Setting Better Goals

Five Steps To Setting Better Goals

How many times have you set yourself a goal, struggled to achieve it and then given up? You might be wondering why you can’t seem to achieve the things you want to achieve. We can easily blame ourselves when this happens but maybe it’s our goals, not us, that are the problem!

Most of us have ideas of some huge outcomes we’d like to achieve, but it’s difficult to know where to start. We want to lose a large amount of weight, hit some insane lifts in the gym, or achieve lofty aspirations in our careers. It’s good to know what you want to achieve - but do you know how you will achieve it?

Goal setting is crucial for breaking down our long term goals into action steps that we can take on a daily or weekly basis. There are probably a number of ways we could go about achieving our goals, so it’s important to identify specific and actionable goals along the way. This is how we transform our good intentions into behaviours that achieve results.

Before we can set appropriate goals, we need to consider a couple of key goal characteristics.

Outcome vs Process

An outcome is a result you want to achieve, such as ‘I want to lose 5kgs’. It’s great to have an outcome in mind but it doesn’t tell you how to make that happen. It doesn’t give you anything to act on in order to see that result.

What we need to do is consider the process behind the result that we want to achieve. What do we actually need to do each day, or each week, to bring us closer towards our target of losing 5kgs? E.g. Eating 2-3 portions of veg with each meal, going on a short walk each day, including protein at each meal.

Approach vs Avoid

Approach goals help us move toward our desired outcomes, whereas avoidance goals help us move away from undesired outcomes [1]. Approach goals are associated with greater positive emotions, thoughts, and self-evaluations and greater psychological well-being [2]. In contrast, avoidance goals are associated with fewer positive thoughts and greater negative emotions.

We can convert avoidance goals into approach goals by substituting behaviors to avoid with behaviors to promote, e.g. I’m not going to eat any junk food (avoid), vs I’m going to have one piece of fruit per day (approach).

With that in mind, let’s set some goals!

Step One: Get Clear On Your Goal

Not only is it necessary to get clear on what you want to achieve but it helps to really understand why this goal is important to you.

  1. What outcome would you like to achieve?

  2. Why is this important to you?

  3. What would be different about your life if you achieved your goal?

  4. What would your life be like if you didn’t achieve your goal?

Now that we know what you want to achieve, and why, we can break it down into smaller steps. Very often, we may set a goal that seems like it’s a long way off. It helps to break it down into small steps that we can focus on each day.


Identifying Where To Start

Consider your potential target behaviours, and then:

  • What area needs the most improvement? What do you need to prioritise?

  • What small change would make the biggest difference right now?

For example:

  • Goal: Improve energy levels

  • Potential target behaviours: Nutrition, physical activity, stress management, sleep

  • Area needing most improvement: Sleep

  • Small change: Identify a consistent sleep/wake time. Set an alarm to remind myself to wind down.

Then consider: Could I still do this on my worst day? If the answer is no, it could be helpful to set a smaller, more achievable goal, or come up with a contingency plan.

Step Two: Make Your Goals Specific

Now we need to check that your goal is specific enough. Well-defined goals are necessary to help you focus your desires and intentions and create a standard by which success can be measured.

SMART goals are a pretty good way to do this.

  1. Specific: Is your goal clear? What will you do? When? Where?

  2. Measurable: How will you measure and monitor this change?

  3. Achievable: Do you have the skills and resources you need to make the change?

  4. Realistic: Is this realistic for you? How confident do you feel that you can achieve this?

  5. Time-based: When will you get it done?

Let’s use the example of increasing your daily movement.

  1. Specific: I will walk for 20 minutes around the block.

  2. Measurable: I can keep track of my steps on my phone.

  3. Achievable: Yes, I have everything I need to make this happen.

  4. Realistic: Yes, I have time in the morning.

  5. Time-based: I’ll do this each morning at 7:30am.

It helps to have an action plan too - make sure you know when, where and how you will carry out this goal.


Step Three: Anticipate Obstacles (Coping Planning)

Did you think that reaching your goals would be smooth sailing? Think again.

