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How many times have you set a goal, succeeded with one attempt, and achieved long term change?

Probably not as many times as you would like. If you’ve ever wondered how to set goals right and increase your chance of success, I have eight specific tips to help you.

As modern life gets more sedentary, fast food more abundant, and media more prevalent in our lives,  people have got on and off the merry-go-round of New Year’s fitness and health resolutions.

Repeated attempts at “getting back in shape,” “trimming Holiday weight gain,” or making a“new me” each year can be disheartening at best, self-loathing at worst.

Resolving to improve health or body composition is one of the most common New Year goals, but it’s also one of the most complex and challenging. 

For most people, it’s not a lack of fitness or nutrition knowledge that prevents us from succeeding –  it’s our goal setting ability and our habits.

We know we need to exercise and eat healthier foods; it’s the doing it part and sticking to it that’s hard. 

GOALS: If you decide to “get in shape,” you know you have to make some changes to your lifestyle and eating, but where do you start – and why?

HABITS: If someone asked you which was healthier, a doughnut or an apple, you know the answer – but which would you choose for a snack?

Diet and exercise boil down to simple, yet not easy, behavioral change. 

Fortunately for us, science has discovered some interesting stuff in the past couple of decades about how our brains work to change behavior. These findings can help rocket launch your goal-setting skills.

Thank you, science.

Here are my seven top goal-setting tips.

goals setting new year

#1 GET CLEAR

You’ve probably heard about S.M.A.R.T. goal setting, which, of course, is essential, pretty simple, but often completely ignored when making a list of New Year’s resolutions.

  • S = Specific
  • M = Measurable
  • A = Achievable
  • R = Realistic
  • T = Time-based

Getting specific is the first step.

As a strength coach, my primary focus is to help my clients get stronger, healthier, and feel more confident. However, some of my clients also have weight loss or body recomposition goals.

When it comes to goal-setting many people incorrectly make goals that are vague or unclear. 

A common mistake is thinking weight loss and body recomposition are the same thing.

Body recomposition is both losing some body fat and gaining muscle. Women often phrase this as getting “toned,” men usually call it getting “ripped,” “shredded,” or “leaning out,” but essentially, they are the same goal.  

Weight loss is just pounds lost. These pounds can be fat or muscle, and often are both. While fat loss alone is possible, it is more challenging, just as muscle gain alone can also be challenging without gaining fat. 

A client may come to me and think their goal is clear, “I want to lose weight.” As a coach, I try to dig deeper into what exactly that means to them.  I find most of my clients usually want some form of body recomposition in the long-term.

GOAL CLARITY

  • Vague: “I want to lose weight.”
  • Less Vague: “ I want to fit into my size six jeans again.”
  • More Clear: “ I want to lose some body fat, gain some muscle, and achieve a smaller waist.”
  • Clearest: “I want to lose 5% body fat and gain 5 pounds of muscle and take two inches off my waist circumference in 6 months.”

It’s not 100% necessary to have a super-specific goal before starting an exercise program. Some clients are motivated by general benefits, like improved mood and increased energy. I am one of those people.

However, if you tried to achieve a fitness goal before and failed, it might be because your plans weren’t specific enough. 

Even if your goal is general health-related, getting more clear can be helpful.

  • Vague: “I want to be healthier.”
  • Less Vague: “ I want to lower my blood pressure and improve my cardio.”
  • More Clear: “ I want to get off my blood pressure medication and run a mile without getting out of breath.
  • Clearest: “ I want to lower my blood pressure naturally to 120 mm Hg and run 1 mile in 8 minutes by April 1st, 2021.
weight loss goals

#2 GET REAL

When you get clear, you have the top of the S.M.A.R.T  list figured out:

  • S = Specific
  • M = Measurable
  • A = Achievable
  • R = Realistic
  • T = Time-based

Is your body composition goal realistic and achievable

A knowledgeable fitness professional can help you figure that out, but here is a general guideline.

REALISTIC RATES OF FAT LOSS PER MONTH

Level

% of body weight

Approximate Fat Loss (Men)

Approximate Fat Loss (Momen)

Difficult

1-1.5%

~2-3 lb

~1.65-2.5 lb

Moderate

0.5-1%

~1-2 lb

~0.8-1.65 lb

Easiest

<0.5%

~<1 lb

<0.8 lbs

It’s important to note that fat loss is easier when:

  • You first try to lose weight.
  • The weight you are trying to lose is from a new, recent weight gain.
  • You have more weight to lose.

