How to Set Realistic Weight Loss Goals You Won't Quit
Have a weight-loss goal as a New Year’s resolution? Learn how to approach it strategically so you don't give up.
A new year or a new day is full of opportunities to set goals, create beneficial lifestyle changes, and be the best version of yourself. If one of your New Year's or today's a new day resolutions involves a weight loss goal, you might wonder how you can achieve this in a sustainable way that won’t leave you sneaking to the kitchen to nip a bite (or six) of Ben and Jerry’s at midnight.
To reach your weight loss goals, you'll need discipline, commitment, and a well-constructed plan to help you implement lifestyle changes. Many people fail to meet their goals of losing weight because the method is unrealistic, the objective unattainable, or their plan is steeped in negativity that ends up being demotivating.
Let’s take a look at how you can set effective goals and get closer to the weight you desire.
3 Researched-backed Elements of Successful Weight Loss Plans
Why do some people stick to a resolution to lose weight while others don’t? Take away the post-holiday sugar hangover and pressure for a quick fix to fit into pants without an elastic waistband and weight loss in the new year comes with the same challenges as any other time of year.
Scientific research provides insights into what you can include in your weight loss program to give you the best odds of sticking to your resolution, including:
- Adopt a process-oriented approach rather than an outcome-obsessed one
- Find an online group or tool, coach, dietitian or doctor, friend, or partner who will support your journey without judgment
- Set goals that include changes and benefits that are most significant to you
Focusing on the process rather than the outcome of a weight loss program helped 126 overweight women achieve their difficult health-related goals and supported self-regulation, one study showed<sup>1</sup>. This approach may be especially useful for those who can get stressed out if they see their weight fluctuating, or for those who may want to lose a lot of weight but don’t know where to start. Most importantly, a process-oriented approach emphasizes the steps you take on your journey that allow you to put one foot in front of the other and, ultimately, cross the finish line.
What this could look like for you:
- Pick a health goal to focus on that doesn’t emphasize your weight. Tracking your glucose can be one, as eating, exercising, and aligning your lifestyle with glucose-stabilizing activities can help you achieve improved metabolic health, gain more energy, and sleep better. You might end up losing weight as a bonus.
- Focus on everyday micro-changes, rather than where you think you should be in six months. Begin with one small positive change each week, such as eating additional servings of vegetables, until that feels manageable before adding another small positive change the next week.
One study of 157 prediabetic people<sup>2</sup> explored different weight loss goals and strategies that did and didn’t help them achieve their weight loss goals. Just over half of participants demonstrated weight loss in six months; these individuals reported readiness to change but also struggled with making dietary changes.
The less successful group experienced setbacks, including coping with illness, change in context or environment, sporadic adherence to diet, stress, and feeling down. Researchers concluded that a successful weight loss plan includes focusing on goals with the greatest clinical impact or personal significance, and finding a socially supportive environment to help you pursue those goals.
What this could look like for you:
- Invest in a science- or expert-designed app or hire a dietitian, certified coach, or doctor to create a personalized nutrition plan for you
- Start an exercise plan with a friend, ideally a neighbor or someone who lives close. Meet at each other’s front door at agreed-upon times and days, and go for a walk or run together, drive to the gym or pilates studio and do a class together, etc.
- Journal about what matters to you. Free-style writing without worrying about sharing it with others can be a cathartic practice that teaches you about who you are and what you value most. You might be surprised to learn that you value fitness—the ability to chase your dog or your kids—more than the number on the scale, and losing weight might be a secondary goal to moving your body more. Do this practice as often as you need during your journey to find out what you want at that specific moment in time.
Why Actionable Goals Can Help You Stick to Your Weight Loss Goal
So, how do you construct a sound plan to lose weight or achieve any other New Year’s resolution?
One large-scale experiment on New Year’s resolutions<sup>3</sup> tracked the goals of more than 1,000 people for a year to see how they fared with sticking to their goals. At the one-year follow-up, 55% percent felt they were successful in sustaining their resolutions. Participants with approach-oriented goals (59%) proved more successful than those with avoidance-oriented goals (47%). What’s more, the group that received support was exclusively and significantly more fruitful compared to the other groups.
It’s worth repeating the two main takeaways of this study for people who were most successful in achieving their New Year’s resolutions:
- They set approach-oriented goals
- They got support to achieve their objectives
A scientific paper reviewed the results of two studies to investigate the impact of avoidance goals on resource depletion and well-being over a one-month period. Researchers found that both studies showed a negative relationship between avoidance goals and the ability to self-regulate<sup>4</sup> as well as a negative link between these types of goals and participants’ well-being.