Even with effective goal setting techniques, it is very likely that there will be days where things don’t go to plan! That’s just life. We will face barriers along the way but these are simply hurdles that we can learn to jump over. Coping planning is the process of anticipating barriers and challenges that may interfere with our goals and making plans to overcome such barriers [3].


  1. Review the goal you have set for yourself. Can you perceive any barriers that may get in the way?

  2. What can you do in these situations?


It’s really crucial that you don’t skip this step. Use of both action and coping plans for health behavior change confers greater benefits than action plans alone [4], [5].


Step Four: Follow Through

Write your goal down and tell someone about it. This is a key step! It’s easy to overlook this step because it seems really simple but it can make a huge difference. Writing down our goals helps us to stay focused on them, and telling someone else makes it ‘real’ - they can hold us accountable!

It also helps to consider other strategies you may need to help you implement your goal. Many strategies like self-monitoring, social support, problem solving etc can and should be used in conjunction with goal setting [6] to help maintain your new behaviour.

Keep track of your goal, whether it’s by ticking it off on a calendar, in your journal, or an app on your phone. This will help you to monitor your progress and take each day as it comes. Don’t forget to celebrate your success as well.


Step Five: Review Your Goals

Remember that change is hard. Perhaps even more crucially than setting the ‘right’ goals, is learning to pick ourselves up when things don’t go to plan. Although it’s frustrating, we can learn how to adapt to challenging situations by reflecting on our goals when things don’t go to plan.


Ask yourself:

  1. What went well?

  2. What didn’t go well?

  3. What do I need to change?


And then...keep going! You can’t fail if you don’t quit. If a goal is meaningful to you, there will be a way for you to achieve it. This may require learning new skills and it may take longer than you’d like, but you will get there. Monitor, review, reflect, tweak and keep going. It’s all part of the process.


References

[1] Bailey, Ryan. (2017). Goal Setting and Action Planning for Health Behavior Change. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. 13. 155982761772963. 10.1177/1559827617729634.

[2] Coats EJ, Janoff-Bulman R, Alpert N. Approach versus avoidance goals: differences in self-evaluation and well-being. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 1996;22:1057-1067.

[3] Sniehotta FF. Towards a theory of intentional behaviour change: plans, planning, and self-regulation. Br J Health Psychol. 2009;14(pt 2):261-273.


[4] Kwasnicka D, Presseau J, White M, Sniehotta FF. Does planning how to cope with anticipated barriers facilitate health-related behaviour change? A systematic review. Health Psychol Rev. 2013;7: 129-145.


[5] Schroé H, Van Dyck D, De Paepe A, Poppe L, Loh WW, Verloigne M, Loeys T, De Bourdeaudhuij I, Crombez G. Which behaviour change techniques are effective to promote physical activity and reduce sedentary behaviour in adults: a factorial randomized trial of an e- and m-health intervention. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2020 Oct 7;17(1):127. doi: 10.1186/s12966-020-01001-x. PMID: 33028335; PMCID: PMC7539442.


[6] Middleton KR, Anton SD, Perri MG. Long-term adherence to health behavior change. Am J Lifestyle Med. 2013;7:395-404.


BCW approach: ‘What conditions internal to individuals and in their social and physical environment need to be in place for a specified behavioural target to be achieved?’

Epton T, Currie S, Armitage CJ. Unique effects of setting goals on behavior change: Systematic review and meta-analysis. J Consult Clin Psychol. 2017 Dec;85(12):1182-1198. doi:10.1037/ccp0000260. PMID: 29189034.


Samdal, G. B., Eide, G. E., Barth, T., Williams, G., & Meland, E. (2017). Effective behaviour change techniques for physical activity and healthy eating in overweight and obese adults; systematic review and meta-regression analyses. The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 14, Article 42. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12966-017-0494-y


Michie, S., Ashford, S., Sniehotta, F. F., Dombrowski, S. U., Bishop, A., & French, D. P. (2011). A refined taxonomy of behaviour change techniques to help people change their physical activity and healthy eating behaviours: the CALO-RE taxonomy. Psychology & Health, 26(11), 1479-1498


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