When it comes to setting goals, often people don’t know where to start and they go from one extreme to another, only for it to ‘fail’ and they end up feeling deflated and rubbish. We get so fixated on the end goal and overlook the importance of being patient and learning to love and trust the process along the way.
Let’s take ‘fat loss’ as an example goal. Often people think you have to go from eating pizzas every day to plain chicken and broccoli overnight, going from one end of the spectrum to another (and not an enjoyable switch either)! This inevitably results in bingeing, because food choices have come from a place of restriction and strict ‘rules’, which perpetuates the negative cycle and can be detrimental to our relationship with food and consequently our mental health.
If instead, the focus was on incorporating nutrient-dense food into your current diet and eating slightly less of the non-satiating, processed and calorie-dense foods, a couple of weeks into your ‘diet’, you will realise that you can continue to eat the foods you love and still get results. This is motivating in itself and leads to greater sustainability and happiness in the long term. Will the results be as quick as switching to the extreme options overnight? No of course not, but it will create sustainable changes, and teach you that you can ‘enjoy life’ whilst pursuing your goals for the longevity.
Let’s do an example with strength training, say your friend Bob wants an 80kg back squat but he’s currently on 40kg. He doesn’t go from 40kg to 80kg overnight, he starts at 42.5kg, 45kg, 47.5kg etc., with incremental increases. There are going to be weeks where Bob stays at the same back squat weight, or other weeks where he can’t make the weight he made the previous week despite going to the gym 3 times a week, but at this point he might be squatting 65kg! It’s about remembering how far along you are from where you started and being prepared that progress is never linear. It’s the consistency and ‘showing up’ that makes the difference to your results.
I absolutely love the book ‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear - it describes perfectly what I’m talking about here. James says that, ‘It is so easy to overestimate the importance of one defining moment and underestimate the value of making small improvements on a daily basis. Too often, we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action, when looking to achieve any of our goals. We put pressure on ourselves to make some earth-shattering improvement, meanwhile improving by 1% isn’t particularly noticeable, but is far more meaningful in the long run. If you can get 1% better each day for 1 year, you’ll end up 37 times better by the time you’re done. What starts as a small win, accumulates into something much more.
He goes on to say, ‘the effects of your habits multiple as you repeat them. We often dismiss small changes, because they don’t seem to matter much in the moment. If you go to the gym three days in a row, you still feel out of shape. If you study French for an hour in the evening, you still haven’t learned the language. We make a few changes and the results never seem to come quickly, and so we slide back into our previous routines. It doesn’t matter whether you are successful or unsuccessful right now, what matters is if your habits are putting you on the path towards success. You should be far more concerned with your trajectory than with your current results. You get what you repeat’.
James discusses the differences in goals vs. behaviours, (or ‘systems’ as he likes to call it). He states that, ‘society has led us to belief that specific, actionable goals are the deciding factors whether we achieve what we want in life, or not. Goals are about the results you want to achieve and systems are about the processes that lead to those results. If you’re a musician, your goal might be to learn a new piece, but your system is how often you practise, how you break down and tackle difficult parts and your method for receiving feedback from your teacher’.
Goals are good for setting a direction, but HABITS and BEHAVIOURS are best to focus on for making progress. We can spend too much time thinking about goals and not enough time designing our systems of continuous, small improvements. James gives the example, ‘If you have a goal to clean your room and you summon the energy to tidy up, then you’ll have a clean room, but if you maintain the same habits that lead to your room becoming messy, soon you’ll be back where you started. You are left chasing the same outcome because you never changed the system behind it. You treated the symptom without addressing the cause’.
There are some issues with solely focusing on goals, over habits and behaviours. Goals can actually restrict your happiness. James explains, that ‘the implicit assumption behind any goal is, ‘once I reach my goal, then I’ll be happy’. The problem with a ‘goal first’ mentality, is you’re continuously putting happiness off until the next milestone. It’s so easy to slip into this trap. Goals create an ‘either/or’ conflict. Either you achieve your goal and are successful, or you fail and you’re a disappointment. This is misguided. It’s unlikely that your actual path towards your goals will be as you originally intended. A ‘systems first’ mentality provides the antidote. When you fall in love with the process, rather than the product, you don’t have to wait to give yourself permission to be happy. You can be satisfied any time your system is running’.