If you have been yo-yo dieting for 15 years and had the same 5-10 pounds of extra weight you wanted to drop, it would be harder for you to lose the weight than if you gained 50 pounds in the past five years and were starting an exercise and diet plan for the very first time.

Muscle gaining abilities depend on factors like age, genetics, dietary choices, biological sex, strength training experience, intensity, frequency, volume, training styles, and more.

However, here is a general muscle gain goal guideline for most people:

REALISTIC RATES OF MUSCLE GAIN PER MONTH

Level

% of Body Weight

Muscle Gain in lbs

Novice (Men)

1-1.5% 

~1.5-2.5 lb

Novice (Women) 

0.5-0.75%

~0.65-1 lb

Intermediate (Men) 

0.5-0.75% 

~0.75-1.25 lb

Intermediate (Women) 

0.25-0.375% 

~0.325-0.5 lb

Advanced (Men) 

0.25-0.375% 

~0.375-0.625 lb

Advanced (Women) 

0.125-0.1875% 

~0.1625-0.25 lb

#3 FOCUS ON SMALL ACTIONS

After getting specific, the next step is deciding what action goals to focus on to support your outcome goal. 

An outcome goal is the desired result of your S.M.A.R.T goal.

Action goals are the various behavioral changes (habits) you will need to make to achieve your desired, bigger outcome goal.

OUTCOME GOAL:  

“I want to lose 5% body fat and gain 5 pounds of muscle and take two inches off my waist circumference.”

ACTION GOALS: 

  • Exercise for 45 minutes 3 x a week
  • Get at least 7 ½  hours of sleep every night
  • Drink 1/ 2 my body weight in ounces of water daily
  • Eat 30 grams of protein 4 x per day, six days per week
  • Eat a fist-size serving of veggies in 3 meals per day

 

People often forget “time-based,” the “T” in S.M.A.R.T., when setting action goals. Our brains like things to be straightforward and easy to follow. 

Take a look at the same list again.

  • Exercise for 45 minutes 3 x a week for 21 days
  • Get at least 7 ½  hours of sleep every night this week
  • Drink 1/ 2 my body weight in ounces of water daily for 14 days
  • Eat 30 grams of protein 4 x per day, six days per week, for 30 days
  • Eat a fist-size serving of veggies in 3 meals per day, five days in a row

Doesn’t this look more achievable

When we read an action goal on a realistic time-line, our brains think, “I can do this!”

If the list was:

  • Exercise most days 
  • Improve sleep
  • Drink less soda
  • Eat Fewer Carbs
  • Eat More Veggies

How confident would you feel in tackling the list now?

Putting a small timeline on a specific and measurable goal helps your brain decide to start. After a short but successful time, your mind knows how to perform the new behavior successfully, and you have experienced some of the rewards (benefits from it.)

Sleep and hydration are two of the most beneficial action goals you can make if you have a fitness or health outcome goal.

If your sleep is less than optimal and you got at least 7 ½  hours of sleep every night for just one week, you’d notice you had more energy. You would perform better in workouts, feel less stressed, and be more productive. Hell, maybe you’d even get more sex!?

Sleep is truly a glorious and fundamental habit.

If you were a soda junkie and decided to drink half your body weight in ounces of water for 14 days, you’d notice you drank less soda cause you didn’t have the bladder space to fit both. 

You’d also notice more energy, clearer skin (more confidence), fewer food cravings, improved digestion, better recovery from exercise, and an increase in daily activity from all those bathroom breaks.

Here’s a quick exercise:

  1. Write a S.M.A.R.T outcome goal down you want to achieve 
  2. Brainstorm at least 10 small habits that can help you to that goal
  3. Write those habits out as S.M.A.R.T action goals
  4. Circle three you think are the MOST achievable
  5. Focus on one of those goals this week.

Why one?

stack goal setting habits

#4 THE POWER OF ONE

When people first start an exercise program in January (or any other time of year) and have an outcome goal in mind, they are usually really amped and want to tackle it all. 

You wake up earlier, workout, eat salads for lunch, avoid drinking at night, say no to doughnuts, skip happy hour with friends for fear of falling off the fitness wagon…

For one week.

Then it all catches up with them like a snowball rolling downhill. 

One night you’re tired and sore and think, “I deserve this pizza.”  Then because you have been only having salads for lunch, you binge-eat and have the whole thing. The guilt sets in (and the tummy ache), and you end up sleeping in and skipping a workout. 

