Have you ever come up with a big goal, and after only a few days, you felt overwhelmed and possibly paralyzed, thinking to yourself, “How in the heck am I going to get from here all the way to there?”
As much as self-help gurus tell us to create massive goals and then plaster them all over a vision board, new research from Harvard, Northwestern, and the University of Pennsylvania show why this doesn’t work. While massive far-off future goals sound sexy and wonderful, the approach isn’t supported by science. If you have ever set a massive goal and didn’t reach it, you didn’t fail. That approach failed you!
In fact, modern science shows that most often these far-off future goals decrease your chances of success. I know this sounds crazy after all the “goals gone wild” messages you’ve heard, but think about it: How has that advice worked out for you so far? Are far-off future goals fun to set, then overwhelming within a week? They’re almost like mental junk food—enjoyable in the moment, but because they have no substance, they leave you feeling worse after you come down from the initial high.
Results Goals versus Process Goals:
If you tell yourself you are going to lose 100 pounds, that is a specific type of goal called a “results goal.” The problem with results goals is that they focus on things you may not be able to control, and they take place in the future. A saner approach is to set process goals that deal with things you can control right now—for example, drinking a healthy smoothie with breakfast.
While small process goals you can achieve today may not seem sexy on the surface, I promise that achieving them consistently is the key to everything you want in life. The only thing you can control is your actions. So why focus on anything other than taking positive actions to lower your body’s setpoint weight now? Look at it this way: If you achieve small process goals consistently—for example, eating one more serving of green veggies today than you did yesterday—you can’t help but eventually get where you want to go.
Continuous progress today adds up to massive transformation over time—for two big reasons. First, you are hardwired to be a goal-completing biological machine. Even if they are small, checking things off your to-do list feels great.
When you complete small daily process goals, you set yourself up to easily complete the next goal in front of you because you have positive thoughts and emotions driving you forward. If you focus only on your future final goal weight, you never get to feel the excitement and joy of those small everyday wins. In fact, you’ll experience the exact opposite. You’ll only feel the anxiety and stress of “failing” at that “perfect” future goal repeatedly. You wake up and think, “Am I at my ‘perfect’ weight? No. Failure. How about now? No. Failure. Now?” You get the point.
Second, this saner approach simplifies any process into bite-sized pieces that are fun to complete. You only need to focus on the next bite-sized task, which is clear, tiny, and easy, and that’s motivating. For example, let’s suppose you decide to run a marathon. If you have never run a mile before, and you try to compete in a marathon on day one, that will not go well. Instead, if running a marathon was your goal, you would start small by first buying a pair of running shoes. The next day you’d walk around the block.
The next day, you would do that twice. The next day, you would pick up the pace. And on and on. Checking a lot of things off your list and having fun doing it. By taking small steps consistently, eventually you develop the positive momentum to enter the race.
What you did was take a big results goal and then you broke it down into the smallest pieces possible that are under your control—that is, process goals. Let’s take an example results goal of effortlessly weighing 160 pounds. This is a results goal that you can kind of control, and you can break it down into small steps you can control completely. You are literally shaping your future with present action.
Here are some sample steps to do this in your own life: Write down that positive results goal of effortlessly weighing 160 pounds (or whatever a healthy goal weight is for your height). Always make sure when writing a goal that you pursue the positive. Effortlessly weighing 160 pounds is positive; it states what you want. Losing 30 pounds is negative; it states what you don’t want. Next, break that goal down into two categories of process goals: Action Steps and Consistency Steps. Action Steps are one-time actions while Consistency Steps are actions that get repeated with regularity—goals that you will want to do consistently over time.
Examples of Action Steps:
- Find a gym close to my home or buy a good blender so I can make SANE smoothies (recipe featured at the end of this article)
- Spend a half hour clearing my kitchen of all insane (unhealthy) food.
- Go to the gym every Monday and Thursday.
- Blend a SANE smoothie with breakfast daily.
- Eat at least 2 servings of non-starchy vegetables with each meal.
Again, frame up your Action and Consistency Steps positively—around what you will do, not negatively around what you won’t do or avoid. See the difference and how it makes things so much easier to take on one step at a time?
You can get started by sitting down and thinking of as many little process goals—Action Steps and Consistency Steps—that you can take that will lead you to your main results goal. Then choose one small Action Step and Consistency Step you can do today to increase your self-esteem and easily check off the list and start the ball rolling.
Also, another goal-setting and motivating action you can do to move your health in a positive direction is to track your Action and Consistency Steps in a journal. Every morning, write the small actions you want to take for the day and cross them off with joy as you complete them.
THE SECRET SAUCE TO GOAL SETTING: IMPLEMENTATION INTENTIONS
A little known but very powerful psychological “secret” to make your Action and Consistency Steps stick is a technique called implementation intentions. You already know how to take a results goal and break it down into process goals that include both Action Steps and Consistency Steps. Implementation intentions specify:
- The behavior you intend to take.
- The situation where/when you will take that behavior.
