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How to Set Goals You Can Actually Achieve, According to a Decision Science Expert

Think small so you can build on one success after another.

Man in fitness gear looking at his smart watch.

Every time a new year rolls around, people tend to think big: “I want to lose 20 pounds.” “I want to run a marathon.” “I want to get super jacked.” It’s a great time to be ambitious, but if you set yearly goals that are too lofty, you might not be setting yourself up for success.

Big goals that require major lifestyle changes can be so hard for people to wrap their heads around that 63 percent drop off within the first three months with only 4 percent continuing after a year, according to a study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport. Learning how to set goals for your fitness the right way can put you on the right track.

Set Small Goals First

If you’ve got a long-term objective in mind, the best way to make it a reality is to set small goals that are bite-sized and actionable to help you build healthy habits you can rely on all year long. Why do small goals work? “Human bias,” says Nika Kabiri, a former competitive athlete and a decision-making expert who consults, coaches, and teaches decision science at the University of Washington. “The mind has a tendency to trick us into valuing rewards we can get right away much more than rewards we would get in the future—even if what we get now actually matters less compared to what we get later.”

That’s especially true when it comes to health. The idea of bench pressing your body weight can feel intimidating or overwhelming, just like going from the couch to running 26.2 miles. But saying you’re going to “lift heavy twice a week” or “run for 30 minutes every Saturday” sounds much more manageable, right?

Reward Yourself

To hack your brain further, set short-term goals ones you can achieve in a week or two that come with a reward, says Kabiri. “A desirable reward is a personal preference,” she explains, “but whatever it is, it has to be enough of a reward to where it offsets the ‘reward’ you get from not sticking to your fitness program.” Think: a new workout top, the new episode in your latest Netflix obsession, a long hot bath—anything that means enough to you to get you through that goal (i.e. lift heavy for the second time this week). When you set small goals, you keep those rewards in sight.

“Life throws curveballs, and humans are by nature dynamic. Our situations and preferences change. So why should our goals be so sticky and resistant to change? If you need to tweak your goals to fit changes in your life, then do it.”

– Nika Kabiri, former competitive athlete and decision-making expert

These tangible rewards are extrinsic motivators, in that they promise a ‘prize’ in exchange for completing an action. That’s different from an intrinsic motivator, a.k.a. what fitness instructors call “your why”—the internal satisfaction you get from an action. “Intrinsic motivations might encourage you to buy exercise equipment and start on a program, because without that meaningful ‘why’ that fashions your end game, what’s the point?” says Kabiri. “But along the way, as you try to stick to your program, extrinsic motivations can be useful hacks. The more you reward yourself for hitting your targets, the more you’ll get in the groove of hitting your targets”—and prime yourself to satisfy that “why.”

Need proof this works? Just look at fitness watches: Wearers are rewarded throughout the day when they hit their step quota for the hour; that celebratory buzz or animation is an instant reward, but the bigger payoff is better health due to a more active lifestyle. Motivational cues like this were the most helpful features in wearables, according to a 2020 study in Digital Health. It works because you’re rewarding the kind of everyday habits that allow you to eventually achieve your big goal.

The reason you keep these short: The effect of those small goals does wear off, according to 2017 research in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. Each time you reward yourself, you adjust your small goal, creating progressive building blocks that help define a path to success.

Stay Flexible

Sometimes, though, there might not be a clear path—and that’s okay. “Feel free pivoting when you need to,” says Kabiri. “Life throws curveballs, and humans are by nature dynamic. Our situations and preferences change. So why should our goals be so sticky and resistant to change? If you need to tweak your goals to fit changes in your life, then do it. Making the right fitness choices isn’t about ‘succeeding’ or ‘failing’ but about enhancing your life in a larger way. If your current goals don’t serve your bigger end game, or if you can’t hit your goals for understandable life reasons, then reset your fitness goals. As long as they ladder up to your life end game, you should be good.”

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