As a dietitian, one of the first things I need to establish when I start working with someone new is what they are hoping to achieve by coming into the clinic.
Increased energy, better recovery from training, reducing weight, improved blood sugar control are just some of the answers I can get.
Much has been written and about the benefits of goal setting. And working on one's health is no different, whereby a goal can assist greatly in shaping the information needed or to help outline the steps needed to help you create a change.
So where do we go wrong?
One of the main issues that I see, is that some of my clients goals are not overly specific or achievable. Setting a goal of “getting active” is a great starting point, but there is so much that this could actually mean to different people (e.g. running for 30 minutes every day vs. walking to the train station instead of driving vs. training for a marathon). When you don’t have an end goal that can be measured or ticked off a checklist, you won’t ever really know when you have reached the end point, and therefore never feel the sense of accomplishment that comes along with achieving your goal.
On top of that, expecting too much, trying to achieve too many things at once and setting unrealistic goals can create a list of tasks that seem impossible to accomplish (in the short term at least) and increases the likelihood of giving up after the first few hurdles. Having to push through many hurdles to get to a larger goal without ever experiencing a sense of accomplishment requires much more perseverance than pushing through a couple of hurdles to get to a smaller goal (and feeling accomplished consistently along the way). What all of this points to is having a plan in place to set yourself up for success.
So how do you set realistic goals and follow through with achieving them?
1. Set a goal that you know will give you some intrinsic satisfaction, and that will motivate you to keep going.
Losing 10kg is a great goal to have, but why are you doing it? If it’s because your doctor told you that’s how much you would need to lose to fit within the healthy weight range, there’s not much there that you could relate to. But if it’s because you want to reduce your risk of developing diabetes or cardiovascular disease to stay healthy enough to see your kids grow up and get married, there is now a much greater value attached to it.
It can even be much simpler than this – do you want to feel comfortable in your wedding dress? Do you have a pair of jeans that you used to fit into? Do you want to stop feeling weighed down as you climb a set of stairs? Have you been told that you’re pre-diabetic and need to lose weight to reduce the chance of becoming diabetic? This is what you should remind yourself of whenever hurdles pop up along the way.
2. Set SMART goals. (SMART = specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound).
This is probably the oldest trick in the book, but it works:
You determine specifically what you want to achieve (“I want to get stronger” vs. “I want to squat 100kg)
You create a goal in which you can measure your progress rather than guessing how close you are to achieving your goal, and can create smaller goals to tick-off on the way to the larger one (“today I achieved a 90kg squat PR, which is 5kg more than my previous PR of 85kg, and 5kg closer to achieving my larger goal of 100kg).
You create something that is actually attainable in a relatively short period of time, rather than something that might take years to accomplish (“I want to squat 100kg for 1 rep” vs. “I want to squat 100kg for 10 reps”)
You are able to determine the small steps that will actually help you in achieving your end goal, and don’t waste your time on irrelevant actions that overwhelm you rather than steering you in the right direction (“I will reduce my frequency of running 5km daily to just twice a week for the next 6 months, so that I can focus on strength training and avoid fatigue from over-training)
You create a time-frame to achieve the goal within to prevent you from becoming complacent, procrastinating, and leaving it for a more “convenient” time (“I will achieve this goal within 6 months)
3. Write down what it is that you want to achieve (in the SMART format).
Write down your end goal, and the smaller steps you need to achieve to get there. Have them on paper so that you can’t change them over time (and shortcut your way there), and can visually see when you have achieved them. The language you use here is also important – “I will” is much more powerful than “I want to” or “I hope to.” Keep the goals in a place that you regularly walk past or look at in your daily activities so that it is always at the front of your mind, and motivation stays high.
4. Most importantly, don’t give up!
If steps 1-3 are in place, the only thing stopping you from achieving your goals is lack of perseverance, determination and willpower. Commitment to achieving your goals is the most important step, so be prepared to put in some work and don’t expect it to be a walk in the park.
So there you have it. Although setting goals is an important step in achieving change, I hope the process outlined above assists you in checking whether your current goals are SMART and motivating!