- The ways you will overcome obstacles to that behavior.
In other words, implementation intentions specify the what, when, and where—and are written in an if/when/then format. If/when situation X happens, then I will do behavior Y to reach positive process goal Z. Implementation intentions are extremely powerful. They have been proven in hundreds of studies to significantly increase the likelihood of achieving your goals.
Psychologists from the University of Manchester in Great Britain undertook a study to test whether implementation intentions could help with weight loss (Armitage et al. 2017). There were 216 people in the study. All were following healthier eating plans but only some of them used implementation intentions.
The participants instructed to use implementation intentions were given a worksheet where the left-hand side of the page contained common situations in which people feel tempted to eat, and on the right-hand side was a list of possible solutions. The participants were asked to select a situation on the left-hand side that applied to them personally and draw a line linking it to a solution on the right-hand side to form an implementation intention. An example in the study was: If I am tempted to eat when I feel uncomfortable, then I will do something else instead of eating when I need to relax or deal with tension.
After 6 months, the researchers followed up with everyone. Amazingly, the individuals who set implementation intentions lost nearly twice as much weight as the controls!
An earlier study, published in Health Psychology in 2007, produced similarly encouraging findings (Luszczynska et al. 2007). University of Sussex researchers in Great Britain enrolled 55 overweight or obese women in a program designed to evaluate the effectiveness of implementation intentions. The women were assigned to either an implementation intention group or a control group. Over the course of 2 months, the women who wrote implementation intentions lost twice as much weight as the control group. The researchers noted: “Among obese or overweight women participating in a commercial weight-loss program, those who learn to form implementation intentions can achieve greater weight reduction.”
These studies suggest that you can nearly double the effectiveness of your process goals by creating and using implementation intentions. Really think about that for a moment. What else do you know of that costs nothing, has no negative side effects, can be done anywhere by anyone, and has been shown in studies to nearly double weight loss? I can’t think of anything else either, and that’s why I hope you will give yourself the gift of implementation intentions.
Getting Started with Implementation Intentions
Implementation intentions define when, where, and how you want to act on your goal. There are two different aspects you need to consider when you set them:
1. Identify the action that you’re going to take to accomplish a certain goal, and when to take it.
2. Identify possible obstacles to goal-achievement, and how you’ll manage them.
All you need to do is fill in these blanks here:
If/when _______________ (situation X happens), then I will _____________ (do behavior Y) to achieve _____________ (positive process goal Z).
When you create implementation intentions, you plan the specific action that you are going to take to reach your process goals, and when and where you are going to carry out that action. You’re also creating a plan on how you will move forward even when an obstacle might get in your way.
YOU WILL GET WHERE YOU WANT TO GO
Making progress without seeking perfection, setting positive process goals, and taking Action Steps and Consistency Steps framed up with implementation intentions will transform your life.
You will upgrade the story you tell yourself about food and your body. You will begin to love yourself and gently make lasting changes that lead to permanent weight loss. You will leave behind the frustration of quick fixes, shame, guilt, and blame and the embarrassment and broken promises of all the diets that have failed you in the past. You will genuinely love yourself again, care for yourself again, and finally see the change you deserve in your life . . . for the rest of your life.
SANE SMOOTHIE RECIPE:Coco-Cranberry Dreamsicle
Yield: 1 Total Time: 3 minutes
- Prep: 3 minutes
- cups pitted cranberries (frozen or fresh)
- 3 cups mixed greens
- 3 cups spinach
- . cup cocoa powder
- 1 lemon (peeled)
- 2 tablespoons erythritol (optional)
- . teaspoon cinnamon
- 1–3 tablespoons superfood green powder
4 tablespoons clean whey protein or pea protein (if your smoothie is a meal replacement or taken after a workout). Add all ingredients to a high-powered blender with 8 ounces cold water and a handful of ice. Blend for 2 minutes or until completely blended (i.e., no pieces of veggies or fruit are visible). Adjust water and ice for desired consistency and temperature.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jonathan Bailor pioneered the field of Wellness Engineering and is the founder and CEO of the world’s fastest growing permanent weight loss and diabesity treatment company, SANESolution. He authored the New York Times bestseller The Calorie Myth, has registered over 26 patents, has spoken at Fortune 100 companies and TED conferences for over a decade, and served as a Senior Program Manager at Microsoft, where he helped create Nike Kinect Training and Xbox Fitness. His work has been endorsed and implemented by top doctors from Harvard Medical School, Johns Hopkins, the Mayo Clinic, the Cleveland Clinic, and UCLA. A summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa graduate of DePauw University, Bailor lives outside Seattle with his wife, Angela, and daughter Aavia. Learn more at SANESolution.com and SetpointDiet.com.
Adapted from the book THE SETPOINT DIET: The 21-Day Program to Permanently Change What Your Body “Wants” to Weigh by Jonathan Bailor. Copyright (c) Jonathan Bailor by Hachette Books. Reprinted with permission of Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.