Why Setting Goals Is Sometimes the Worst Thing You Can Do


Back in the 1980s, when I was in my 20s, I decided to do a 2-day, 150-mile bike ride from Houston to Austin, Texas. I bought a bike (yes, I didn’t even have a bike at the time) and trained for months with a group of friends who were also embarking on this adventure.

I did the ride, and it went fine until about a mile from the state capital, where the ride ended. It had started raining, and I was then presented with my first flat tire of the trip. I could see the capital in the distance, so I decided to not change my tire and just push my bike, in the rain, the remaining distance.

This was not the glorious, triumphant finish I had imagined.

Here’s the relevant part of this story. After I got home from that adventure, I parked my bike in the garage, flat tire and all, and never rode it again. I moved the bike twice to new homes, but I never changed the flat tire or sat on the little painful seat again. I did not become a “bike rider” from setting, then pitifully achieving, this goal.

So, Exactly Why Are Goals A Problem?

The big problem with goals is that they create an END – an end to the effort. Gretchen Rubin discusses this issue in her book, Better Than Before:

“A finish line divides behavior that we want to follow indefinitely – to run, to write, to practice – into ‘start’ and ‘stop,’ and all too often, the ‘stop’ turns out to be permanent.”

Gretchen has seen this with women who stopped smoking during pregnancy, only to start again postpartum. “They drop the smoking habit for months, and they kick the chemical addiction out of their system, but when they cross the finish line, they start smoking again.”

Let’s Apply This to Weight Loss

Many of us know, all too well, the “stop/start” problem with dieting.

We make weight loss goals, do all the things necessary to reach the goal, then celebrate by returning to our old way of eating. Think about how crazy that loop is! I bet I am not the only one who has been in it, either.

To add to the problem, when we stop after a goal is achieved, starting again the next time may feel even harder! This can create a permanent stop.

Rubin also says that this start/stop system inhibits habit formation, which is never a good thing when you are trying to achieve permanent results.

What Should We Do Instead?

Just like I did not become a “bike rider” while preparing for the 150-mile event, you don’t become a “healthy eater” by going on a diet. You don’t become fit by doing a 4-week fitness challenge. You become fit and healthy by making small permanent changes, at a sustainable pace.

We are not successful when we just do the action. We are successful when we become the type of person that does the action. Consistently doing small changes which become part of your life, will eventually shape you as a person.

If you still feel compelled to set a goal, maybe your goal could be to become a new type of person. Like “a bike rider,” “a healthy eater,” “a fitness enthusiast”… You get the idea.

Still haven’t changed your mind about short-term goals? If you love to set them and they work for you, pay close attention to what happens after you reach your goal. This is the crucial time for maintaining your new habit. This awareness might help keep you on track.

What has been your experience with goal setting? Have you been on the stop/start goal train before? What kind of person would you like to become as a goal? What small steps would get you moving toward being that person?

Let\’s Have a Conversation!

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