Is it Better to Have Big or Small Goals?

by Julia Malacoff
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Is it Better to Have Big or Small Goals?

As 2018 approaches, many of us are thinking about our goals for the year to come. Inevitably, lots of those goals fall within the realms of fitness and weight loss. Whether it’s hitting a certain weight, running a specific distance or reaching some other personal best, it’s only natural to have an idea of what you want to accomplish in the next year. The problem is lots of people don’t know the best strategy for making their goal a reality. Should you shoot for the stars and commit to run a half-marathon if you’ve never run a race before? Or should you start with a 5K, progress to a 10K and then go for that dream half-marathon distance? Here, find out what experts say about making your goals work for you.

OUTCOME VERSUS PROCESS

Though either/or thinking can be tempting when it comes to setting big or small goals, trainers and coaches say it’s actually better to do both. “In my coaching experience, it has always been powerful for people to have big goals,” says Michael Piercy, MS, certified strength and conditioning specialist, owner of The LAB and IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year 2017. “Yet we always want these goals to be placed into context with realistic steps toward achievement,” he adds. “The big goals can give you the overview of where you would like to go, but they still need to be broken down into smaller, more manageable steps to create an environment that promotes achievement and not discouragement.” If your only goal is to lose 100 pounds, it’s going to be a long time before you can say you’ve accomplished that objective.

Plus, there’s a big difference between long-term outcome goals — like running your goal distance and hitting your goal weight — and process goals, or the smaller behavioral changes you can make to get you there. “One of the biggest mistakes that I see newbies and some seasoned vets make when starting (or restarting) a fitness plan is that they have unrealistic expectations about just how long it takes to see change,” says Laura Miranda, DPT, a physical therapist and trainer.

While she agrees that it’s helpful to have a big, main objective, her best advice for getting there is to take both the long and short views. “Chunk down your big goals into measurable, small goals that are achievable and will help fuel your drive to stay consistent, interested and emotionally connected to your overarching goal.” Ideally, you’ll also want to set some smaller goals that don’t focus on numbers, like bodyweight, miles or a weight you can lift, but something that has deeper meaning to you — the real reason you want to accomplish that goal in the first place. Maybe it’s to reduce stress by meditating three times per week or get healthier by eating more fruits and vegetables in the next month; it can be anything that will eventually help you meet your goal and feel your best.

GO WITH YOUR PERSONALITY

While it’s true everyone should have both big and small goals on their fitness or weight-loss journey, each person is unique. Depending on your personality, it may be helpful to emphasize one over the other when you’re feeling like you might get off track. According to Miranda, perfectionists and those with black-and-white mindsets are more likely to struggle with bigger goals. By focusing on “incremental victories,” or accomplishing smaller goals, they can feel like they’re making real progress. On the flipside, big-picture thinkers, those who tend to take action (rather than react), and who are OK with the idea of progress, not perfection, may do better by focusing on their ultimate goal when they need a little inspiration.

FOCUS ON THE POSITIVE

One of the best things you can do for yourself when trying to accomplish a goal, big or small, is keep the things you tell yourself positive. “Our brains also like it better if we tell ourselves what we should be doing as opposed to what we shouldn’t be doing,” explains Chris Friesen, PhD, a performance psychologist and author of “ACHIEVE: Find Out Who You Are, What You Really Want, And How To Make It Happen.” So if your long-term goal is to lose a significant amount of weight, don’t make your short-term goals about what you can’t eat or need to stay away from. “Telling yourself not to do something or not to think about something usually only makes your impulse to do it stronger or causes your mind to become fixated on it,” Friesen explains. Instead, focus your smaller goals on the healthy behavior you want to implement, like making dinner five nights this week or meal-prepping breakfast for the week on Sunday nights.


READ MORE > WANT TO CRUSH YOUR GOALS? GET SMART


STAY MOTIVATED

Easier said than done, right? But there are actually tried-and-true ways to keep yourself motivated that not many people utilize. “The big problem is that most people misunderstand what motivation is all about,” Miranda says. “Motivation is driven by emotion. Wherever you place the most emotion or the most emphasis, your energy will follow.” In other words, if you want to maintain your motivation, you have to keep fueling it and paying attention to it. “You do this by setting small goals, hitting them, then looking back acknowledging them each week,” she says. “What this does is helps establish a positive feedback loop in your brain that connects your abilities with success and the positive emotions that it brings.”

This means taking stock of your progress each day or week. What did you accomplish that got you closer to your goal, and which actions maybe didn’t serve your goal? “Look back at any missteps and, without judgement, ask yourself why it happened, and what you can do better next time,” Miranda recommends. “Too many people, especially newbies, will take missteps or failures as proof that they aren’t good enough.”

Instead of getting hung up on failures, try to remember they’re really normal on the way to accomplishing any goal. “It’s important to understand that success isn’t a straight shot to the top without ever failing, faltering or screwing up big time,” Miranda says. “In fact, many iterations of failure is what is necessary in order to gain perspective on how to both achieve and appreciate success.” The more you use setbacks as inspiration to persevere, the more likely you are to reach your goals — big and small.

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  • Trina

    Just what I needed for the new year! After I get the ok from my doctor to start exercising post partum in March or April, I’ll be back at reaching my goal! I’m definitely a perfectionist and my fiance is a big picture thinker, now I know how to keep us both going in the right direction!