Then the negative self-talk starts as you drive to work and know Mary from accounting will ask you how your workout went cause you bragged out all week, and you’ll have to either lie or admit defeat.

At the end of the workday, they feel weak from their inner monologue of self-deprecation, and a co-worker suggests going for martinis and french fries.

With all the enthusiasm from that first day gone, getting back to the gym for a workout feels like the hardest thing. It feels like starting all over.

What happened?! We think. 

“I’m no good at this,” “I’m a failure,” “This isn’t for me.”  – This is what we tell ourselves when we keep falling short of our fitness goals. 

But what really happened?

Our brain tries to tackle all these things at once, and in a few days or weeks, it gets wholly overloaded and shuts down. Willpower is a muscle, and the untrained muscle gets tired and weak after repeated effort. 

Once your brain gets burnt out on striving for these new habits, you go back to comfortable old habits like staying up late watching TV, going to happy hour instead of the gym, or getting fast food at the drive-through instead of grocery shopping. 

Our brains can easily handle one new habit at a time, not ten. Set yourself up for success by narrowing your focus. 

Habits form unconsciously and are acted on automatically. These locked-in behavior patterns can help or hurt us. Because we automatically perform our set habits, it frees up space in our brains to focus on other things. 

Once you have the new habit become automatic, tackle another action goal that leads you closer to your outcome goal.

Successful goal setting is about stacking new healthy habits on top of each other until you have a big toolbox full of automatic actions you don’t have to make any effort to use.

For some people, a simple new habit can take just a few days to form if they plan correctly to repave their brain’s patterns. Others may need more time; it means giving up an old habit that is deeply rooted.

The average time it takes to create a new habit is 21 days, but if that feels like a long time, start with a goal of two weeks or just a few days.

Start with the simplest habit first. It will give you a win right away and motivate you to accomplish more. 

When someone is trying to pay off debt, financial experts’ standard advice is to pay off the smallest debt first, then tackle larger debts. Start with the $300 in parking tickets, then move on to the $750 credit card, then chip away at those student loans. 

Similarly, if you are trying to lose ten pounds, currently have an unhealthy diet, lack adequate sleep, smoke cigarettes, and don’t exercise, you’d do best with choosing a small action goal. One where you think you’ll have the most success—maybe getting twenty minutes of an enjoyable activity three times per week for 21 days.

Solely focused on being more moderately active without changing your sleeping patterns or eating habits, you may even find that you get better sleep and smoke fewer cigarettes without trying to. 

With the power of one goal, you take the pressure off yourself and conserve precious brainpower.

I call this phenomenon the healthy habit snowball effect 🙂

These five healthy habit areas tend to have the most impactful “snowball effect” for fitness and health goals:

  1. Exercise
  2. Sleep
  3. Hydration 
  4. Protein
  5. Veggies

So if you want to maximize your goal setting, make S.M.A.R.T action goals focusing on these areas first.

Habit formation for energy conservation is just one way humans are incredible at being efficient, a trait that doesn’t always help us when it comes to fitness goals. 

If you recall, there is also the harmful habit snowball effect: Pizza, guilt, poor sleep, negative self-talk, skipped workouts, etc. 

If you adopt a harmful habit, like getting less than 6 hours of sleep most nights, it can spur other less desirable practices, like mainlining coffee and donuts for breakfast due to low blood sugar, exhaustion, and brain fog.

Bad habits, just like healthy habits, roll in packs.

#5 FRAME GOALS IN THE POSITIVE 

When people think of fitness goals, they often think about what poor habits they want to break.

  • Eat less sugar
  • Cut back on drinking
  • Stop eating fast food
  • Don’t give up!

When our brain focuses on quitting a habit, it’s much harder to start a new behavior, or better yet, replacing an old habit with a new way of doing things.

Instead of focusing on what bad habits to remove from your lifestyle, think about positive, healthy things to add.

Focus your energy on the healthy additions:

Breaking a Negative Habit

Positive Action

Eat less sugar  —>

Eat more protein or fruit

Quit drinking —>

Workout at the gym

Give up fast food —>

Meal Prep Sundays 

Stop Snacking —>

Drink herbal tea between meals

Which behavior looks like a S.M.A.R.T-ER action goal to choose? Choosing to replace a bad habit is much easier for our brains to handle.

healthy habits - how to set goals

#6 IDENTIFY YOUR CUE 

When choosing a healthy replacement habit, the best choices are actions with a visual, auditory, or time-of-day trigger for the behavior. When you know the prompt, you can choose the replacement habit with more accuracy.

