By Ross Harrison
Setting goals is unquestionably one of the most useful ways to create and maintain high levels of motivation, but it only works if the goals are appropriate for your ability level. Goals need to be both challenging and attainable; otherwise they can hurt your motivation and impede long-term progress.
If you set goals that are unrealistic or unattainable, you may start feeling as though you are failing when you are actually making progress. For example, if your goal is to lose 5 pounds of fat in a week (unrealistic for almost everyone), and you end up losing 1 pound of fat, you think you failed and lose motivation. In actuality a 1 pound fat loss is realistic for most people and this achievement means you are on the way to reaching your ultimate goal.
On the other hand if your goals are too easy, you may complete every one but you won’t have a sense of accomplishment, especially after your initial successes. If you don’t feel as though you had to overcome an obstacle or apply more effort than usual, it will not increase or even sustain your motivation. In general the more difficult it is to accomplish a goal, the more motivating it will be. This is one reason why it is so important to choose the right goals.
In addition to having challenging yet attainable goals, you also need to have different types of goals, specifically short, intermediate, and long-term goals. You should start by figuring out your long-term goals, because they will determine your short and intermediate-term goals.
Long-term goals can be anything you want to achieve that requires effort over an extended period of time. They can take anywhere from a few months to many years to complete or they can even be things you want to work on throughout your lifetime. Goal setting is all about formulating a path to success and a long-term goal represents the end point of the path. You should always know where you want to end up before trying to figure out how to get there.
The next step is to develop intermediate-term goals, which should represent important milestones that occur on the way to reaching the long-term goal. For example, if someone weighs 200 pounds with 40% body fat and has a long-term goal of weighing 150 pounds with 25 % body fat, they could have intermediate-term goals such as weighing 175 pounds or getting down to 35% body fat.
Whatever your intermediate-term goals are, they should be important to you. They frequently involve doing things that you have not done for a while, such as fitting into a particular piece of clothing or achieving a physical feat (e.g. finishing a half marathon). Reaching these milestones will provide you with a sense of accomplishment and reinforce the fact that you are making significant progress towards long-term goals.
There is no universal rule about how many intermediate-term goals you should have, but if you expect to take a long time to reach your ultimate goal, you should have more intermediate-term goals. After you determine your intermediate-term goals, you should write them down in the order in which you expect to reach them. If done correctly you should have a good idea of what it will take to get from where you are to where you want to be.
For many people this is the first time where they really start believing their long-term goals are attainable, because they can visualize a path to success. The next step is then to estimate how long it will take to reach each of the intermediate-term goals. In general, intermediate-term goals can be spaced from a few weeks to a few months apart.
Now that you have long and intermediate goals, you need to create some short-term goals. These will make up the majority of your goal-setting program and they should occur frequently and be relatively easy to accomplish. Unlike your other goals, short-term goals are less about developing a sense of accomplishment and more about creating positive habits and taking the small steps necessary to reach your intermediate and long-term goals.
Additionally, short-term goals don’t have to be planned out far into the future, because they change frequently. Also, many of these goals will be reoccurring, such as drinking at least 8 glasses of water per day or exercising at least 4 times per week. Once the recurring goal becomes an everyday habit, it can be removed from your goal list, as long as you maintain the habit.
Short-term goals are also useful for stopping bad habits that will impair your results. It is a good idea to look at your intermediate and long-term goals and figure out the potential roadblocks in your path to success. Then create short-term goals to deal specifically with those problems.
For example, if you have trouble losing fat due to eating a lot of junk food before bed, try thinking of some simple things you can improve. If you typically sit down with a bag of chips and start eating, an easy change is to take a couple handfuls of chips and put them on a plate instead of taking the bag with you. This will improve portion control and decrease the calories that you store as fat. You do not have make drastic changes and over time you can become stricter. In this case, you could change your goals from 2 handfuls to 1 or even replace the chips with a healthier food.
Short-term goals should be specific. If you are trying to improve your eating habits, having goals such as not having any sugar for the whole day or not having any fried food for three days are much better than just having a goal to eat better over the next week. Having specific goals makes it easier to monitor your progress and determine if you need to change your goals.
Creating appropriate and effective goals requires thought and effort. It may be difficult at first, but once you figure out your initial long, intermediate, and short-term goals, making adjustments to improve them will be much easier.
Goal setting is without a doubt one of the greatest tools you can use for increasing motivation and success, but there is one additional requirement for goal setting to be effective. You must understand what is necessary to get from where you are now to where you want to go. Sometimes this is easy, but in the case of health, fitness, and especially fat loss, what you believe you need to do may be very different from what you actually should to do.
For instance, there are still many people who believe that the fewer calories they eat, the more fat they will lose. Cutting calories can help you lose fat, but if you do not eat enough, your body will stop burning fat for energy and burn muscle instead. This is one of the worst things that can happen if you are trying to achieve long-term fat loss. If short-term goals are created under the assumption that fat loss is maximized by extreme caloric reduction, then intermediate and long-term fat loss goals will probably never be achieved.
If you are knowledgeable about health and fitness, then get started right away and find out how much you will benefit from setting appropriate goals. Otherwise it would be a good idea to learn more about exercise, nutrition, and other topics that are integral to your success. You can take the time to learn on your own or you might want to hire a personal trainer, nutritional expert, or other fitness professional to help get you started.
Ross Harrison, CSCS, NSCA-CPT is a certified personal trainer, strength and conditioning specialist, and nutritional consultant who teaches people how to lose weight, get in shape, and improve their quality of life with exercise and nutrition. For more information or to sign up for his free health and fitness newsletter containing tons of useful information, visit precisionhealth-fitness.com.
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