Setting goals can be useful when we want to make a change- whether it be to our eating habits, activity levels or other areas of our lives. However, setting a goal that is not realistic can actually be more harmful than helpful.
It is only natural to want change to happen right away but most changes take time. Focusing only on the end result and thus only on long-term goals does not help us to trudge through the rough parts of change because we won’t see the fruits of our labor for awhile. Taking things 4 weeks at a time helps to keep goals manageable and rewards you on a more regular basis. Little “wins” more often is a heck of a lot more motivating in the day to day. Many of my clients have a hard time seeing that these little steps in the right direction can lead faster to the end result. I believe many of us have been convinced by the media and diet-culture that only big, sweeping changes to our lives will make a difference.
Small, easy to accomplish goals DO lead to greater health
Keeping that 4 weeks in mind, we have to remember what is actually possible to do in 4 weeks. Unfortunately, many people tend to overestimate what they can achieve in a day let alone what they can change in a month. I have had many conversations with clients who’s list of eating habits they want to change is long. There is nothing wrong with wanting to self-improve. However, when we take on too many things, we are less likely to accomplish anything. The fear-mongering messages we are flooded with regarding health and food tend to be the cause of many of my client’s distress and need to change everything RIGHT NOW. Most of these messages surrounding “the best way to eat” or “foods to avoid” are overly-simplified and have no real impact on our health. Hearing desires to drink more water, eat more plant based foods, move more, make more homemade foods, and sleep more are not uncommon from my clients. Nor is trying to do all of these things at once- there in lies the problem (well, one of the problems).
Being realistic in what you can “get done” in a day is so, so important and keep in mind that food, nutrition, and movement are only PART of your life- you have many other important obligations too. Food cannot and should not take precedence all the time. We have obligations to our families, work, friends, etc. Making changing your food habits our #1 and only priority in life can lead to a disordered relationship with food and your body.
Rebecca Scritchfield, RD, the author of Body Kindness, has an awesome suggestion for setting goals: “[Ask yourself] what’s the least I can do?” and do it. Put one carrot on the plate, take a 2 min walk, or 3 deep breaths”. She goes on to say “Knowledge of what you need to do is not enough to actually do it, let alone turn it into a habit. You also need to believe your effort can make a difference.”
You are likely already succeeding! Unrealistic goals can lead to feeling like a failure.
The goal setting step in any attempt to change is only second most important to setting realistic goals. Often people will be successful in making changes to their lifestyles but because they set goals too high, they believe they have failed. Again for example, if you want to eat more vegetables (say go from 0 to 4 servings a day for the next month) and you “only” were able to eat 2 servings per day, most people would feel unsuccessful. However, if you had set a realistic goal of eating 2 servings per day, you would be ecstatic.
Take another example: you want to be more active and decided to start walking. You are now walking once a week and you want to walk everyday (7 days a week). “Anything less is unacceptable”. Well, maybe this weekend your child has is an all day sports tournament then dinner at your in-laws, and then next week you have two 12 hour days plus a cake to make for a birthday. So, perhaps you were “only” able to squeeze four walks into your schedule- your goal was to walk every single day so by definition you failed. Keep in mind that you walked more than you did in the past and perhaps 4 days a week is all you can manage right now. 4 walks are better than 1, no matter what you think you “should be doing”. Why not congratulate yourself for the efforts you made rather than dwell on the negative? “Shoulding” on ourselves is a quick way to minimize real accomplishments and feelings of never being able to do enough.
It is also important to take a hard, long look at WHY you have chosen the specific goals you hold important. Was there a “health guru” who insisted that a little is not enough? where did those numbers come from (ie. walking 7/7 days, eating 4 vegetables per day, 8 glasses of water)? Listen more to your instincts and less often to others when it comes to making changes- ESPECIALLY when it comes to food. Only YOU can determine if a change is doable with the other responsibilities you have in life. Feeling guilty or shamed into making a change actually demotivates us. Rebecca Scritchfield, RD puts it well: “One of the least satisfying reasons for change is following what someone else is pushing you to do.”
Setting reasonable goals and trying to change things slowly in your lifestyle is much more successful in the long run because it helps to boost motivation and feelings of accomplishment. It may not be sexy, but it gets the job done more efficiently and with a lot more of your sanity intact!