Not too long ago, someone that I've been helping came to me disappointed because they didn't achieve their goal weight by the date they planned. Sure, they lost weight, but not as much as they wanted to as quickly as they planned. They did everything right, ate what I told them, exercised consistently, supplemented with quality vitamins, got proper rest, yet when they stepped on that scale, it didn't reflect what they hoped. Their goal was challenging—between 1.5 and 2 pounds a week of fat loss—but realistic. They missed the weight they wanted by about 2 pounds or so and hung their head depressingly.
“Fantastic!” I said. They failed splendidly. If we had made the original goal to lose 1 pound a week they would have smoked it. They would have easily reached their goal and been a "success." But would they have accomplished as much? Obviously not. Alas, this goal stuff is not as simple as some would have you believe.
Pick up any of the multiple diet books that focus on a 12 week transformation program and I can almost assure you they'll have you set a goal for the end of your three months. So far so good. Alas, this goal stuff is not as simple as some would have you believe. . That part is simple. But the difficulty, especially if you're new to fitness, is determining what your goal should be. The basics of goal setting constitute a much bigger topic than I want to get into now, but let's assume you know the foundation principles. There's a thin line between a goal that is so easy it isn't a challenge and a goal that is so difficult that you're setting yourself up to fail. If you're a runner maybe you want to set a goal to run a 10K in 45 minutes 60 days from now. Is that a good goal? Let's take it apart and see if it meets the criteria. It's specific, time measurable, but wait....is it realistic?
Prior factors and being realistic
The answer depends on a host of individual factors. Are you a beginner or advanced? What is your current conditioning? What type on training regimen do you plan on adopting? Whether a goal is realistic can't be answered by knowing the goal alone; you also need a bit of information about the person doing the goal setting. Of course everything has an average and, therefore, approximations can be drawn. One to two pounds of fat loss a week is generally a good starting point. The problem is that the 12 week book du jour frequently doesn't get too deep into individual differences because their goal is to be as general (ahem! marketable) to as diverse a group as possible. So by all means, use the one to two pounds rule as a starting point, but don't adhere to it so strictly that you set yourself up for disappointment. If you've only got five pounds to shed, you may only be able to squeak out a half pound of loss a week without sacrificing muscle. If you're a runner who has been training hard and consistently for awhile, you may only be able to increase your pace per mile 5 seconds over a 10k.
Make your goal scary
Like most things, it works the other way too. If you've got 100 pounds to lose, you may find that a pound a week is too easily attainable and you're not being challenged. Setting a goal of increasing your bench press by 5 pounds in six months or shaving a minute off your 10K time this year may not be enough to drive you to push yourself. The goal should be a little scary.
At the end of the day, here's the thing—you've got to be self aware and honest enough with yourself to know if you're really trying hard, coasting by, cheating too often, or whatever to know if your results are successful. If you're making changes to your lifestyle for the better, getting stronger, or generally increasing your health or self esteem, I'd consider that a success. You may want to increase the rate of that success, but anytime you're moving forward be happy about it. Don't ever beat yourself up for missing a goal by a few pounds and lose sight of the weight you did lose.
Learn from your experiences
Learn from the experience and try to get better for next time but there's no quicker path to frustration than working your butt off only to be disappointed no matter what you do. If you're making forward progress but not meeting your goals consistently, take a step back and evaluate. Maybe the goal is too tough and needs to be reconsidered. I don't care if a trainer tells you it's possible or some book says you can do it, YOU have to chew on it and make the decision whether you’re willing to pay the price to achieve the end result. Are you getting lazy and missing workouts and eating junk? Cut that out and try harder. Are you sticking to your diet and workout plan and still missing it? Reevaluate and make the changes necessary to the goal or your approach or both.
But how much are you really willing to do?
What you can accomplish is incredible, what you're willing to do to accomplish it is another thing entirely. I don't read or hear much about this aspect, but it's undeniably true—you have to decide not only what's possible, but also what you're willing to do to get it. You hear an awful lot about how far people will go to accomplish their goal and their extreme efforts can be inspirational, but do you want to be one of them? Maybe, maybe not. Personally I'm willing to do an awful lot in pursuit of my physical goals, but I have my limits and they may be different than yours. That's ok, we're not Siamese twins. Maybe you're ok with getting up at 4:00 AM to go running, but I'm not. I'm willing to tolerate eating some pretty boring stuff day in and day out, maybe you know you're setting yourself up to fail if you try to adhere to that. I could get where I want sooner and be a better athlete if I did things differently, but I know myself well enough from experience to know how hard to push. Sometimes you need to dig in, grit your teeth, and throw yourself at a goal, and occasionally you need to push less, step back, and let reality seep in.
Remember the other roles you play in life
I'm more than just a workout geek, I'm a husband, father, employee, and brother, among other things. All these roles are important. They have to be factored in when making your goals because they are crucial to consider when determining what is and isn’t realistic to you. Maybe you could lose 12 pounds of fat this month and put on 3 pounds of muscle if you ran an hour every morning and went to the gym after work at night, but is that really what you want? What would that require? Maybe that means you wouldn’t be able to coach your son's tee ball team or go to the movies on Friday night with your wife. Is that acceptable to you? I'm not saying it should or shouldn’t be, but it's something to think about.
When you sit down to write up your goals, make sure they are changes you WANT to stick with for the time period specified, if not longer. It’s senseless to set a goal of running long distances every morning and eating cottage cheese for lunch every day if you hate running and gag at chunky dairy. You’d be better off trying to ride your bike after work if that’s what you like and eating a turkey sandwich on wheat from Subway for lunch. Sure running burns more calories. Sure the cottage cheese may be less processed and higher in protein, but if you hate what you’re doing you won’t do it for long. You know I’m right.
The law of diminishing returns
Let's say you're cruising along, losing fat at a rate of 1.5 pounds a week as planned. Think you'll be able to maintain that rate until you hit your goal? You may, but probably not without some changes along the way. As you get closer to your goal it will be more difficult to keep up that rate since your body is getting used to the increased activity and decreased calories. At this point you're going to have to either be satisfied with a slower rate of progress or do more for the same result. It's not fair, I know, but suck it up. When you’re making your goals, keep in mind that it will get tougher and tougher the closer you get to your goal or the further you progress.
Not all goals are related to weight loss, but the principle remains. The more advanced you get at any endeavor, the less dramatic changes you can typically expect. When you’re new to running or weight training or whatever the case may be, you can make huge leaps at the beginning. After a few years however, you will have to learn to pursue much smaller changes with the same enthusiasm. I’m not trying to depress you, believe me, I’m telling you this so when you hit the inevitable plateau, you know that it is just that—inevitable. Don’t get weepy about it, change things accordingly and go through it.
You’re probably not going to get it just right immediately. Like always, just do the best you can and keep on keeping on. Don’t get upset if you don’t hit the target every time. The goal is not to be reached every time, but to be strived for. Quit focusing on what you didn’t do perfectly, take a hard look at what you were able to do and congratulate yourself for those things. Treat yourself to something for the accomplishment. Being fit, active and healthy doesn’t have to be, nor should it be, drudgery or punishment. We’ve always been told to learn from our mistakes, and that’s great advice, but we must also recognize, focus on, and learn from our successes.