Throughout most of my life, I’ve been prone to sudden, intense bursts of inspiration to get fit. These influxes of motivation would drive me to create overly ambitious goals that I’d scrawl on a piece of notebook paper.
Maybe you’ve experienced similar bouts of motivation—they usually hit after spending too much time on Fitspo Pinterest boards. Sometimes this Eager Beaver attitude crops up after an indulgent holiday season.
I’ll get hyped on resolutions to get stronger, fitter, happier; to sleep more, to entirely eliminate all processed foods, to work out at 5 A.M. every morning—the list goes on.
I would love to tell you that I’ve put a check mark next to each goal I’ve gone after. But the truth is, most of these ambitious goals fizzled out quickly or were otherwise forgotten entirely. Just like the wrinkled lists of goals that now likely reside in a landfill—my abandoned resolutions have piled high in a dusty corner of my brain, sharing cobwebs with the Calculus lessons I never fully grasped.
If I were to ever sort through each one of my failed goals and analyze why I missed the mark, I’m fairly certain each reason could be categorized into one (or more) of these pitfalls:
- I bit off more than I could chew
- I flew by the seat of my pants
- I kept the goal(s) a secret
I don’t think I’m alone in this struggle to set goals and achieve them—the countless amount of New Year’s Resolutions made and broken each year are a testament to the flawed, prevalent beliefs and methods that surround fitness goals and healthy habits.
In this article, I’ll share what’s worked and what hasn’t worked for me in terms of goal-setting, habit development, and long-term change. I’ve tried a lot, failed a lot, and along the way learned a few things about goal-setting, habit development, and making changes that last. In no way, shape, or form am I an expert on the subject—and I definitely still make mistakes—but I have achieved a healthier lifestyle over the past couple years as a result of applying more effective goal-setting strategies.
Don’t Bite Off More Than You Can Chew
Making new lifestyle changes can be thrilling and empowering, especially during the initial stages. That’s great! Oftentimes these bursts of inspiration are what we need to get started. Take it and run with it—but be careful not to get carried away with enthusiasm and take on too much at once.
When we go a little overboard—and all of a sudden we’re making lengthy mental lists of every single bad habit we’d like to break and every healthy habit we’d like to start—we become more likely to forsake our goals.
Biting off more than you can chew is like trying to drive to work while you simultaneously put on mascara, text your mom, and eat a bowl of oatmeal. Not only do you run the risk of harming yourself and others by driving distracted—you also run the risk of a mascara-wand eye stab, a facebook update that was intended to be a text, and wearing a sticky hot mess of oatmeal to work.
Do Start Small (And Be Realistic)
The ambitious 10-12 new habits you’ve planned to implement over the next year are wonderful aspirations – but the changes each one requires is too much to keep up with and maintain simultaneously.
Many times, I’ve made the mistake of setting unrealistic goals and letting them fizzle as I couldn’t keep up the habits that were required to achieve that goal. Case in point: my ambitious goal to train for a half-marathon within the span of 3 months. At the time, I was an inexperienced runner in the midst of a busy semester as a college junior, going to classes and working part-time.
I wanted to get in shape and imagined how gratifying it would be to cross the finish line. Keep in mind, at this point I wasn’t in great shape. I definitely hadn’t been running. I’m not even sure that I owned a pair of running shoes. And on top of that, I had a tight schedule that couldn’t realistically fit in a half-marathon training schedule into my week. I stayed on my “plan” for maybe a week and a half and then stopped pursuing it when I couldn’t keep up. I was disappointed, discouraged, and felt there was no reason to workout if I didn’t have a specific race to prepare for.
In hindsight, I see that my first step to “getting in shape” shouldn’t have been to run 13.1 miles, but rather something smaller and more attainable: maybe my goal could have been to workout 3 times per week for 30-minute intervals. Maybe my goal could have been to run in a 5k rather than a half-marathon. Maybe my goal could have been to go for a walk every morning.
If you have a long list of healthy changes you’d like to adopt, choose one or two well-defined goals that you’d like to pursue for the next month. Maybe for the next thirty days, take one habit you’d like to break and one healthy habit you’d like to adopt – and work at these two goals wholeheartedly until they become a regular part of your routine. After you successfully achieve these goals or adopt these habits, then pursue a couple more.
Don’t Fly By The Seat Of Your Pants
Your initial motivation to get started on the road to transformation is a great starting point, but even the most driven, positive people have days that they’re tired or stressed or unbelievably busy.
If you fly by the seat of your pants on these days and operate according to your fluctuating moods, it’s unlikely that you’ll stick to any consistent routine.
Taking rest days is a wise decision and I’d encourage you to plan those into your new routine. I absolutely recommend listening to your body and not going at such pace that you injure yourself or reach burnout. But do your best to plan for these more restful days, pencil them into your schedule, and avoid letting them happen spontaneously.
I’ve made the mistake of flying by the seat of my pants when pursuing a new exercise regimen. I’d make a vague commitment to “get in shape” and, for the first few weeks, I’d walk into the campus gym and blankly stare at the machines without a specific workout in mind. I’d do a few shoulder presses, maybe a few pushups, and run on the treadmill. Then I’d call it a day.