Let’s say you know that overeating sugar is your biggest nutrition culprit. Every day on your lunch break, you have a sandwich or salad and then usually head to the vending machine or coffee shop for a treat.

Your cue in this sense would be “after lunch” or “after lunch at work” if you indulged in the vending machine Twinkie or Snickers bar at work.

You then decide to bring a piece of fruit with you for lunch, and when you felt the sweet craving, go for the fruit instead.

Let’s take another example. Say you realized that snacking on chips was a colossal pitfall to your fitness. You journaled about and realized that every time you watched Law and Order, your favorite show on TV, you ate a whole bag of chips even though you weren’t that hungry.

Now that you are more aware of your behavior, you can decide to keep your hands busy some other way by learning to knit or petting your cat while you watched badass Olivia Benson kick crime’s butt.

#7 NAME YOUR REWARD

Humans love rewards. Every unconscious habit we have has a reward attached to it. The more satisfying the reward, the harder the pattern is to break.

If we can isolate what that reward is, we can choose new habits that give us a similar payoff.

Take a look at the habits table again with some possible rewards. The rewards we get are individual. No one habit has the same triggers and rewards for every person.

 

Negative Habit Positive Action Similar Reward(s)
Eat less sugar  —> Eat more protein or fruit (energy, taste)
Quit drinking —> Workout at the gym (socializing, stress relief)
Give up fast food —> Meal Prep Sundays  (accessibility, ease)
Stop Snacking —> Drink herbal tea between meals (ritual, comfort) 

 

Let’s say you have a habit of drinking vodka martinis after work. You have identified the cue of getting home as your trigger. But why do you drink the martini to start? 

Are you stressed from work and want to relax upon arriving home, or are you lonely and want someone to talk to, and your martini is a replacement for connection? Maybe you indulge in the martinis because your partner is drinking martinis, and you crave spending time with your significant other.

Let’s say your reason is stress. Everyone needs ways of coping with stress and reducing stress. Drinking in moderation for some people can be a healthy way of socializing with others to relieve stress. 

Suppose you have identified that drinking martins every night after work is standing between you and your fitness goals (or other desired achievements). In that case, you’ll want to find a replacement habit that gives you the same reward.

Luckily, exercise can give many benefits that drinking and other mind-altering chemicals offer.

Working out can lower stress, increase energy, raise confidence, and offer social benefits through group classes or working with a trainer. Even online training can provide a community for support and various social aspects. 

Make sure the new habits you choose to focus on offering a meaningful reward to your brain. 

The more hits of dopamine and serotonin (all we really live for), a.k.a rewards we get from new healthy habits, the more likely we are to stick with them.

dangling carrot - reward and cue willpower

#8 HOW TO SET GOALS FOR SUCCESS

Set yourself up for success with simple productivity tricks. Make your behavioral goal even easier to carry out, and you’ll be ready to tackle a new habit in no time.

  • Exercise for 45 minutes 3 x a week for 21 days
    • Set out your workout clothes the night before
  • Get at least 7 ½  hours of sleep every night this week
    • Power down electronics one hour before bedtime
  •  Drink 1/ 2 my body weight in ounces of water daily for 14 days
    • Set a reminder alarm in your phone for every 20 mins while working
  • Eat 30 grams of protein 4 x per day, six days per week, for 30 days
    • Defrost chicken breasts and fish filets by putting them in the fridge the night before
  • Eat a fist-size serving of veggies in 3 meals per day, five days in a row
    • Buy raw veggies like carrots, snap peas, and cherry tomatoes to cut and put in Tupperware when on the go.

After you have your list of action goals, write down some things you can do to help you stick to them.

Notice that each bold action is a smaller action, a mini action, or “habit hack,” if you will. 

These habits aren’t as tricky and require less willpower, but they are essential, as they help form more challenging routines.

Mini “Habit Hacks”→ Est. Healthy Habits (Action Goals) → Successful Outcome Goals

Start with the smallest actions possible if you need to. Build your skills and confidence along the way with each new health habit you form, and you’ll be crushing those fitness goals in no time!

x Coach Roxy

Roxy Vivien Coaching - how to set goals

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SOURCES AND RECOMMENDED READING

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip Heath

Realistic Rates of Fat Loss and Muscle Gain, by Brian St. Pierre, MS, RD, Precision Nutrition.