Aspirational goals aren't always a recipe for disaster—just don't forget to plan how you're going to get there.
Setting goals is something we hear a lot about in January. But when you're setting those goals, whether they're related to health and fitness or something else important in your life, it can be hard to know exactly how big or small the goals should be. If you want to take up running, should you first go for a 5K and then work your way up to a longer race, or should you just go straight for a marathon? If you want to lose 100 pounds, should that be your goal, or should you focus on losing 10 pounds first? (Related: This Fat-Burning Workout By Anna Victoria Will Help You Crush All Your Goals)
Essentially, the question is: Why set yourself a goal you're completely confident you can achieve with moderate effort when you could set a really high, aspirational goal that you know you'll have to work super hard to get to? Wouldn't the mental payoff and sense of accomplishment be bigger if you could just run that marathon from the get-go? Here, we explore the psychology of big, scary goals and why they can be more rewarding than smaller, more attainable ones—plus how to get there and how to know if shooting for the stars is realistic for you or not.
The Psychology Behind Goal Setting
Turns out, there's a whole lot of psychological theory behind goal setting. "When it comes to the mental action of setting a goal, I like to ask the question: Without a goal what are we doing?" says Rachel Goldman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who specializes in health and wellness and clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine. "Every action and everything we do is for a reason; even if we're not conscious of it." What's more, it's really hard to accomplish things when we don't have goals or a plan, she says. "Setting the goal and making a plan to accomplish the goal helps make it realistic and is truly the backbone of motivation," she explains. Would you get out of bed in the morning if you didn't have any goals or plans? Probably not.
So how do we wrap our brains around these goals we set, whether they're big and long term, like losing 100 pounds, or small and short term, like squeezing in workouts five days this week? Every goal has two subtypes of goals wrapped up in it: process ones and outcome ones. An outcome goal is something like losing 100 pounds; it's the ultimate outcome you want to achieve. The process goals are completing actions like deciding on a diet plan, increasing your weekly workouts, and buying healthy groceries to cook at home.
"Process goals are two to three behaviors you can measure and achieve daily that are directly related to the outcome," explains Chris Carr, Ph.D., sport psychologist at St. Vincent Sports Performance. Without those process goals, pretty much any outcome goal is impossible, experts say. "In my work with clients on goal setting, once an outcome goal, like shaving down a 5K time, is identified, we then work on the smaller process goals that must be attained or attempted on a daily or weekly basis. For example, a stretching program and a two-mile tempo run may be a weekly goal for the first two to three weeks of training for the outcome goal." The process goals can change and should change over the course of your journey to the outcome goal, meaning you'll constantly be working on something new and ideally, won't get bored or lose motivation and give up.
Why Your Goals Should Be a Little Scary
"A good goal should be challenging, so that it creates some internal intensity and effort—which some individuals may call fear," says Carr. Some might say that a goal that doesn't seem hard isn't really a goal at all, since you won't have to work that hard for it. On the flip side, there is such a thing as a goal that is too scary. "Goals should be challenging, but not so challenging that we end up procrastinating because they are so scary to accomplish," explains Goldman. "Goals that are too lofty often lead us to procrastination, coming up with excuses, and eventually forgetting about them." All those people who start intense fitness programs on January 1 because of their New Year's resolution often fall prey to this problem. (BTW, sometimes it's okay to quit that New Year's resolution.)
So how can you tell if your goal is too scary? "Every goal should be attainable at the daily level if you are starting out a behavior," explains Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and host of The Web on Cumulus Radio. In other words, if you want to run a marathon, can you commit to sticking to your training schedule, eating to fuel your body, and prioritizing rest on a daily basis? If so, you have the capability to get to that finish line, no matter how scary it may seem. If you think you can get the process goals done that your outcome goal requires, there is absolutely no reason you shouldn't set that big, scary goal. Klapow says this rule applies to all, no matter what your personality is like. "Stretch goals are great for all of us," he says, "but regardless of your personality, regardless of your competitiveness, regardless of how afraid you might be, goal setting is not unique. Goals are the translation of desires into action. And you can only do one day at a time. So if you want that 100-pound weight-loss goal, set it—but set it as a function of how much exercise, what food you are going to eat each day." Makes sense, right?
Celebrate Your Small Successes
Many people worry that setting a goal that's too big will set them up for failure, but according to experts, that's not necessarily true. The path to success with big goals has everything to do with planning and perspective. Since every goal regardless of size needs both process and outcome aspects, the way you go about planning your path isn't really all that different—the tasks will just vary in intensity and be on a different time scale. With this in mind, the size of your goal almost doesn't matter, since the way you achieve it is the same. So why not go for something big and crazy?
One thing that is crucial, though, is that if you're going to accomplish something huge, you have to acknowledge the little wins you're having along the way. "These smaller goals help you feel accomplished on a regular basis, which keeps you motivated to continue to follow through with your plan," explains Goldman. Acknowledging these smaller successes is extremely important so that you don't lose motivation. After all, it might take a year to reach your outcome. If you wait to feel proud of yourself until after you've reached the end of the process, you're going to be waiting a long time. "When we don't see change and don't feel accomplished, that is when we start to lose motivation and that is where people fail, throw in the towel, and give up," Carlton notes.
Are Big Goals For You?
"We do know that intrinsically motivated individuals are pretty efficient at setting and maintaining goals, whereas someone that needs primarily 'externals'—rewards—as motivation may be less likely to achieve goals," says Carr. So if you're naturally more internally motivated, accomplishing something lofty might be more reasonable and natural for you. And how can you tell if you're intrinsically or externally motivated? Well, do you want a reward every time you complete a smaller goal? Or are the internal rewards of boosted confidence and sense of accomplishment enough for you? "The use of aspirational goals can be positive for people with good internal motivation and drive, but if an individual is not motivated for true change, then aspiration may become less effective," adds Carr. Of course, this doesn't mean that if you're reward-motivated you can't accomplish big goals! It just means that the way you go about planning your path to success needs to have more steps and more focus on celebrating those smaller steps.
If you're not sure where you fall on this spectrum, that's when working with a professional can be really helpful. "A personal trainer, sports psychologist, coach, or expert in your desired behavior change often helps you to clearly and accurately define long-term goals and then develop an effective plan of action for daily behavioral change," he says. Since most goals do require daily work, having some support in that process can be key if you have trouble self-motivating. This kind of professional can also help you determine whether your personality is suited to taking on a super-scary goal, especially if they're in the mental health field. "It takes a high internal drive and internal motivation to be self-directed in behavior change, while also being persistent and patient in accomplishing goals," notes Carr. (Kind of crazy, but it turns our your personality can cause you to gain weight.)
And for those who just don't want to set big scary goals but who want to make progress somehow? If big goals scare you in a way that's anything other than exciting and motivational, "don't set them," says Klapow. "Keep yourself focused on daily and weekly goals. If you still want to shoot for the stars, do so with a daily plan." Sounds like that old adage "take it one day at a time" is true, after all.