How To Set Weight Loss & Health Goals The Right Way (And The Wrong Way)

Process Goals Create Outcome Goals

Are all approaches to Fitness & Health goals created equal and can some well-intentioned conventional methods actually be harmful? Professional athletes, executive coaches, and Olympians tend to approach goal setting much differently than the conventional wisdom of how to set goals.

There is ample research and a reasoning that just makes sense behind all of this. Whether the goal is to start a journey to achieve a fitness goal, get to the next level, or aiming for world class performance, this article will lay out a case for how to set goals the right way and how to avoid popular approaches that can actually sabotage progress.

To give an example of this distinct difference in fitness & health goal setting approach from the conventional idea, here are some types of goals research shows you should NOT exclusively be focusing on or coaching someone to focus exclusively on:

  • “I want to lose 10lbs by the summer”
  • “I want to add 5lbs of muscle in the next 5 months”
  • “I want to be cleared to get off my blood pressure medication”
  • “I want to run a 7 minute mile”
  • “I want to do a one armed pushup”
  • “I want to run the marathon”

Here is why:

30 years ago research was conducted on goal setting in the field of sports psychology and has been ever since particularly by Kieran Kingston and Lew Hardy at the University of Wales. The concepts learned have been so useful and effective they are used today in executive business coaching, self-help, professional athletics, and even the coursework of fitness professionals. 

Yes, having a clear idea of where you’d like to be and when is incredibly powerful compared to if you just simply have a vague wish such as “I want to get into better shape”. All goals should be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely or S.M.A.R.T for short.

Making sure all fitness goals meet these standards will produce the best results

Making sure all fitness goals meet these standards will produce the best results

However, there are key critical components of the goal setting process that go beyond this even if you set a basic S.M.A.R.T. goal or any goal for that matter. If we look at the research on new year’s resolutions, for example, we see that over 90% fail. These individuals had a “resolution” or a goal, but something was off. Something that can sabotage your efforts and potentially make it more challenging to be motivated attempting the same thing in the future.

What is off and potentially can sabotage your goals? No story illustrates why you should start your fitness journey in a different way better than the story of what famously happened in 1911.

The Story of 1911

Photo of first expedition to have reached the south pole.

Photo of first expedition to have reached the South Pole, Antarctica. December 15, 1911

In 1911, two expeditions set out with the goal of being the first to reach the South Pole. Antarctica considered the final frontier that truly had not been tamed. It is a treacherous and unforgiving environment where temperatures have been recorded at -135 degrees below zero. In the end, one expedition would achieve their goal safely and on the exact day they planned, while the other would meet defeat and not make it back.

If we look at the research on new year’s resolutions, for example, we’ll see that over 90% of them fail. These individuals had a “resolution” or a goal, but something was off. Something that can sabotage your efforts and potentially make it more difficult to be motivated to attempt the same thing in the future.

Getting one’s health back and using those health habits to inspire and teach our loved ones what we’ve learned and feeling the benefits of having our health and fitness as we get older, is a gift that’s priceless. The reality is that the journey to health is usually not an easy one and how time is spent approaching a particular goal is critical. If your goal is to create a healthy lifestyle and achieve your fitness goals in the midst of a busy, hectic life, this story is for you. It will all tie together in the end.

Two Different Approaches to Setting Goals

One of the south pole expeditions was led by explorer Roald Amundsen and the other by Robert Falcon Scott. Both were the same age, had the same experience, and started the journey within a few days of each other. The difference was how they approached the goal: Be the first to get to the South Pole.

You can liken this to two different ways you might approach your health and fitness goal.

Two Paths To Goals

The differences started in the preparation before the journey even started:

Amundsen's Preparation & Travel Plans

Amundsen did his homework. He learned what worked best in arctic conditions by consulting experts of the arctic: "The Eskimos" who have been living in arctic conditions for over a thousand years. He learned how they ate, how fast they moved as not to sweat and freeze, how they dressed to keep warm and handle unexpected events.

On top of this, he figured out how to deal with every conceivable situation his team might encounter on their way to the pole. He accepted that no challenging goal was going to happen without some setbacks along the way.

Scott's Preparation & Travel Plans

Now if we were to tell a story about Scott, we wouldn’t have much to write about regarding journey preparation as there wasn’t much at all. Beyond a few intuitive conclusions, he jumped right in. There was a different mentality at the root of why and we will get to this as the story reaches its conclusion.

Scott in comparison to Amundsen didn’t take into account things going wrong or the many challenges coming up. He decided to use the latest motorized technology of the day (which happened to stall out a few days into the trip due to it not being able to handle arctic conditions). The speed and safety of his planned trip were designed such that if anything went wrong, it could have meant certain disaster.

If your goal is to create a healthy lifestyle and achieve your fitness goals in the midst of a busy, hectic life, this story is for you.

