Setting Weight Loss and Fitness Goals
Goal planning is a critical aspect of losing weight and getting or staying fit. Without goals, you’re like a boat caught on the waves without a sail. Sometimes it’s okay to be adrift without any specific goal in mind, but usually if you’re trying to lose weight, you already have a desired outcome. What you may not have is a plan to get there.
Weight loss planning is a lot like driving from one place to another. You know your starting location, and your destination, and you need to plot a course to get there. Turn left here, turn right there, take the highway for four miles, take the exit, turn right, etc. Losing weight is a lot like that, wherein you have long term goals that you reach by setting and achieving shorter and shorter term goals.
By working backwards from your long-term goals to the current moment in time (your starting place) you can actually decide to get there, rather than just aimlessly hoping that you get to your goals.
Most people start out a weight loss or fitness plan with a big overarching goal, like “I want to lose 40 pounds,” or “I’m going to work out every day.” These are great goals, but without planning the intermediate steps to achieve them you’re unlikely to make as much progress as you could with a good plan.
I tend to break my goals up into smaller, more achievable chunks that vary mostly by timeframe:
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
– attributed to Lao-Tzu (604 BC – 531 BC)
Immediate goals are the easiest to keep because they’re the result of choices that you’re making right now. Exercising, eating right, goal planning, and logging your progress are all things you can just do. You want to go exercise? Go exercise. Your goal is to eat right for this meal? What’s stopping you? Being healthy is just one immediate good choice after another. Like walking from here to there – you put one foot in front of the other. Before you know it, you’ve arrived at your destination.
You don’t really think of something you’re doing now as a “goal,” but rather a choice. Sure. But those choices are going to be informed by, and support, goals that come to fruition in the future.
Daily goals are a little more concrete and measurable. Exercise and calorie goals are daily goals. Your immediate goals will depend on your daily goals, and the results of how well you succeed at your daily goals depend on your immediate goals.
Your daily goals are things that you plan to do every day, or every n days (every other day, three times a week, etc.). You want to walk on the treadmill for 30 minutes per day every week day, and then take the weekend’s off? Those are still daily goals.
There are a few goals that I keep track of every day:
- Calorie Intake – 1800–2000 calories/day, currently.
- Water Intake – My goal is to drink at least eight 8oz glasses of water per day, if not more.
- Exercise – 2 miles on the treadmill in the morning, every weekday.
- Steps – I break this out from exercise as it’s a slightly different goal, but because I wear a Fitbit I can measure every step I take. My current step goal is 10,000 steps/day, minimum.
- Floors Climbed – Also counted by the Fitbit. My current goal is at least 20 floors/day.
- Writing – I get up two hours earlier than I need to get ready for work so I can write a little every day. You’re reading the results of this writing right now. I tend to keep a dozen or so drafts on various topics going at any given time, and then when one starts to gain critical mass I’ll decide on a publication date and plan to work on that particular article every day until then. Since I usually publish on Monday mornings I’ll spend my morning work and reflection time on Monday editing the article I’m about to publish.
Short-term goals are my weekly or monthly goals. They may be simple like “lose 1–2 pounds per week” or “maintain my current weight while on vacation next week.”
While immediate goals are immediately achievable (because they’re the result of choices), and daily goals are easy enough to achieve, short-term goals are trickier because they should be the result of your daily goals.
Think about the short-term goals as an extension of your daily goals. I use the phrase “short-term” rather than “weekly” or “monthly” – but let’s say that short-term goals encompass both of those.
One of my standing, repeating short-term goals is to lose 1–2 pounds per week. That’s reasonable, right? It won’t happen, however, unless I follow through on my daily and immediate goals.
Mid-Term Goals: A Bundle of Short-Term Goals
I don’t know if a “mid-term” goal is quarterly, bi-annual, or even yearly. It depends on how far out your long-term goals are. These will tend to be set by working backwards from your long-term goals, and will probably roll-up some short-term goals together. For example, if my short-term goal is to lose 1–2 pounds this week, and my monthly goal is to lose 5–10 pounds per month, then maybe a good mid-term goal would include a few weeks or months together.
For example, my current mid-term goal is to weigh under 275 pounds by the end of the summer (Labor Day). I actually set this goal a month ago, based on my projections from my current average rate of weight loss.
I’m keeping this as my next weight loss goal until I hit it, at which case I’ll probably keep to the same timeline but update the weight I want to lose by then. I just did this with another mid-term goal that I’ve already achieved. My company is having an event at the end of June and two months ago I set a goal to be under 290 by then. The only problem? I weighed under 290 by the beginning of June. So I could either check that one off and move to the next goal, or keep that date but now try to weigh even less by then. So that’s what I did. New goal: 280. Will I make it? I have about five pounds to go and one week to do it, so probably not.
Would it have been better to set the goal to 285 and hit it rather than just missing my new goal of 280? I don’t see how. You’re going to try to punch your goal weight in the face and you’re not trying to hit a spot on its face – you’re trying to hit a spot that’s six inches behind its face. You’re going to try to swing through your goal, not just make it. Punch through your goals.