It makes sense that avoidance goals can impact people negatively, as these are goals with gloomy outcomes that we work to circumvent. Approach goals, on the other hand, focus on the positive outcomes that will come if we work hard to achieve them.
Read more: Try these 6 experiments to personalize your weight loss
Avoidance Goals vs. Approach Goals
Approach and avoidance goals differ in the way we phrase them and in our motivation for engaging with them. These goals impact our psychological state differently.
Dr. Timothy Pychyl, a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, explains that chasing avoidance goals is related to more negative feelings about progress, less satisfaction with life, feelings of incompetence, and decreased self-esteem.
Avoidance goals prove harder to stick to in the long run because they lack meaning and can feel unmanageable for an extended period of time.
The following examples illustrate the linguistic and motivational differences of these goals:
Avoidance goal: I tend to binge eat potato chips, so I won’t ever eat one again.
Approach goal: I’ll enjoy one serving of potato chips once in a while.
Avoidance goal: I won’t ever eat again after 6 p.m. because I’ve heard it might make me gain weight
Approach goal: I’ll honor my hunger cues and will eat when my body signals it needs nourishment.
Avoidance goal: I’ll exercise more in the new year to avoid gaining weight.
Approach goal: I’ll exercise more in the new year to reap the health benefits it provides.
If you believe that doing something won’t be enjoyable or you feel incapable of doing it, you’ll likely end up setting an avoidance goal that will be hard to stick with. Over time, you might procrastinate and adhere to the plan less frequently before surrendering and giving up.
Instead, reframe your goal. Base it on something you enjoy versus something you feel the need to sacrifice. Build on something you’re already doing to capitalize on your intrinsic motivation for that habit.
Instead of: I’m going to cut carbs to lose weight quickly.
Try this: I’m going to eat carbs from whole-food sources, such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, beans, and unrefined whole grains, so I can get the nutrition I need while losing weight gradually.
Read more: Is gluten-free the same as low carb?
Instead of: I struggle with running, but I’m going to start doing it in the new year because I’ve heard it’s a great way to lose belly fat.
Try this: I enjoy lifting weights so I’ll plan to add an extra session each week and add variety to build more strength.
Read more: Learn how strength training boosts your metabolism
What Is a SMART Goal for Losing Weight?
Another approach to goal setting that takes a process-oriented approach to set a measurable, time-bound goal: the SMART framework. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Limited. SMART helps you stay on track and build smaller goals that help you chip away at your ultimate weight loss goal.
Let’s take a closer look at how this can work for your New Year’s resolution:
Specific: Be specific about what you want to achieve. Saying, “I want to go to the gym more” isn’t specific enough to get you there. Take it one step further and say, “I will go to the gym for an hour Monday through Friday before work.” Now, your goal is specific enough for you to successfully reach it.
Measurable: How will you know if you’ve met your goal, or are getting close? Data, of course! Strategize how you’ll measure progress, or what metrics you’ll track over time to watch your progress. Apps like Signos have built-in measurement tools, such as weekly glucose reports, food logs, weight graphs, and more. Take advantage of apps and tools like these to make it easier to stay on track.
Attainable: Inject some realism into your goals. Stretch goals can be (mostly) motivating at work, but demotivating in your personal life. Consult with your doctor, another expert, or another source you trust to help you understand what an attainable weight loss goal should be for you. Remember, you’re a unique individual whose health and value go beyond numbers on a chart or general body mass index suggestions.
Relevant: Everyone is different. Just because a workout and diet plan works for your friend, doesn’t mean it’s going to work the same way for you. Focus on your process and orient your smaller goals around your lifestyle. For example, if you’re not an early riser and aren’t ready to launch into a workout soon after you get out of bed, schedule your workouts for the afternoon or early evening. Protect your workout time block like it’s a non-negotiable, can’t-miss work meeting.
Time-limited: Lastly, create a time frame in which you hope to reach your weight loss goal. When you’re setting time constraints, be mindful that they should also be relevant, measurable, and attainable. It’s a good idea to create micro-goals you can meet in a few weeks or a month, and then tweak or change parts of the micro-goals based on how successful they were. This process can help you pivot once you learn what works best for you so you don’t just abandon ship if you have a setback or don’t quite achieve a mini-goal.
Read more: Learn about the science behind weight loss for women
Consider breaking your weight loss goals into quarterly goals. This can help you push forward throughout the year, build a routine out of the healthy habits you’re practicing, and allow you a longer runway to track your process and see how far you’ve come.
As you plan your New Year’s resolution weight loss goals, keep in mind that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You want to change something significant about how you care for yourself, and that takes time and self-love. Give yourself grace, set intelligent goals, and get ready to feel like the best version of yourself.