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5 mistakes people make when setting health goals in the new year

Avoid these common pitfalls to ensure you're setting goals that you can actually accomplish.
Image: Ecstatic runner at the finish line
Make your goals super specific and connect a visual to them — like running across the finish line at a 5K this year.pixelfit / Getty Images

Let me guess: It’s only the first full week of January and you're already questioning the goals you set on New Year’s Day?

As a personal trainer and weight-loss coach for over a decade, I often see my clients approach even the smallest of goals in a rigid and systematic way. This may work to help with initial motivation, but doesn’t allow room for course correction (or those inevitable emotions that may creep in), ultimately making those goals unattainable. Essentially, people are setting themselves up to fail.

When it comes to ultimate goals — I'm talking big ones like New Year’s resolutions — I see this happen over and over again. To help you avoid these pitfalls, I'm sharing the top five biggest mistakes that I see my clients make that hold them back. The first order of business? Write your own goals down. (Research shows that when people write down their goals, they are 33 percent more successful in achieving them than those who formulate outcomes in their heads.) Then, run them against this list to see if you are making one of these common mistakes yourself.

1. Your goals are too lofty

Think about big goals in your life: snagging a new job, paying off debt, buying a house ... all of these large goals get accomplished by breaking them down into smaller steps and having a plan of action. If a goal is too big, it can be overwhelming to get started working towards it. The Harvard Business Review found that setting micro goals, ones that are easier to meet, can make people's goals more effective in the long run, and make them happier, too. The simple fact is that often the biggest challenge to actually accomplishing anything — whether it's getting a promotion at work or finally reaching your target weight — is getting started, and small goals make that easier.

So how do we set small, manageable goals? First, do some basic math. If your goal is weight loss, take your overall goal and break it down into a weekly goal. Remember that 1-2 pounds per week is a healthy average. Then, figure out how you’re going to get there. Your workouts (times, days) and also your diet (grocery shopping, meal prep, etc.). If your goal is to ultimately exercise 5 days a week, break it down into a more manageable goal to start. For example, start with two days per week. Prove to yourself that you can exercise 2 times per week for 2 weeks. Then, increase to 3 times a week. Work out 3 times a week for 3 weeks. Then increase to 4 times per week for 4 weeks, and so on.

2. Your goals are too vague

My clients are often guilty of this — and in fact, sometimes so am I! Do you know what it feels like to lose weight or eat more vegetables? Maybe not. But you likely know what it feels like to have more energy or feel more confident in your clothing. Connecting an emotion to your goals will help you tap into what it would feel like to actually reach them — which is a huge motivating factor.

To ensure the goals you've set aren't too vague, make them super specific by connecting a visual and an emotion to them. Instead of "lose weight," drill down into what that actually looks like for you. Maybe it's "feeling confident in a two-piece bathing suit on my summer vacation" or "being fit enough to complete a 5K in the spring." Then take five minutes to list out how you’ll feel once the goal is met. Allow yourself to use your imagination and tap into your emotions. Picture yourself on vacation, feeling the sun on your skin, hearing the sounds of the ocean, or see yourself crossing the finish line of the race you signed up for, your family and friends cheering you on. When you have a very specific visual of what accomplishing your goal looks and feels like, it is easier to stay motivated and keep working towards it when the going gets tough.

3. You're not planning well enough

It sounds great in theory to wake up early to exercise, have home-cooked meals for dinner, and sleep for 8 hours a night. But how will this actually get done?

An example of one clients food and exercise calendar.
An example of one clients food and exercise calendar.

I have a client who has three kids and travels four days a week for work. When she’s not traveling, she’s at her office a few miles from her home. How on earth will this client have time to cook meals, exercise and get to bed on time? When we started working together, I told her we weren’t going to focus on exercise right away. Instead, we were going to focus on food and sleep. We ordered her groceries (hello, Amazon!) to arrive weekly so she always had something healthy and easy to make in the fridge, no matter how short on time she was. I gave her meal plans for what to eat at different airports and the work dinners she had to go to while out of town. And, we set an alarm on her phone for bedtime.

The lesson here? Plan ahead. All good things come when you’re prepared! To remedy insufficient planning, I recommend using a calendar that is goal-specific. By that I mean a calendar that’s separate from your daily work calendar or family calendar where you plan what the day-to-day of your goal looks like.

4. You lack belief in yourself

Sure, you can want to be a size 4, but do you actually believe that you can get back to the same size you were in high school?

If we continually set the same goal and fail to reach it, our confidence can take a huge hit. And if you don’t believe in your ability to stick with something, you probably won’t! Take one of my clients as an example. She had been trying to lose 40 pounds for 20 years. She would try a diet for a few weeks, then a work trip or a vacation would throw her off and she’d gain the weight back. She joined a gym, but then hurt her back so had to put her gym membership on hold. She committed to not overeating in the evenings, but when a family or work problem came up, she would turn to food and eat the stress away. By the time she came to me she convinced herself that she would never be able to lose the 40 pounds.

So how can you change your mindset and believe in yourself when the only evidence you have proves that you can’t do it? With this client in particular, we likened this goal to her professional goals: As a well-known prosecutor, she knew the results of hard work and dedication. We brought in some evidence from her professional life that proved she could accomplish goals when she set her mind to them, and I encouraged her to replace her thoughts of never being able to lose weight with the evidence of her being able to accomplish her goals at work. She had previously never thought about her personal health goals as similar to her professional goals. It took a change of perspective to help her get out of the “it’ll never happen” mindset and into the “I believe in myself” mindset.

5. Your goals are too time consuming

Time is the biggest commodity, and 'not having enough time' is one of the main reasons why my clients don’t stay committed to their goals.

When a goal takes too much time, there’s a large barrier to entry. If you don’t have that whole hour to exercise, the workout won’t happen. Time is the biggest commodity, and “not having enough time” is one of the main reasons why my clients don’t stay committed to their health and wellness goals.

For this reason, we must lower the barrier to entry and cut down on the time commitment required to reach your goals. Aiming for a 60-minute workout? Cut this in half! Trying to meal prep for the whole week? Start with prepping meals for Monday through Wednesday. Setting a goal to mediate 20 minutes a day? Try starting with 1 minute. Consistency is the most important determinate of accomplishing a goal. So lowering the time commitment in order to up your consistency is key to success.

For example, one of my clients had a goal of walking 10,000 steps a day in addition to her workout goals. She regularly came up short and felt like a failure. I had her reduce her goal to 8,000 steps a day so that every single day she would feel a sense of accomplishment. She felt elated that she’d succeeded in this goal, and it motivated her to want to hit the goal the next day. After doing that for a few months, she then increased her goal to 9,000 steps a day. Currently, she’s at 10,000 and hits it daily! By committing to doing less, you'll increase your chances of consistently hitting your short-term goals, and use that momentum to continue to make progress towards your end goal.

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