How about a baseball metaphor? If you hit the ball and start running towards first base, you don’t have to reach the base exactly and stop – you can just keep running as fast as you can and run right over that base to be “safe.”
Charge at your goals like you’re William Wallace leading his blue-skinned Scotsmen into battle against the English.
Setting Long-Term Goals
One word of caution I’ll offer about setting long-term goals is to not focus on numbers as much as condition. In other words, while one of my long-term goals is to weigh under 200 pounds, my stronger long term goal is to maintain 23–25% body fat, to continue to eat healthily, and be more active. The problem with many people’s long-term goals, and the reason I think that a lot of people gain weight back after dieting is that they stop doing what it was they did to lose the weight once they’ve crossed the finish line.
The finish line never really comes. The race never ends. You just keep on going. That’s not as dismal as it sounds, and achieving goals feels great. Just don’t expect to ever be “done.” You may, however, eventually be done with setting mid-term and long-term goals. The other short term goals will just become your habits and you’ll go on to be a fitter, healthier you. I think I’ll happily trade the thrill of victory for the steady and ongoing success of being fit and not needing to lose weight anymore.
How to Set Weight Loss Goals
- Write Them Down – Goals that you don’t record somewhere aren’t goals; they’re dreams. This isn’t a wishlist – these are things you are going to make happen. Write your goals down somewhere, whether that’s in a special weight loss goal journal, your calendar, or in a piece of software made to record weight loss goals.
- Be Specific – You don’t just want to “lose weight” – you want to lose a certain amount of weight. You don’t want to “eat right” – you want to eat certain things, or stay within a specific calorie range.
- Set A Timeframe – Goals are a statement of your expected condition at a certain time. Without setting a timeframe you don’t have a goal.
- Make Them Measurable – If you can’t measure it, you can’t know when you’ve achieved it. Success means defining something that has a clear means of measuring your achievement.
- Measure Them – Of course you’ve been getting constant feedback about your weight loss, so measuring your progress toward your goals is just a further extrapolation out from those stats you’re already keeping.
- Be Positive – You can’t really plan to not do something. Or rather, whatever you plan to do, you’re planning to not do everything else. Rather than a negative goal like “Don’t eat poorly,” plan a goal that sets a positive tone “Eat a salad for lunch today.” You’d be amazed how more easily achievable positive goals are than negative goals.
- Goals Are Actions – Sure, you can set a long term goal to lose 100 pounds, but most of your supporting goals will be action-oriented. Things you do. Walk everyday for 30 minutes. Limit your daily intake to 2,000 calories. Ride your bike to work at least 2–3x per week. Go to the gym after work every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Setting goals based on numbers on a scale are okay as long as you also set intermediate goals based on actions that will help you get there. You’re not going to lose the weight magically no matter how much you want to.
- Start Small – You don’t need to set all of your goals in stone when you’re first starting out. Set a few small and easily achievable goals first. You never get off the couch and want to walk for an hour a day? That’s great. Start with walking five minutes per day, and then if that seems too easy, do more. You can always do more later. Don’t discourage yourself by biting off more than you can chew (excuse the pun) from the get-go.
- Don’t Choke After Success – You set a goal to walk 15 minutes a day, and now that you’ve done your 15 you still feel like walking? Don’t stop just because it exceeds your goal. Your goals should be minimum effort or otherwise achievable without desperate measures. They’re easily achievable because you started small and built upon that solid foundation over time.
- Be Realistic – You want to lose 50 pounds … before your sister’s wedding next month? Far be it for me to be a naysayer, but that’s probably not going to happen. You need to set your timelines forward from a measurable and realistic present. For instance, if you are losing 1–2 pounds per week, then you can kinda sorta predict how long it’ll take you to lose any number of pounds.
- Treat Yo’ Self – Establish a reward for achieving a goal that’s something to look forward to, and preferably has something to do with the goal. Have your eye on a new Fitbit? Set a goal to walk every day for a month, and reward yourself with a new tool to help you better track your progress. Your reward for doing the Right Thing should reinforce that right thing, or at least other right things. Don’t reward good performance with food, especially the unhealthy food that you’ve been avoiding to achieve this goal. Don’t make the reward something that slides you back past the goal line again.
- Readjust. Realign. Resume. – You’re probably not going to achieve every single goal, but that doesn’t mean it’s over. When you drive you probably don’t even think about the thousands of tiny course corrections that you make constantly just to keep your car in the correct lane. You adjust your speed to ensure that you don’t run into the person in front of you. If you turn the wheel, or use your brakes, are you a failure at driving? No. Your fitness goals are a lot like that. You will need to make adjustments. It’s just part of the process. Nothing to get hung about.
When To Start
You thought about your goals, you have pencil in hand and paper in front of you, and now you’re ready to start, right?
