Think about the last time you did anything, it doesn’t matter how big or small it was.
The reason you did it was because you set a goal to do it, either knowingly or unknowingly.
Goals are the driving force behind your actions.
You brush your teeth because you have a goal of having healthy teeth, you eat regularly because your body has an automatic goal of survival.
However, these aren’t the type of goals I want to look at here, instead I want to look at the role that major goals, like weight loss, play in your life and how to use goals more effectively to improve your success.
Defining a Goal
There are many different aspects of a goal, but the two key elements are goal content, and goal intensity.
I’m going to break down these two elements piece by piece with the relevant studies that have been done. At the end we’ll look at how this research should affect your goal-setting.
1. Goal Content
The content of a goal refers to what you pick as a goal. There are two parts of content: specificity and difficulty.
As the name implies, how specific your goal can have a big effect.
Any goal ranges on a continuum from vague to specific, for example:
Vague: I want to lose weight.
Somewhere in the middle: I want to lose 20 pounds within 6 months.
Specific: I want to lose 20 pounds within 6 months by decreasing my portion size (200 calories at each meal)
Which of these goals is better? Intuitively you might have been able to guess that it’s better to set specific goals.
Why? The main reason why vague goals suck in terms of results, is because they can be interpreted in many ways. This means it’s easier to be ‘successfully’ because there are many possible positive results. (1)
While it may seem like having more ways of success is a good thing, it will hurt your chances of accomplishing your ultimate goal.
Going back to our example, if you have a goal of “lose weight”, you’re already accomplished this after losing a single pound.
With vague goals, you’ll be more satisfied after any progress you make, which makes continuing the goal less important to your brain (2).
Difficulty is directly related to your individual ability for each specific goal. It can range from easy to hard; easy goals are easier to achieve, and harder goals are harder.
In regards to performance, there is an optimal level of difficulty.
The graph below shows an upside-down “U” function (based on Atkinson’s theory). For a given goal, you have a set level of ability at any one time. If the difficulty of the goal is too low, you aren’t making the most of your ability. On the other hand if the difficulty of the goal is too high, you don’t have sufficient ability to reliably do what you need to.
Your goal should be to set the difficulty as high as possible, but only to a point where you know you are capable of performing to. This would be that peak point of performance on the above graph.
Let’s Turn to the Science
Here is where things get interesting, because there have been many studies done looking at goal difficulty and performance.
There are a few I want to show you that reveal a big key to successful goal achievement.
First, a study was done by assigning people into different groups:
- one with a low difficulty goal
- one with a medium difficulty goal
- one with a high difficulty goal
Take a guess at which group you think did best.
The results were fairly surprising (to me at least), because there was no difference in the performance of any of these groups (3).
But how could this be? After all we just saw that people with higher difficulty goals perform better (up to a certain point).
It turns out there is one factor missing from this study. These people in the study were randomly assigned into goal groups, and the key is that they all had the same level of ability and motivation levels. Ability isn’t an issue, but motivation is.
To reach optimal performance, the level of motivation must match the level of difficulty.
In one short term study, it was found that people with more motivation to lose weight set higher goals, and resulted in more effort in the short term and more weight loss (4).
If you take anything away from this article I hope it is this. You need to set goals based on your motivation levels.
Now what if your motivation levels are low, but your goal difficulty is high? There are ways of improving your motivation, but that’s a huge topic! I’ll be writing a specific article/guide on that shortly, so check back later or subscribe to email updates if you’re interested in improving and sustaining your motivation levels.
The second part of a goal is the intensity, which is a broad term that accounts for a variety of mental factors.
The main factor that has been studied is commitment.
“Commitment refers to the degree to which the individual is
attached to the goal, considers it significant or important, is determined to
reach it, and keeps it in the face of setbacks and obstacles.”
It probably won’t surprise you that having high commitment to a goal is linked with higher performance than low commitment (5).
This is primarily because of two reasons:
- People with high commitment tend to put more effort into reaching the goal
- People with low commitment are more likely to give up on hard goals
It’s interesting that motivation again ties into commitment, which is why it is a really important topic.
For now however, let’s focus on commitment in general.
There are two basic things that commitment comes from
1 – knowing the goal is possible
2 – recognizing importance of goal (6)
1. Knowing the goal is possible
If you believe that the goal is impossible to reach, you would be insane to try and do it. As such your commitment is, and should be low.
We can generalize this by saying that the more you think you can accomplish the goal, the more self belief or “self-efficacy” you have (7).
Self-efficacy is an important concept in goal setting, which is the easiest to interpret when you think of it as task-specific self-confidence (8).
Note that it is possible to improve self-efficacy by training, information, or by planning a better strategy. These can all help you improve your commitment to a goal.
An interesting side effect, is that when you have high self-efficacy you will have higher belief and expectations of yourself. This makes you more likely to choose a higher difficulty goal and be motivated to reach it.
2. The Importance of a goal
If you need to lose weight to save your life, you are going to be extremely committed to making it happen.
I hope you’re not in this situation, but if you are you have probably realized this already.
Here’s the key takeaway from this: the importance of a goal is self-defined.
Think about the things that are important to you right now; have they always been this important?
Probably not, because the relative importance of things change on a regular basis. What this means is that if you want to improve your commitment to a goal, one way you can do this is by convincing yourself that it is important to you.
A lot of the time you can do this simply through improving your awareness. Sticking with weight and health as an example, you could:
- do some research on the negative effects of being overweight
- spend time thinking about people close to you who struggle with being overweight
- think about things that you would like to do that you can’t because of your weight
You don’t have to lie to yourself, but instead be brutally honest. That’s the only way you will find out if something is truly important to you.
A lot of the time this happens indirectly as a result of being influenced by friends or role models. There is direct evidence that peers can influence commitment by providing information or opinions(9). There is even more evidence that you will lose more weight if you can join a highly committed group for weight loss (10).
Strategies for Goal Setting
Before we can set a goal there is one final thing you must know to bring it all together. Some call it ‘chunking’, but really it’s just breaking up your goal into reasonable time frames.
First you need to determine your ultimate goal – what do you really want to accomplish. This could be a target weight or body fat percentage, it’s your choice. Don’t worry about time frame too much for this part, as long as you are specific in your short term goals it will be already be taken into consideration.
Realize that you may not have the ability or commitment to tackle this all at once. In this case (which is likely), you need to set a short term goal. This is a goal that is realistic to you, and that you high self-belief that you can reach. It also should directly help you towards your long term goal.
Here’s something to note that is really important. Everytime you reach a short term goal you need to re-evaluate your situation and set another short term goal if needed.
Examine how you’ve done so far and see if you need to alter your plan at all. The results you’ve obtained so far are simply feedback from your efforts. Use this information to tweak your goal definition to improve your performance.
Putting it All Together – How to Set a Weight Loss Goal
Now that we’ve gone over all the relevant parts of weight loss goal setting we can finally use that to set a goal.
To quickly recap the main principles:
1. Be Specific
2. Pick a goal difficulty that is hard, but still within your ability (determined by experience, past successes, support, resources, etc.)
3. Write down why the goal is possible for you, you need to know that reaching it is possible
3.a) Focus on the main things you will have to change in order to be successful and make good behavior into a long-term habit; the results will follow action
4. Recognize the importance of the goal in your life. Eliminate other goals you currently have that aren’t as important and focus on this.
If you feel comfortable sharing your goal with the rest of the community leave the following below in a comment:
- Your Ultimate goal
- Your short term goal – be specific!
- Why you are confident that it is possible
- Why it is important to you
- Any other preparation you need to do to raise your ability, commitment, change your habits etc.