Shrink

The psychology of weight loss.

How Goal Setting Can Hinder Your Success

The even SMARTer goals are values-driven

Peter had his heart set on getting an MBA for years. He finally went back to school, took classes at night, and then 3 years later finished the degree. Strangely, the finish line was anti-climactic. He got the anticipated promotion at work and then it was back to the day-to-day grind. Standing in the light at the end of the tunnel, he found himself scratching his head. Now what?

Ever have an anti-climactic finish line?

Most high achievers pride themselves on being goal-oriented and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Without goals we would wander aimlessly in life.  But is it possible that we could wander aimlessly even with a goal?  It is not only possible, it’s very common.

I work with people who want to lose weight and a big problem I see in my patients is that they are too goal-oriented.  For most, it is a weight loss goal.  Insert the magic number, everyone has one.  Their idea of success hinges on hitting that number on the scale.  When I ask how they came up with that number I get answers like “that was what I weighed at 25 years old” or “that is how much I’d need to weigh to be in the “normal” BMI zone.”  As an empiricist I love the fact that they have quantified their goal, but as their therapist I fear that they haven’t really drilled down into what they really want in life.

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After hearing a patient’s weight loss goal I ask them to forget the measurable, specific, attainable goal and just tell me what they are really after.  What will be different in your life if you lose this weight?  What will you get at the finish line?

Consider the “miracle question.”  Whatever your goal is…to lose weight, to obtain a degree, to get the dream job:

Imagine that you woke up tomorrow morning and a miracle occurred over night such that your goal was achieved.  What would you notice was different in your life?   

This question is a great way to identify what you really value in life.  Roberta (who wants to lose 50 pounds) says, “I would notice how active I was, how much more social I was, how much more comfortable I was with my body.”  Now we are getting somewhere.  Roberta wants to live an active lifestyle, a more social lifestyle, and feel comfortable with her body. These are her values----her definition of a “good life,” things that make her feel fulfilled and happy. Her goal of losing 50 pounds is certainly tied to her values—but there is no guarantee that accomplishing that goal will create those things. What if she loses 50 lbs and still feels uncomfortable with her body?  Also, these values lend to many different goals, not just losing 50 lbs. By narrowing her focus to the weight loss goal, she is limiting her chances to live the life she wants to live. 

Values-Driven Goals. For each goal you have in life, identify the value from which it emanates. Then starting with the value, identify 2-3 other goals that would move you closer to that value.   Roberta could be doing several things to become more active, social and comfortable in her body, but by carving a single path she’ll never know of the many roads that could have led to her destination.

Sherry Pagoto, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Preventive and Behavioral Medicine, Department of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

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