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Wanting to lose weight is one of the most popular goals, yet it’s one of the hardest to achieve for many people. There are many reasons why losing weight and keeping it off is so challenging, but one common mistake is that people jump right into a weight loss program without creating clear goals for themselves.
It may seem best to dive right in and get to work on losing weight. However, taking the time to sit down and create SMART goals for weight loss may be the key to finding success (Whitehead, 2020). Let’s look at why goals matter in general and why SMART goals in particular will help set you up for success.
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Why are goals important?
Think of setting goals like putting an address into your GPS before heading out for a road trip. If you just get in your car and start driving, you’re likely to make plenty of wrong turns and may even travel in the opposite direction of where you’re trying to get.
If you take the time to set up your GPS before heading out, you may still miss a turn, but you’re much more likely to stay on track. The same applies to setting goals when trying to lose weight.
Just like your GPS needs a specific address to take you to the right destination, your weight loss journey will be much more manageable and successful if you set specific goals. Instead of just setting the broad goal of losing X amount of pounds, you want to get as specific as you can about what your goals are and how you’ll reach them.
And when you have super specific goals, it becomes easier to recalculate your plan if a setback happens.
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What are SMART goals?
A SMART goal is a powerful goal-setting tool because it helps create a clear plan to follow. Each letter in the acronym for SMART goals stands for a quality your goals should have:
Let’s take a closer look at each of these steps.
Make your goals as specific as possible—that way, you know exactly what it means to accomplish the goal.
Broad statements, like “I want to exercise more,” make it more challenging for you to track your progress since it’s so broad. It’s hard to set this goal one week and look back the following week to determine whether or not you did it—exercising “more” is so broad that it doesn’t mean much.
Instead, try to choose more specific milestones or accomplishments. For example, you could change “I want to exercise more” to a more specific exercise milestone such as “I want to jog a half-mile two days a week.” That’s a super specific goal.
Even though it’s common to start a weight loss journey by wanting to lose a certain amount of weight, it can be helpful to focus your goals on specific behaviors instead of weight loss itself as a goal, such as:
- Eating five servings of vegetables each day
- Walking 20 minutes each morning
- Exercising five days each week
- Going to bed at 10 pm and waking up at 6 am every day
- Practicing five minutes of meditation every day
Setting measurable goals helps you to track your progress throughout your weight loss journey. For example, if your goal is to eat more fruits and vegetables, you could set a target of adding one fruit or vegetable to each meal. When you look back on your day, it’s easy to measure whether or not you were able to meet that goal, and you can track your successful days throughout the week.
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Without something concrete to measure, it’s challenging to know when you’ve reached your goal. For example, many people set the goal to lose weight to feel more energized, but that isn’t easy to measure.
Aim for goals that have specific outcomes to track, such as:
- Doing a particular exercise a certain number of times each week
- Number change in lab work
- % weight loss or fat loss
- Adding one vegetable to one meal, five days a week
It’s important to be honest with yourself when creating your goals. Evaluating what’s realistic helps you set yourself up for success.
If your goal feels impossible to achieve, you’re much less likely to stick with it. Small changes that lead to slow, long-term success are better than making a big change that feels impossible to sustain.
If you don’t exercise regularly, it might be too challenging to set a goal to work out for an hour every day. Instead, meet yourself where you are. If you don’t exercise at all now, maybe set a goal of working out twice a week for one month. That could mean something as simple as walking for 30 minutes a day twice a week—a target you may be more likely to hit and feel proud of.
You can always increase your goals later. Instead of making too big of a change at once, set small, achievable goals to slowly work your way closer to your ultimate goal.
A relevant goal supports what you really want for your life. If a goal lines up with your why—your reason for wanting to lose weight—then it’s much more likely to keep you inspired and on track throughout your journey.
How to reframe your weight loss mindset to have the best success
Sometimes when we’re fired up about losing weight and getting healthy, it’s easy for us to feel like we want to make other life-improving changes at the same time. But while they might be nice, adding in extra goals like “I want to learn the guitar” or “volunteer at the shelter once a month” aren’t necessarily relevant to helping you lose weight.
When setting your goals, make sure you can clearly see how achieving them will help you reach your bigger goal of losing weight and keeping it off.
The final part of starting a SMART goal is choosing a deadline to accomplish the goal. Creating a timeframe for your goal helps you be more specific and stay on track with your goals.
Choosing deadlines also gives you checkpoints to monitor your progress and evaluate what is and isn’t working for you.
Be sure to give yourself a reasonable amount of time to achieve the goal. Many people tend to overestimate what they can do in a short amount of time and underestimate when they can do long term.
A healthy weight loss is considered an average of 1–2 pounds per week (CDC, 2020).
How do SMART goals help you lose weight?
SMART goals help you stay consistent while losing weight and provide little wins along the way.
Working toward big goals can feel daunting, so setting smaller goals helps to build confidence as you move closer to your long-term goals.
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While trying to lose 20 pounds may feel impossible, setting the goal to lose four pounds over one month may feel more achievable.
Research shows that setting goals helps people take more action and increases their chances of reaching their goals (Bailey, 2019; Whitehead, 2020).
How to set SMART goals for weight loss
The first step to creating SMART goals is to write down the areas of your health you want to work on.
Your weight is affected by other areas of your health and genetics. So it may be helpful to focus more of your goals on health behaviors like:
- Water intake
- Stress management
- Substance use (alcohol, caffeine, smoking, etc.)
Once you have your list of behaviors you’d like to work on, choose one or two you’d like to start with.
Changing too much at once can be overwhelming. So focus on just one or two behaviors at a time. Then, when those changes become a habit, pick one or two other areas to work on.
Writing SMART goals
When writing your SMART goal, ask yourself:
- What exactly will I accomplish? (specific)
- How will I measure whether I accomplished the goal? (measurable)
- Is this something I can accomplish? (achievable)
- How does this goal support my long-term wants? (relevant)
- By when will I achieve this goal? (timely)
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Answering these questions will help make sure you address each part of the SMART goal formula. Here is an example of a SMART goal for exercising for weight loss:
- Each week during the month of October, I will complete a 30-minute strength workout on Tuesday, a 30-minute bike ride on Wednesday, a 30-minute strength workout on Friday, and a 30-minute run on Saturday.
Before you start your goal, choose how you plan to track your goal—perhaps on a calendar or with an app. Be as specific as you can. For example, for an exercise goal, write down the specific exercises, number of reps, or workout videos you plan to complete. It may feel time-consuming when going through the process to set SMART goals, but putting in a little time to set the right goals will make it easier to follow through and find success later on.
- Bailey RR. (2017). Goal setting and action planning for health behavior change. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 13(6), 615–618. doi: 10.1177/1559827617729634. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6796229/
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Losing weight. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/losing_weight/index.html
- Whitehead L, Glass CC, Abel SL, Sharp K, & Coppell KJ. (2020). Exploring the role of goal setting in weight loss for adults recently diagnosed with pre-diabetes. BMC Nursing, 19, 67. doi: 10.1186/s12912-020-00462-6. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7362527/