These unplanned workouts were ineffective and didn’t lead to any consistent new habits. At most, I’d make it to the gym three to four times a week – but when my schedule got busier or exercising became too tough or inconvenient, I’d go back to my normal routine of inconsistent, sporadic exercising and not eating especially well.
Do Plan Excessively
How do you push through those days when your gas tank is empty, and your inner Eager Beaver has gone AWOL? How do you not let your new resolution diminish from a scorching fire to a dying flame? The key lies in meticulous planning and organization.
Write down a detailed plan. It might help to consider these questions when you’re planning your new routine:
- How many times a week am I going to exercise?
- How many minutes will each session last?
- Where am I going to work out? Do I need to sign up for a gym membership or purchase some
- Do I function better in the morning, or would I have a better workout in the afternoon?
After answering these questions and taking your current routine into consideration, schedule your new habit like you would any other task or event. Phone alarms are extremely helpful tools to give yourself a little nudge to put your exercise clothes on, eat your pre-workout snack, or whatever else is necessary to prepare.
Here are a few additional non-planner related prep tips to help you establish your new healthy habits:
- Lay out your clothes the night before a morning workout
- For an afternoon gym session, pack a bag the night before and stick it in your car
- Stay fueled throughout the day by packing a healthy lunch and a pre-workout snack
- Stay hydrated throughout the day for optimal energy
- Meal prep at the beginning of the week
A word to the wise: be flexible. Plan as much as possible, but also don’t be so rigid that you try to stick to a plan that just isn’t working.
Learn what works for you and what doesn’t. If you decided at the beginning of your goal that you wanted to get up at 6 A.M. to workout every day, but 2 weeks into the program you’re still dragging in the mornings and drifting towards abandoning the whole goal, reevaluate your plan and find a more optimal time.
When obstacles arise, deal with setbacks and move on. Copping a perfectionist attitude towards your new lifestyle changes is a dangerous road to walk. Striving for success is wonderful, but avoid thinking about it in extremes.
One bad meal shouldn’t send you into a shame spiral, and it certainly doesn’t mean you have to mean you throw in the towel for that day. Stand up, shake it off, and get back on track.
Don’t Keep It A Secret
I have a tendency as an introvert to avoid sharing new goals or aspirations with others out of shyness or avoidance of the embarrassment that failure would bring.
The times I’ve let others around me know about my new journey have been drastically different than the times I have not. Keeping my new fitness goals hush-hush has given me a quiet exit strategy when life gets tough — and made it that much easier to throw in the towel.
I’ve felt more encouraged, more accountable, and better equipped to achieve my goal after talking about it with a loved one. Verbalizing your goal to another person has a strangely empowering effect: it feels tangible, less daunting and far more attainable.
Being accountable to yourself is also a crucial part of goal-setting and habit development. Planning and accountability go hand in hand–because why make a plan if you aren’t going to stick to it? Not being accountable for your own actions makes it far easier to waste time, wander off track, and make excuses when you abandon your goals.
Do Be Accountable to Yourself and Others
When you embark on a new journey, spread the word!
If megaphones aren’t quite your style, that’s okay. You don’t have to shout it from the rooftops or alert all your Facebook friends—just share your new goal with one or two family members or close friends. Choose people with whom you have healthy and uplifting relationships with and simply let them know about your goal and the new habits you’re adopting.
Trackers and diaries are great tools to maintain self-accountability. Many people use apps like MyFitness Pal or activity trackers like a FitBit to ensure they’re reaching their health goals. I love using my FitBit to track my activity and feed my competitive streak by challenging the previous day’s step count.
If you prefer putting pen to paper, you may enjoy keeping track of your new habits through a habit tracker, like this one by Boho Berry:
My Fitness Journey
Eventually, I learned to not bite off too much at once. Through the pursuit of smaller, singular fitness goals, I was able to incite massive lifestyle changes – and my success in doing so boiled down to taking each step one at a time, careful planning, and accountability.
— Allison Daniels (@reclaimedroar) September 8, 2016
The left picture was taken in March of 2014- I was depressed, had low energy, and very little self-confidence. I was rarely sleeping and my desire for “change” was fueled by bouts of anxiety and liters of Diet Coke.
The right picture was taken on September 1, 2016. I’m eating cleaner, working out 5 times per week, and have adopted a healthier lifestyle. Through the pursuit of smaller, singular fitness goals, I was able to incite massive lifestyle changes – and my success in doing so boiled down to taking each step one at a time, careful planning, and accountability.
Let’s Get Started
Take it slow and don’t try to change everything about your lifestyle all at once.
If you want to stop smoking, stop eating fast food, and stop drinking soda – and also plan on exercising every day, drinking a gallon of water, and riding your bike to work – those are great aspirations that I 100% encourage you to pursue. But not all at once.
Maybe for the next thirty days, take one habit you’d like to break and one healthy habit you’d like to adopt – and work at these two goals wholeheartedly until they become a regular part of your routine.
If you’re currently eating drive-thru meals three times a week – set a goal to only eat fast food once every week. Rather than aspiring to an intense workout every day – make a commitment to exercise three times a week.
After setting a reasonable goal or two, plan your heart out, spread the word, and keep yourself accountable.
By doing so, you aren’t just making short, quick-fix crash-diet changes that quickly lead back to old habits. You’re taking each goal, one at a time, and solidifying the habit to become a long-term lifestyle change.
Remember! For successful goal-setting and habit development: