To put it less pretentiously, we may not always hit what we aim at in life, but the odds go up when we are, in fact, aiming. Dumb luck carries you only so far. (Believe me, I’ve tested the limits of dumb luck. Planning is better.)
Some goals are obvious. For a mountain climber, only getting to the top will do. But there will be intermediate goals along the climb to the summit.
Other goals are trickier to set.
Over the years, I’ve taught a college reading and study strategies course, one available to any student who cares to enroll in it but mostly aimed at entering students whose test scores indicate they need extra support. Such a course is sometimes called “remedial.” I think of it as “motivational.”
It’s like military boot camp — except that I can’t yell at, curse, berate or otherwise humiliate anyone. I’m also not allowed to fire a machine gun over the heads of my charges while they crawl face-down in the mud under low-hung barbed wire. (Now, that would be motivational!)
Otherwise, it’s exactly what the Marine recruits get at Parris Island.
Goal setting is a big part of the course. I tell students to set goals that are specific, realistic, measurable and that have a deadline. This is essentially the well-known “SMART” approach.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about goal-setting in relation to weight-loss.
Consider some possible weight-loss goals. How do they stand up against my criteria?
Having the goal of “losing weight” fails the specificity test. It also lacks a deadline.
Having the goal of “losing 30 pounds in the next month” is specific, measurable, and has a deadline. However, it is not realistic to lose a pound a day for 30 days. To be realistic, a goal has to be attainable.
But it also has to be worth attaining (challenging, in other words). So having the goal of “losing at least one pound in the next month” is not realistic in the sense that it isn’t a worthwhile achievement. It lacks a real challenge.
Earlier this year (on May 7), I set a goal for myself to weigh 215 or less on Labor Day (September 5) 2011. Certainly that goal is specific, measurable, and has a deadline. But is it realistic?
When I set the goal, I weighed 241 pounds. So, I was proposing to lose 26 pounds in slightly over 17 weeks. That’s an average loss of one-and-a-half pounds per week. At the time I set the goal, I felt confident of reaching it with days to spare. It seemed realistic in the sense of being attainable. But was it realistic in the sense of being worthwhile? Was it challenging enough?
With ten days to go, my current weight is 216.8 pounds. I may or may not make my Labor Day goal, but I should be close.
The question is, would I have lost more weight if I’d set a more ambitious goal? Say, two pounds a week?
Maybe I would have. Setting a high goal can strengthen motivation. It can create a greater sense of urgency. Of course, the danger is setting it too high. That can lead to discouragement, or in the case of a weight loss goal, to unsafe methods and shortcuts.
Setting a goal that is both attainable and challenging is always the tough part.
It’s also important to set the right type of goals. I tell my students, “Don’t set a goal of getting an ‘A’ in a class. You don’t completely control the grades you receive.” In other words, I want students to set goals about their own behavior, about what they will do and how often they will do it. I tell them to set goals about how they will study, when, and how much. That way, they are in control and can keep track of their progress on a daily or weekly basis.
So, applying that idea to my diet goals, I could have said, “For the next four months, my goal is to eat no more than 2,000 calories and 35 net grams of carbohydrates on any day.” I haven’t quite met that goal, not every day. If I had set that goal, and met it, I might have lost even more weight than I have. By focusing on a goal for pounds to lose — rather than behaviors to adopt — I created a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Yes, outcomes do matter. Eventually, you want to reach the top of the mountain. But what is the desired outcome for college? Earning a high GPA, or learning something useful for your life? (Even if what you learn is something about yourself that you could have learned elsewhere, for less money — say, at Parris Island.)
And what is the desired outcome of a new way of eating?
Is it losing as much weight as possible as quickly as possible? Or is it attaining a healthy and sustainable weight?
I can’t tell you now what I will weigh on Labor Day. But I can tell you what I will do.
I will set a new goal.