at what we want to achieve with a goal.
I want to lose 10 lbs. I want to finish top 10 in my race. I want to run a certain 10k or marathon time. I want to make a certain amount of money. These are all outcome-based goals.
Outcome goals are focused on the product of your work. The problem with outcome-based goals? A lot of the time, they are out of our control You cannot control a race result. In some ways, you cannot control the exact dollar amount you want to make. And even if they are within our control, outcome-based goals can be demotivating. You hear of people who train to run a marathon, do the race, and never run again.
Ultimately, we are trying to grow as a person or slightly change our identity. The goal of someone who wants to run a marathon is really that they want to become a runner, but if they miss this bit point, they may just run the marathon and quit running.
I’m sure you have heard about process-oriented goals. In coaching, we call this behavior-oriented goals. What behaviors can you consistently commit to that will move you toward the outcome you want? The behaviors, the process, the work- that is what gets you to your goal and that is what is within your control.
It’s okay to have an outcome in mind, but set that goalpost and then forget about it.
Ultimately, we set goals because we want to feel proud. At the end of the day, it’s the consistent work we put in that makes us feel proud, even if the outcome isn’t exactly what we wanted. I’ve felt really proud of race results that didn’t even land me on the podium because I know what I did to get to that point and I was proud of my performance.
As Atomic Habits author and podcast guest James Clear says, “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you want to become.” Focus on your daily actions, vote to be the thing you want to achieve. The goal isn’t to run a marathon, the goal is to become a runner. The goal isn’t to write a book, the goal is to become a writer. The goal isn’t to lose weight, the goal is to be someone who eats healthy. What are the actions of someone who already has that identity and how can you replicate them and feel proud of them?
Another problem people have is they set goals that are too big.
How Big of a Goal is Too Big?
The problem with unrealistic expectations or a goal too big is that it can undermine your confidence or even make you give up early in your attempt to meet your challenge.
What is the optimal amount of difficulty for challenges?
When it comes to flow and performance, scientists found that just 4% past your current ability is the right amount. Just 4%! That’s barely moving the needle and I think many of us try to dial it up by much higher numbers.
I have tried taking on too much at once many times and it usually would mean I got worse. Trying to do ride a trail that is too technical or coming back after an injury expecting to be exactly where you were before is unrealistic. Setting small action steps or small micro-challenges with skill development will continue to help you build your confidence and work towards a goal in a sustainable way. Start where you are today, and set just manageable challenges to move forward.
This is something my health coaching clients do every session- they set 2 or 3 small goals that put a brick in the wall to build toward their broader goal. It’s good to have a big vision for what you want to achieve- you may even have heard of setting a BHAG: Big Hairy Audacious Goal. I’m all for that! But it’s about taking the baby action steps, having the patience for the long-term, and committing the process.
100 small steps get you pretty far down the path, create an ingrained habit or skill, and give you the confidence and resilience to move forward. Looking at the big picture from time to time is key, just as long as it doesn’t overwhelm you making you feel like you need to do it all at once. it’s important to celebrate those small wins. We often are so focused on the future and focused forward that we forget the impressive mountain we just climbed.
Why All-or-None Thinking Doesn’t Work
Another landmine with goal-setting is people tend to think in all-or-none terms. Eating healthy is an easy example. How many times have you had one cookie that turned into three cookies, a pizza for lunch, chips for a snack, and fast food for dinner? We tend to self-sabotage when we slip up once.
All-or-none thinking has its place in changing or maintaining certain habits. In some cases, it’s easier to abstain from something completely than to approach a habit with moderation. In fact, studies show that we often are bad at guessing how moderate we are actually being. When it comes to moderation, it’s essential to have clear limits and boundaries. Whether we are trying to be all-or-none or trying to moderate a behavior within certain limits, slip-ups happen.
Here is why slip-ups happen and how to create a simple contingency plan for when they do. “Slip-ups” with behavior change happen for several reasons.
- Setting a goal that is too big or not sustainable for the long term.
- Solution: set smaller action steps or easier to attain goals to keep building momentum and trend in the right direction.
- Sometimes our environment is set up to make it hard to be successful (if you want to drink less but your spouse buys a bottle of your favorite wine… there’s Halloween candy laying around when you want to cut back on sugar, etc.)