Your starting timeframe is easy. How’s now? Is now good for you? Oh, you want to start later? No you don’t. You already have momentum just thinking about it. You don’t need to finish what you already have in your pantry. The starving children in Africa will still be starving regardless of whether or not you throw away that half-package of uneaten Ding-Dongs.
Don’t wait until next Monday. I know the beginning of the week seems a good time to start, but really anytime is a good time to start. You were going to start after your last birthday, or after the holidays, or after the new year started, or after some other special occasion, but didn’t because you were waiting for that nice round “start date.” There will always be a new special occasion. In fact, there are so many of them I don’t even know why we call them special.
Start now. There will never be a better time.
So I set a goal in early May to weigh under 275 by the end of the summer. I weighed just under 300 pounds then, so I gave myself about four months to lose about 25 pounds. That’s doable… isn’t it?
Let’s work forward. If I lose one pound per week, over the 16 weeks until early September I’ll only be 16 pounds lighter. If I lose 2 pounds per week, then it’s easy to lose only 25 pounds.
So how have I been doing over the past few weeks, and is this level of activity and calorie budget enough to get me there?
Looking at my weigh-ins, it looks like I’ve been losing an average of 1.5 pounds per week, so projecting outwards in 16 weeks I should lose around 24 pounds, which is pretty close to my goal of 25.
I’ll call that one close enough.
Time to Reflect, Review, and Tweak
You should take a few moments each day to reflect on how you’ve done, where you faltered, and what you can do better tomorrow. I actually find it easier and am more consistent in it when I do my Clean Livin’ planning in the morning after I first get up, rather than just before bed. When I’m tired the last thing I want to do is beat myself up about bad choices just before I go to sleep.
In the morning you can start over, reflect on yesterday and plan better for today. Plus, if you weigh yourself in the morning then you can get feedback for how you did and plan to make better choices today. What’s done is done, but you can always do better if you know you didn’t do the right thing. Sometimes I’m going to eat a cheeseburger. I probably won’t regret it or beat myself up about it unless it’s becoming a regular habit. Then I’ll need to adjust.
How To Recover When You Miss A Goal
Goals are definitely more fun when you charge triumphantly across the finish line, fists in the air, head tilted back. Victory is yours. It’s fleeting, but for now, you get to enjoy that rush.
Falling flat on your face a few steps before the goal is a different feeling entirely. You set a goal, you set smaller goals to work towards that larger goal, but still you failed. Clearly, this is the end of the world.
You’re upset about the result you didn’t get because of the work you didn’t do. Let’s think about how we can fix that.
First of all, you should’ve seen this coming because if you were reassessing your immediate, short-term, and mid-term goals you could project that you’d be missing your goal if you remain on the same trajectory.
By how far did you miss the mark? It may not be that big of a problem if you set a weight goal for a certain date and you hit it a week later instead. You should revise your goals after that accordingly, but it’s probably not a problem. We’ll ignore for a moment the problems with setting goals for how much you weigh at any given time, as your weight will fluctuate day to day and weight goals, like the one I set for myself to lose a certain amount of weight by the end of the Summer, for instance, is more of a general target than something I’ll be depressed about if I miss it. I also try to set as realistic goals as possible, based on current data from my weigh-ins. I’ve been losing a consistent 1.5 pounds per week for the past eight weeks. Setting goals in the future, provided I continue with the behavior that got me to where I currently am, isn’t so much a goal plan as it is a projection.
If you miss your goals by a wide-margin there are two likely reasons:
- You stopped doing what you needed to in order to reach your goal, or
- You’re bad at math.
If you set a mid-term goal to run 20 out of every 30 days for the next three months and only ended up running 10 times in 90 days, then of course you’re going to miss your goal. Did you re-evaluate that goal after you missed most of your runs in the first 30 days? Was that much running an unrealistic goal for you to begin with?
It’s hard to say because when you’re starting out with setting weight loss goals everything seems unrealistic, and the work you haven’t done yet is easier in your mind than it is when you need to put rubber to the road and actually do the things you’ve planned to do.
So start small, with something you know you can do every day, like keep a log of what you eat, weigh-in, or walk for fifteen minutes a day, and build from there.
You may not notice the benefits of your new activities immediately, but over time they’ll compound. Every little bit helps.
Okay, nerd time. So weight loss tends to be logarithmic, where you’ll lose more at the start and it becomes harder to lose more weight the nearer you get to your “ideal weight.” There are a whole bunch of reasons for that, and you can solve some of the weight loss slowdown by re-adjusting your calorie budget based on your new percentage of muscle mass, body fat, and the ratio of your fat to lean mass. But it’s hard. You also tend to lose a lot of fluid you’ve been holding onto early in the weight loss game, and water weighs a little more than fat does (a pound of water is about two cups by volume – a pound of fat is about 2.13). ↩
When you throw away your junk food, rather than eating it or bringing it to work for others, don’t think of it as wasting something, think of it as reducing the amount of crap in the world by a little bit. You threw away the sugary cereal and potato chips? You’ve just made the world a little bit of a better place. ↩