When it comes to preparing to get back in shape, there’s a reason it’s called a “journey”. We can liken Scott's approach to the typical, "just get on a treadmill and do a few sit ups" mentality that is common when health goals are attempted. I would of course recommend taking more preparation than this in almost all cases. 

We can liken Amundsen's approach to consulting and learning from professionals, looking into the details, planning out everything to the end, and understanding how to handle the almost certain adversity that will show itself at some point. Don't get me wrong, it is not always black and white like this. There is most definitely a spectrum and everyone starts their fitness goals at some point on that spectrum. 

Here are some great questions to think about when setting your goals & plans:

Must Ask Questions Before Starting a Fitness Goal

  • What’s a reasonable amount of times to workout per week that I can be consistent with? When? Where? What’s too much?
  • Who should I learn from, consult with, and have as support to improve my odds of success and keep me away from pitfalls?
  • What should I do for my workout? How do I know I’m doing it correctly?
  • How important are nutrition and eating properly to my goal?
  • How quickly should I add these habits? Should I do everything at once or focus on small changes into bigger ones?
  • What results can I expect and how do I measure my progress?
  • What are the potentially dangerous approaches I need to avoid? How do I avoid a recurring injury/pain issue?

The Journey Begins...

travel map

The routes both teams took to the pole.

As Amundsen begun the trip, he used the approach that would be key to his success and survival. He adhered to a regimen of consistent progress and process. He paced himself and only traveled 15 to 20 miles per day. He made sure his team always got a consistent amount of sleep and nutrition each day.

Even when tempted to push harder when the conditions were ideal, he stuck to 15 to 20 miles, making sure his team was rested enough and nourished, ready for the next 15-20 miles. No matter the external events good or bad he stuck with the pace. There would be times when unexpected events would occur. He faced 16 days of gale force winds and traveled on eight of them, being prepared for the worst.

He wrote in his journal on one of the worst days “It has been an unpleasant day. Storm, drift, and frostbite, but we have advanced 13 miles closer to our goal.” You will see a difference in Scott’s reaction to the bad weather below.

Scott, on the other hand despite having the same intensively-focused goal of reaching the South Pole as fast as possible (much like Amundsen), dealt with and reacted to similar situations in a different way. When conditions were ideal, he would push his team to exhaustion trekking as many miles as possible. During the worst conditions he would wait in his tent until conditions improved,  cursing the nasty weather and how unfair things were.

He experienced six days of gale force winds compared to Amundsen’s 16 and was able to travel on none of them due to not being prepared for the conditions. Scott, stuck in his tent during one of the worst days wrote in his journal, “I doubt if any party could travel in such weather.”

It is common to try and workout every day or trying a perfect diet in the beginning and to blame the unfairness of things when they don’t go our way. When we slip up on our health choices on a weekend or a stressful week, you can see it’s all about the mindset and how you perceive what you are doing.

Almost To The Goal With An Unexpected Decision

Amundsenexpedition2

Three days before arriving, with the anxiety of Scott potentially beating them to the pole, they ascended a mountain range 10,000ft in altitude and had the perfect conditions to ski and sled their way to a final non-stop push for the pole (noted by red dot in the image above). What did Amundsen do with the pressure of losing and weather conditions that seemed ideal?

He only traveled 17 miles sticking with his 15-20 mile a day goal. He continued with his process, realizing his was all about the actions and habits and that certain unexpected events outside of his control could take an over-pushed under-rested, under-fed team (if he chose to keep pushing) into danger.

This illustrates more than anything where Amundsen focused in achieving his goal. It wasn’t in the outcome goal he had initially set; he was obsessed with the goals of process that would get him to his outcome.

On December 15th, 1911 Amundsen reached the south pole clocking in at his average 15.5 miles per day pace exactly at the time he predicted. He planted the flag of his country and went down in history as being the first to reach the South Pole.

He had no idea that 360 miles behind was Scott. 34 days later Scott and his team, who had been traveling on foot as all their motorized equipment and animals had died and were dejected to see Amundsen’s flag planted at the South Pole. With increasingly worsening conditions and dwindling supplies, Scott’s team met their fate over the next 90 days, lost in the snow trying to make it back.

If you’d like to learn more about the story of the South Pole Expedition, the business book "Great by Choice" By Jim Collins illustrates the story for business purposes. Roland Huntford’s “The Last Place on Earth” is a detailed and well-written story of the comparisons of the two explorers.

zigzag

The path to success with your health goals is never a straight line. Not only by focusing too much on the outcome you will miss sight of what you need to do but you will ride the emotional roller coaster that comes with it.

Destination Vs. Directions (Process Goals Vs. Create Outcome Goals)

The differences in both approaches to achieving their goal are both stark and clear. They were both focused and wanted the same result. They had the same outcome goal. They upended their lives leaving their friends and family behind to go after this outcome.  It was such a strong goal; they were willing to risk their lives.