- Solution: Create an environment that makes it easier to succeed (like put alcohol in inconvenient places to get to, don’t put beer in the fridge so you have to wait for it to get cold if you want one, don’t have candy in the house or put it somewhere out of sight and hard to get to). In addition, keep healthier options handy. Make access less convenient for habits you’re trying to break and make access more convenient and visible for habits you’re trying to adopt (e.g fruit bowl on the counter, wear a running watch to remind you that you are going for a run or start the day wearing your sports bra, so you’re already part-way dressed to exercise).
- Setting a goal that we think we should do but don’t really want to do, so we never actually tap into our intrinsic motivation and meaning.
- Solution: Set a different goal, or if this new habit is critical, find ways to make it personally meaningful and where you can feel or see the benefits.
Alright, so you know a few reasons why some of our habits don’t stick, but what happens if you set boundaries and you still didn’t follow through with what you said you’d do? One thing to try is to create if/then statements to help get you back on track. I first learned about if/then statements back in engineering school when we were doing computer programming. Identifying barriers and having a Plan B can be effective. Here are some examples. If I skip my workout this morning, then I will go for a walk after dinner tonight. (or) If I skip my workout this morning, then I will make sure I invite a friend to join me for tomorrow’s workout so I don’t miss it again. If I open a bag of chips, then I will put one serving on a plate with a piece of fruit and put the bag in a hard-to-reach place. If I want a cookie, then I will have (insert health option) first and decide after if I still want the cookie. If I don’t want to go for a run, then I’ll go for a hike instead.
Never Miss Twice
Another antidote to all-or-none thinking is the practice of never missing twice.
Simply tell yourself, “I missed that one time, but I will not miss twice” and then make sure that it doesn’t happen. So this week? Considering eating habits, if you eat something you didn’t want to eat (or just ate too much of something), make sure your next action, snack, or meal is a healthy choice. The sooner you get back on track, the sooner you maintain your habit loop.
Outliers are just that- they are not the norm. But if you let your outliers become the new pattern, that’s where consistency breaks down. Individual mistakes rarely affect the big picture unless they become consistent. Progress is not linear, but it’s what you do next when you realize you’re off track that matters!
Simply having a plan can prevent us from giving up altogether. It can be the difference in maintaining momentum (no matter how imperfect it is) or psyching yourself out and degrading your confidence in your ability to follow through with your goals.
How to Actually Set an Achievable Goal
We often hear “focus on the process and fall in love with the process, don’t think about the outcome.” I do love this advice and it’s something I often remind myself to remember. I can personally think of things I’ve achieved where I’d say “I’ll be happy when…” but that happiness is short-lived. Being happy working towards doing something, doing your best, and focusing on daily steps to improve are great ways to feel more fulfilled and find meaning in your life.
What is a SMART Goal?
You may have heard of S.M.A.R.T. goals.
-Specific Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic, and Timebound.
Answering the where, when, and how as specific as possible (and making sure the goal is just outside your reach rather than a pipedream) is a great place to start. Where do you go from there? Making sure that you have a system for tracking the goal is also of utmost importance. Research shows that it’s very difficult to improve in something that you don’t measure.
What are some ways to track Goals?
- use visual cues: like a big jar on your counter and put something in the jar each time you work towards your goal
- with an app (I like the Strides App– no affiliation- I just like them).
- using a google calendar
- For workouts, use something like Strava
- use an actual large paper calendar and mark each day with an X
How to Stay Motivated with Goals
It’s normal to lose motivation with goals or to just not feel like doing something. I addressed some specific examples when I talked about my commitment to show up during my first pregnancy. It’s been a saying I’ve carried with me into the future.
Motivation Follows Action
We often wait for motivation to strike, but we really need to get started to feel motivated. Even as a professional athlete, I don’t want to get on my bike half the time. I just get dressed, start pedaling, and then I decide if I want to go home. Give yourself a chance before you give up. There are days when you need rest or a break, but letting excuses overpower your actions. Commit to showing up.
Enlist Support and Accountability
It can be motivating to have someone to work on your goals with. Maybe that’s a ride or workout buddy. Maybe it’s someone you go shopping and do meal prep with. Maybe it’s just someone you regularly check in with like a friend or a coach. Understanding where your own motivation comes from (intrinsic or extrinsic) and whether having external or internal accountability motivates you will help you stay motivated.
Regularly assess Successes, Learnings, Challenges
I already talked about the importance of tracking your goals. It’s important to revisit what is going well (instead of only focusing on what isn’t going well) to help build and maintain your confidence. I recommend a weekly or bi-weekly check-in. Ask yourself what went well, what you learned, and what challenges you faced. Next, ask yourself what support you need. You can also do this with an accountability partner or coach.