When all of your hard work is focused on achieving a particular goal, what is left when you eventually achieve it? This is why many people revert to their old habits after accomplishing a goal. It’s not about a single accomplishment, but more the cycle of continuous improvement. It is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress.
I love the phrase that James says which is, ‘You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems’.
James explains that ‘an atomic habit refers to a tiny change, a marginal gain, a 1% improvement. They are little habits that are part of a larger system. Just as atoms are the building blocks of molecules, atomic habits are the building blocks of remarkable results. Each habit we have is a fundamental unit that contributes to your overall improvement. At first these tiny routines seem insignificant, but soon they build on each other and fuel bigger wins that multiply into great achievements. Atomic habits are both small and mighty - small and easy to do, but a source of incredible power’.
So, consider this when you are setting your goals and bear in mind that goals are great for a direction, but it’s the little things you do each day that accumulate and count the most in the long run. Focus on these habits and behaviours once you have your direction and ‘just do it’, one small step at a time.
MAIN TIPS FOR GOAL SETTING
1) Establish a start point – if you don’t know where you’re starting at, it’s difficult to measure how far you’ve come later on. Let’s take fat loss for an example goal, as it is very common. You can use whatever metric you would like, whether that’s body measurements, weights on a scale (although this varies hugely at different body compositions and is often not the best metric and can be triggering for some people). Also, weights on a scale especially for females, is not the best metric to use due to water retention during the menstrual cycle. The best method is taking some pictures of yourself of where you’re at, to be able to see progress visually, as it often happens so gradually that we may not notice it much ourselves, unless we have the pictures to compare. FYI, these are not pictures that anybody has to see if you don’t want them to, it’s just for you as an easy way of measuring progress, without any measurements or weighing.
2) Create a SMART goal – This method has been around forever, but it’s a great way to focus a goal and ensure it’s achievable in the time you have available. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely. Always make sure you understand your ‘why’ behind achieving your goal. Setting personal goals for YOU is one of the keys to success.
3) Ideal goal end point – Have a realistic time frame. There is a famous saying ‘What gets recorded, gets improved’. Monitor your progress and focus on small improvements consistently. E.g. If someone who weights 100kg and they want to weigh 96kg, they should focus on getting to 99kg first. This is a small metric that won’t take very long. Focus on the small wins.
4) Be prepared – sorry to be the one to say it, but your progress is not going to be linear. It will be full of ups and downs and that’s completely normal, so don’t beat yourself up on the journey. Things will take longer than you imagine and it’s about trusting in the process, having a really strong ‘why’ for yourself and being patient.
5) Be consistent – THIS is what gets true results. Often when people start to change their nutrition, for example, they really over-complicate things, focus on the smaller details, take on extreme diets or go in with an all-or-nothing attitude. Focus on being consistent, one day at a time. This builds up to 1 week, then 1 month, then 2 months, and so on.
6) No foods are forbidden - Restriction or rules around food lead to bingeing. Being extreme in the week and then bingeing at the weekend will hinder your goals and leave you feeling deflated. Fit the foods you like into your goal calories if that’s what you’re striving for (more on this in the next article). This is not something to take lightly, and if you’re not sure about anything, it should be done under the guidance and help of a trained professional. If your relationship with food is an issue for you (don’t worry, you are most definitely NOT alone), Laura Thomas, PhD wrote a great book on this called, ‘Just Eat It’, which is definitely worth a read as it’s about healing your relationship with food first and foremost, which I 100% agree with.
I hope you’ve found this article useful, I would be so grateful if you feel like sharing, if you
found this interesting or helpful! You can find me on social media on instagram, @drlululittle and let me know if you have any questions. I’d be really interested to hear your responses to this and stay tuned for more to come soon!
- Lulu Little
Graph and quotes are from ‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear.
Stay tuned next Sunday for Lulu's helpful jargon busting tips on a energy requirement and calorie consumption!