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Stop Reaching For The Stars, Start Reaching Your Goals

03/23/2016 11:03 EDT | Updated 03/24/2017 05:12 EDT
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Closeup showing a hand checking off goals that were accomplished.

Setting goals is useful when we want to make a change -- whether it be to our eating habits, activity levels or other areas of our lives. However, setting a goal that is not realistic can actually be more harmful than helpful.

When it comes to choosing goals, we have to keep in mind if they are long-term or short-term: are we expecting to achieve the objective in one year or in one month? Setting only long-term goals does not help us trudge through the rough parts of changing because we won't see the fruits of our labor for a while. Taking things four weeks at a time helps to keep goals manageable and rewards you on a regular basis. Experiencing smaller "wins" more often is a heck of a lot more motivating in the grind of day to day life.

Keeping that four weeks in mind, we have to remember what is actually possible to do in four weeks. Unfortunately, many people tend to overestimate what they can achieve in a day let alone what they can change in a month. For example, if you are trying to cut down on mindless eating at night, you may be tempted to try to cut it out completely -- to go cold turkey.

Maybe because it sounds easier than trying to eat less or maybe because you are fed up with nightly heart burn. Regardless of why you feel it necessary to never eat at night again, chances are it may be too much to ask of yourself to never, ever eat after dinner.

What happens is that we feel like a failure the minute we break this rule. And trust me, any hard and fast food rule that denies food will eventually be broken. Allowing yourself the flexibility to sometimes enjoy a snack will avoid the letdown of (inevitably) breaking the rule and can make changing that much easier.

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The goal setting step in any attempt to change is only second most important to setting realistic goals. Often people will be successful in making great changes to their lifestyles but because they set goals too high, they believe they have failed. For example, if you want to eat more vegetables (say go from zero to four servings a day) and you "only" were able to eat two servings per day, most people would feel unsuccessful. However, if you had set a realistic goal of eating two servings per day, you would be ecstatic.

Let's take another example: you want to be more active and decided to start walking. You are now walking once a week and you want to walk everyday (seven days a week). You think "Anything less is unacceptable". Well, maybe this weekend there is an all-day soccer tournament then dinner at your in-laws, and then next week you have two 12 hour days plus a cake to make for the birthday supper on Thursday night.

So, perhaps you were "only" able to squeeze four 30 minute walks -- your goal was to walk every single day so by definition you failed. Technically you walked more than you did in the past and perhaps 4 days a week is all you can manage right now. Four walks are better than one, no matter what you think you "should be doing". Why not congratulate yourself for the efforts you made rather than dwell on the negative?

Setting reasonable goals and trying to change things slowly in your lifestyle is much more successful in the long run because it helps to boost motivation and avoids falling back into bad habits. It may not be sexy, but it gets the job done more efficiently and with a lot more of your sanity intact!

Read more about setting health and nutrition goals:

Solutions for making healthy habits stick

In the nutrition world, sometimes 1 equals 5: the many steps to changing

You know what to do, it's doing it that is the hard part