Scott focused his energy completely on the outcome goal. Amundsen was focused on making sure he was using the right “processes/behaviors/actions” and had a goal of achieving those processes. Whether it be 15-20 miles a day, consistent sleep & food, rules on how much he allowed his team to veer off course, processes ready for when anything unexpected occurred. The actions create the outcomes.

The reason why one should focus on their process or behavior goals instead of just moving toward a goal is for three very important reasons:

Three Reasons To Focus On Process & Behavior Goals To Achieve Outcome Goals

  1. The Wrong Plan
    Fitness Goals can sometimes fail not because the right things weren’t done but because what was thought as the right approach was actually the wrong one. Even if the goal is realistic and attainable an incorrect exercise approach, misleading nutrition strategy, or lifestyle strategy will prevent results. This happens. Not always, but this definitely happens.
    A perfect example I always like to give is the mindset of exercise being perceived as “boring and grueling”. Research has shown those attempting a fitness goal perceiving exercise like this, tend to compensate their “torture” with seeking pleasure afterwards in unhealthy habits. Whereas a better plan would have been putting more effort in finding a physical activity or experience that can bring some degree of enjoyment and pleasure.
    In Scott’s plans he thought it was impossible to travel on the days with bad weather, that motorized sleds would work in those conditions, his ill-prepared clothing choice was the best options for the trip etc. So many throw there hands up achieving their fitness goals thinking it’s impossible when it was actually they had the wrong plans in place and should have paid attention to that.
  2. You have far greater control over behaviors than outcomes
    There is a mentality that outcomes of fitness are completely within your control. The reality is that this is simply non-sense.
    - The 20 year old you is going to get in quicker shape than the 60 year old you.
    - A male can burn body fat more easily than a female on average, and this ability varies from person to person based on genetic factors.
    - External factors/events can come into play as well. Stress, difficult events, biological functions, history etc

    Yes its absolutely your responsibility to grow and learn to make the best of outside or unexpected events, to learn how to put yourself in the best place possible, but it doesn't mean difficult external events and challenges can be eliminated. This is why outcomes cannot be perfectly controlled.

    However, setting goals for actions over the course of a week such as exercising 3 times per week, choosing to eat a healthy breakfast, grocery shopping healthy foods for the work fridge, or choosing to set aside 15 minutes to plan, you have far greater control over therefore you can exert far greater influence on your progress.
  3. The Outcome Emotional Rollercoaster - When it comes to Fitness Goals, this one is important piece to pay attention to. Think of how you feel when you make progress toward an important goal. Now think of how you feel when you assess your progress and find there isn’t any. A bad outcome can crush motivation, it can put “goal crushing” thoughts in your head.
    On the flip side, a great progress might make us feel amazing but that progress might be due to ideal conditions and not the ones we are going to deal with in the future or on average in our life. Take for example an individual who has a very stressful busy lifestyle and has an easy week where not much planning or the typical stressors were there to pose a challenge. They see great process that week, get excited, and then the following weeks it goes back to business as usual. This halts progress putting the individual on the outcome emotional rollercoaster.
    Much like the South Pole expeditions sometimes had perfect conditions to travel great distances and some days there were horrible storms, what matters in the end is if you stayed consistent despite outside events, not how far you traveled on the day with great conditions. Success is measured in if we choose to act consistently regardless of days when its easy to be healthy and the days when its not so easy.

chalkboardoutcomeprocess

Much like the illustration of how Amundsen achieved his goal, a goal set with unexpected events and challenges. A goal where many had tried and failed. This applies all-the-same to the goal of achieving success with your fitness goals. To give this essentially a format in terms of the best approach for goal setting is as follows:

The 3 Step Fitness Goal Setting Method

  1. Set an outcome goal making sure it's S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-Based)
  2. Roll your sleeves up and do your homework, learn, consult experts, have a plan, get the people on your team necessary to support your journey. This is critical to not waste time and energy with the wrong approach or a far less effective one. Make sure your outcome goal is the right one.
  3. Create Process/Behavior Goals by breaking down your Outcome Goal. Keep your focus on your actions and measure and track the success of your process goals. Consistently these will make up the outcomes you are looking for.Celebrate your success of the actions you choose to take. When success is measured by the choices you make and not tied to in anyway the external influences that can affect your outcome good and bad, you'll be at your best.

It is only after we take the right actions consistently and become successful at making lifestyle choices over time that the outcomes will be reached.  The key is to know the processes and focus on those processes as measurable goals you set for your outcome. What are your process goals that will get you to your ideal destination?

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James Malvesti - Boston In-Home Personal Trainer & Fitness Coach

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Further Resources:


Ted Talk: Former NFL Denver Broncos Running Back Reggie Rivers Talks Behavior And Outcome Goals


Executive Coach Steve Robbins talks why to use process goals instead of outcome goals


Olympic Gold Medalist talks the importance of process goals over outcome goals