Blog: 7 Traps of Goal-Setting

Apr 01, 2024
  1. Trap 1: Not reflecting on past successes and failures. I think an important place to start is having the patient consider scenarios in the past when he was successful at achieving a goal. It doesn’t have to be health or weight related. Why was he successful? What about that goal felt doable for him? Also, equally important is thinking about past failures. Why was it hard? What was preventing him from committing to that goal?
  2. Trap 2: Setting overly ambitious goals. We tend to set aggressive goals at the beginning of a weight loss journey. Patients are eager to lose 75 pounds and be bikini-body ready hoping that with enough willpower and self discipline, they will be successful. But both of these fall short in the face of the inevitable daily grind and uncertainties of LIFE. The remedy for this trap: shrink the goal. Shrinking the goal to small, daily attainable habits is the best way to maintain consistency. Make the goal easy. Making it easy is the best predictor for sustainability. Ask your patient, what actions can you do to support the new habit? What can we do to make this easy? Is there a current behavior that the new habit can be attached to? For example, if your patient wants to eat more fruit, can they eat a banana while waiting for their coffee to brew? This is a technique called habit stacking, where you take advantage of your current habits by pairing them with new ones. Many people start building habits by focusing on the end goal. But trying to tackle the whole thing all at once is much too hard, and leads straight to frustration and failure. If a patient’s goal is to eat healthy, that habit actually starts by the patient purchasing fruits and veggies, getting them washed and prepared, and packing them for the day. So help them consider the easiest thing to do that gets them closer to their goal.
  3. Trap 3: Not planning for obstacles. Unfortunately, most days don’t go exactly as we had planned. We hit snooze too many times and now we don’t have time for breakfast, or the baby spit up all over our clothes and we won’t make the 9 o’clock gym class, or we received terrible news at work and just want a Twinkie on the drive home. Obstacles are a fact of life, but we can plan for them. So have your patient think of every possible scenario, even worst-case, that could interfere with their goal and how they can overcome the issue. This will reduce the possibility of setbacks or failure. 
  4. Trap 4: Strictly focusing on the outcome, not the process. Without clarity in daily actions, our behaviors quickly go back to a comfortable default as willpower and novelty diminish. The remedy: make the habit enjoyable. There should be enjoyment in the process. Have your patient consider: what is the way to move closer towards my goal, without adding too much friction to my life? What are some enjoyable actions that support my goal? Behaviors that are habit-forming, like taking drugs, eating junk food, scrolling on social media — are associated with higher level of dopamine. If your patient can find a way to group together their new habit with a behavior they already enjoy, it makes it much easier to want to do it. James Clear calls this temptation bundling. It works by linking an action you want to do with an action you need do. For example, if your patient enjoys podcasts (action they want to do), they can allow themselves to listen to podcasts only when walking (action they need to do). Or if they love audiobooks, they only listen to audiobooks while cooking dinner at home. This leads to anticipation and excitement for the behavior they already love and it makes the new behavior that much easier.
  5. Trap 5: Setting goals alone. Studies show that people who set up a way to be accountable for them will be twice as likely to achieve them. Accountability means that you are responsible to someone to accomplish the goal; this can be motivating for some. As healthcare providers, we can be that accountability partner. Biweekly or monthly check-ins can be so beneficial for the patient to know they aren’t doing this alone. If this causes too much anxiety or guilt for the patient, then I would suggest they find a community of like-minded people to connect with. One of the most effective things you can do to build better habits is to join others who are currently doing that behavior. The people we surround ourselves with have an immense impact on our beliefs, behaviors and attitudes. The same is true for habits and lifestyle. If your patients desired behavior is normal to those around them, it’ll be easier for them to stick to it. New habits seem achievable when you see others doing them every day.
  6. Trap 6: Setting vague goals. You know the ones: “Be healthy. Lose weight. Live longer. Exercise more.” These are too vague. I’d argue that a weight goal is too vague as well. Weight goals can be frustrating for the patient if they don’t meet that number, however measurable actions are easier to attain. For example, I will exercise 20 days out of the month or I will eat dinner at home 5 days a week.
  7. Trap 7: Being ready, but not prepared. We all know the saying: proper preparation prevents poor performance … this is true in business, school, and in health. Being ready is easy. It’s that initial excitement and motivation to start something new. But being prepared is a whole different story. It means knowing what obstacles might come our way and having a strategy to overcome them. This is where getting really clear on your patient’s desired outcome is SO important. What is the reward they’re looking to achieve from this new behavior? Yes, they want to lose weight, but what is the actual benefit they’re looking forward to. Is it feeling sexy in a bathing suit, is it feeling proud at their daughter’s wedding, is it fitting into those old jeans? Is it getting off those meds? Having a goal is just the beginning, it's the daily activities that matter most.

To go deeper into this topic and learn a strategy to help your patient set better goals, check out this episode:

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