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Science Go From Thinking About Change to Actually Doing It With These 5 Steps to Setting Goals

Bridge the intention-behavior gap and build better goal-setting habits so you accomplish all your plans.

Image of someone tying their sneakers in the early morning for goal setting.

When a friend asks for a ride, you’re there. Your boss pings you with an assignment, and you smoke that deadline. But when we make a promise to ourselves—no takeout this week, punch in three workouts, start saving for retirement—suddenly plans tumble out the window. Why some people fall off their personal goals but nurture other responsibilities has stumped psychologists and fitness professionals for years.

This phenomenon of setting an intention to exercise and subsequently not following through with the behavior is called the intention–behavior gap. Research shows the intention-behavior gap, also called the intention-action gap, for physical activity can be as high as 46 percent, meaning only about half of people who set intentions to exercise actually follow through. The good news, there are some easy ways to learn how to set goals, bridge the intention-behavior gap, and build better goal-setting habits so that you accomplish what you planned for yourself. Let’s explore.

Heading reading: 1. Set relevant goals

Sometimes, it starts with finding the right goal for you. What sparks one person’s intrinsic motivation might not work for another. Setting relevant goals to your lifestyle, values, and beliefs is a truly personal experience, and your experience in the exercise matters. 

An old-fashioned pros and cons list is useful for something called decisional balance. Let’s say you want to exercise after work three times a week. Make a list of pros and cons. What happens if you succeed? Maybe you have more energy, but you might have to skip after-work happy hour. 

The next step is to weigh the results. Here’s where you decide if it’s worth the sacrifice. If your goal of exercising after work overlaps with quality time with the family, maybe it’s not the best option. You can also consider if you will be happy with the result and if that result outweighs the possible sacrifices of performing the behavior. Sometimes it doesn’t, and you can adjust the goal slightly based on your values. 

“The feeling someone has toward exercise plays a factor in their motivation, which in turn plays a role in how hard they view the goal,” says Connor Joyce, Behavioral Scientist for the Tonal Strength Institute. “So it may be useful to assess your views toward working out before setting goals. If you’re not looking forward to it or have factors that will get in the way of your workout, set goals that are more aligned with your everyday life.”

Heading reading: 2. Celebrate your wins for effective goal-setting

meta-analysis showed that goal setting can be successful regardless of age, baseline weight, activity status, and gender. In another large meta-analysis, researchers found that multi-component goal-setting interventions, such as setting short- and long-term goals as a way to keep engaged, were effective in building motivation. 

Focus on the process, not the result. If you’ve struggled to reach an outcome goal where the focus is on a big result, (think: losing 30 pounds or running a marathon), process goals may be a good option. Process goals focus on engaging in the behaviors that are central to the task such as perfecting your technique on a squat. Research shows process goals are associated with less anxiety, improved confidence, concentration, satisfaction, and performance compared to outcome-focused goals. 

”No matter where we are in our fitness journey, we tend to focus a lot of energy on setting new goals and achieving new milestones,” says Liz Letchford, Ph.D., Tonal Coach and certified athletic trainer. “But it is equally as important to celebrate progress and recognize improvements in our body and mind.”

Heading reading: 3. Create a positive environment for effective goal setting

Research shows individuals who feel supported by their environment are more likely to maintain a healthy lifestyle than those who feel distracted by their surroundings. Creating an exercise space you want to be in could mean cleaning out some clutter, throwing some paint on the wall, or heading to your favorite park. Remove barriers by setting up workout cues like putting out your exercise clothes or laying out equipment in your environment before you plan to workout.  

Researchers found in one study that they could predict changes in exercise behavior over time through a combination of a supportive environment (like creating a pleasant space to work out with no distractions) and affective judgments (choosing activities you enjoy). “Find what makes you tick and exercise that brings you a rush of joy and excitement that leaves you motivated to come back for more,” says Gabby Sansosti, a Tonal coach and certified personal trainer.

Heading reading: 4. Keep it simple, but not easy for effective goal setting

You can set yourself up for success by engaging in something you’re confident you’re already good at doing. One study found that goals of learning a new skill were more effective when you are about 85 percent successful and make mistakes about 15 percent of the time. You want your goals to be realistic and not too complex so that you get overwhelmed with decisional fatigue. 

“People are often demotivated by too extreme goals, but there should always be some room for growth,” says Joyce. “Ideally, you can find the middle ground. Try setting your goals to be realistic while being just outside what feels comfortably reachable.”  

That said, it shouldn’t be too easy that you’re always going to reach them. Embracing challenge builds self-efficacy, or confidence in your ability to accomplish things in your life. The more self-efficacy you cultivate, the more new things you’ll take on over time and give yourself space to grow.

Heading reading: 5. Stay flexible and don't punish yourself for effective goal setting

So you miss a couple of workouts and you come to a subconscious fork in the road. You can discontinue your efforts or show yourself some grace and continue in your exercise program. Just like your mood can change throughout your week, your motivation can change based on what you experience. 

A small study showed behavioral intentions are likely to change over time and reflect the ebb and flow of motivation as people navigate changing constraints, goals, and interests in their daily lives. The results indicated your goals between weekdays and weekends can even affect your ability to follow through with behaviors. This may explain why a 6 a.m. workout doesn’t seem too palatable on a Sunday morning. The research says more flexible goal-setting, or open goals, where you see how much you can do, and maintaining a dynamic perspective on your goals may be more successful in the long run. 

Now the point here is not to cast aside social, familial, or professional commitments, but to consciously develop your personal intentions and cultivate an environment and action plans to get you to your goals. Try out different methods and notice when you feel most motivated. Then get out of your own way and put yourself first.


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