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Diet and Fitness Goal setting: see real results by Utilising the Potential of Goal Psychology

-   James Stevenson (MSc, IEA) - Positive Psychology Coach

Have you determined to get fit or eat differently? To do whatever it takes? 

Your chances of success in your fitness goal setting will improve greatly if you get to grips with, and use, the science and psychology of setting targets effectively.

cookie monster

The world of dieting, exercise etc is perfectly set up for goal setting. The industry makes measurement relatively easy. Measuring weight, calories, macronutrients, running and walking distance, and even body fat % can be done with low-cost equipment and free apps.

I was a big fan of the app my fitness pal while establishing new eating habits. Now that these new habits are solidly established I don't use it. I'm grateful for how much I learnt while using it. That knowledge is still serving me now, many years later. 

Yet, dieting and fitness still sometimes feels like the toughest area in goal setting! The up's and down's. Steps forwards and steps backwards. Giving up and restarting... 

You'll find tips below that'll help you set goals in a way that support you in your fitness goals, whatever they may be.

Tip 1 - Take Small Steps

When it comes to goal setting for fitness there are literally thousands of things you can do! And a thousands products or gadgets you can buy!

This may make you worry about which action is best to take... 

A little worrying may be inevitable. By also focusing on trying to be a person of action and discovering through experience you'll get where you want sooner. Your inner voice may play the self-doubter, the self-criticiser, the self-judger which makes persisting tougher.

Daisaku Ikeda quote about advancingContinue. To advance. In some way. Each day.

Starting small, one step at a time, and continuing through the noise, you'll eventually start to have small positive experiences. These are the ones your body wants to see, hear and feel. So try and focus on what you can do rather than what you can't do, no matter how small, and build from there. You can build a palace starting with one tiny brick. 

Tip 2 - Be patient with yourself and give yourself credit for challenging yourself 

In diet and fitness goal setting in particular it's important not to focus on quick results unless you're a professional athlete. If you knew the change you want takes 5 years for example, how would it change your attitude about the next 6 months? 

I imagine you'd be more focused on continuing to do the things you've decided to do no matter what. You'd be less disappointed at various points. That's the thing about change. It takes on a life of it's own if you get the start bit right.

So being kind and patient with yourself when things don't go to plan, restarting with more small changes, and giving yourself credit for when you do each new thing, is a process of nurturing this dynamic within you.

Einstein quote about trying new thingsWhat new action and new mistake will you enjoy today?

The feeling of disappointment with an outcome, which may exist at the very moment when change is starting, and building, can stir up a whole storm of negativity that it's hard to persist through. Definitely something to be reduced if possible.

Short term disappointment can cause you to start questioning all the great efforts you're making... Things usually take longer than expected with fitness goals (and perhaps all things!). This is a great thing if you can accept and enjoy it. How about taking a long view with more permanent changes? And above all trusting that a small change becomes another small change, and they combine to become medium sized changes, and so on and so forth.

Tip 3 - In fitness goal setting, brace yourself for difficulty!

If you can know it's gonna be difficult and be ok with that... if you feel ready for that... saying to yourself, "I know it's going to be tough, and I'm gonna be tougher" you'll be off to a great start. This might be called grit or resilience.

To brace yourself means facing up to the inevitabilities... To expect some pain, difficulty, and frustration because they exist on every challenging journey.

Of course you're not looking for pain or trying to make it more painful. You also want to make it easier where possible. You can prepare for the inevitable difficulties in many ways... looking to reduce it in the moment, or choosing a path with less difficulty (but still some). Was it Maya Angelou who said something like, "Hoping for the best, prepared for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in between"? 

The good news is studies in neuroscience have shown that it's in challenging difficulty that our brain grows and changes. We become more capable. If you can embrace that, telling yourself, "Now (in this moment of challenge) I'm planting the seeds for a future harvest" - or whatever your version of that is... the outcomes you want will become nearer and nearer.

Tip 4 - Activate your self-regulation/self-control 

Have you heard of the famous cookie study? Experimenters put kids in a room with a cookie on a dish. They said, if you can wait 10 minutes and not eat it, you get two cookies. Some of the kids waited and got that 2nd cookie, and some didn't. The interesting thing is they did a follow up study when these children were adults and found that the kids who were able to resist for ten minutes were more successful as adults. Food for thought... 

How important would you say self-regulation is as a strength when it comes to dieting and fitness goal setting? 

Tip 5 - Do some work on changing your bad habits 

Sometimes you'll set fitness goals and make progress but the scales of change don't seem to tip because your bad habits are too frequent. In this case, it's a good idea to focus directly (but not entirely) on changing one of those habits that's holding you back. An effective fitness goal setting strategy includes taking the most impactful action based on your situation. This sometimes means changing one particular habit that is holding you back, opening up loads of room for forward progress. This changing bad habits article has 8 ways you can go about it.

Tip 6 - Find and stay connected to your personal motive

It can so easy to do something without really considering why deeply. We live in a society where there are certain norms. You may set fitness goals for multiple reasons, some less impactful than others. You may have conflicting reasons. One of my fitness goal setting tips is to find the most personal and powerful of those reasons... the one that really matters the most to you. This can also be a selection of related reasons. 

For you, it may be all about feeling good. i.e. "I want to do this because I want to feel good or energised. I know I'll feel better if I can do this".  It could be about preparing to find a partner, about being more able to be of service to others, about lessening depression, about getting work. Whatever the reason if you can find the one that most aligns with your values, and engrave it in your life, this will help a lot! 

Different people value different things, to different degrees, at different times. Here are a list of some core values that you may feel connect with your fitness goals. 

  • Acceptance
  • Achievement
  • Acknowledgement
  • Altruism
  • Adventure
  • Authenticity
  • Autonomy
  • Balance
  • Beauty
  • Creativity
  • Family
  • Friendship
  • Fun
  • Good Salary
  • Happiness
  • Harmony
  • Health
  • Helping others
  • Honesty
  • Humour
  • Independence
  • Influence 
  • Integrity
  • Privacy
  • Productivity
  • Profit
  • Promotion
  • Reaching potential
  • Recognition
  • Respect
  • Responsibility
  • Results
  • Romance
  • Routine
  • Security
  • Self-determination

Some things will matter more to you right now than others. Acknowledging this and connecting it to your diet and fitness goal setting is a source of continual motivation. It also supports you when you hear about other people's motives and start to question your own. Perhaps without a solid sense of your why, you start to question if your motive is actually a "shallow" one (i.e. one you currently don't value). This can be another obstacle to continuing. 

How about taking your fitness goal setting to the next level by getting your fitness goals down on paper with one or more of these goal setting worksheets

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Many thanks to the kind people below who let me use their art work. 

G. by Jordlet. Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.

Sunset at Kabani River by Vinoth Chandar (Text has been added to original picture). Attribution 2.0 Generic.