I'm sure you've already "resolved" to lose weight this year, but chances are a resolution alone isn't going to cut it. Of course, you may win the weight-loss lottery and be able to wing it, losing weight permanently with a simple decree. But for the rest of us, setting goals is critical. According to a study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, good goal-setting increases your chances of "making and maintaining improvements in nutrition-related behaviors" by 84 percent.
Why should that surprise you? Most of life requires some planning, even figuring out the best route from the dry cleaners to the post office to the supermarket when you're running errands. We have no problem coming up with detailed strategies when planning an event such as a wedding. In fact, we obsess over every detail — the band, location, dress, tux and caterer. But when it comes to losing weight — while we may think about it, we don't give it a fraction of the strategic passion it deserves.
There are seven characteristics of effective planning and goal-setting that you can remember with the acronym SMARTER: Specific, Motivating, Achievable, Rewarding, Tactical, Evaluated, Revisable.
Don't make vague statements such as "I'm going to lose weight" — instead be specific and say, "I'm going to lose 45 pounds in a year." The Journal of Sports Sciences reported that when individuals assign specific goals they achieve a better result. The investigators also noted that as you increase specificity (e.g., "20 pounds in 16 weeks" vs. "20 pounds") you improve performance.
Goals should answer the questions how, when, where and why and should help set your course of action. So, building on your specific goal of losing 45 pounds a year, it would be better to say, "I'm going to lose 45 pounds in a year, which means I will cut 157,500 calories from my current eating program and/or increase my physical activity." Even better would be adding, "I need to cut about 3,000 calories per week, or about 428 calories per day."
Have you ever heard an "anti-morning person" swear, "I'm going to start running every morning at 6 a.m. — you just wait and see!" Of course, that sounds great, but the reality is the person never gets out of bed before 8 a.m. Plus, he HATES running. How does he think he can stick to a lifestyle change he hates? Sometimes we make these extreme plans just because we know we'll never be able to stick with them, thus giving ourselves an out. You'll improve your chances of success when you enjoy the process of working toward your accomplishment, not just the end result.
While your goals should excite you, they also need to be balanced, realistic and set within an appropriate time frame. Unrealistic goals will discourage and frustrate you, and, as a result, you'll be more likely to abandon your weight loss plan. It's not always easy to identify goals that are neither too grand nor too small. If you want to determine a realistic weekly weight loss goal, check out reliable Web sites or ask a nutritionist. For most people, it's roughly 1 to 2 pounds per week.
Rewarding goals take into account the reasons for doing what you're doing — understanding the "Why." Why do you want to lose weight in the first place? I realize that might sound obvious, but trust me — many times it's not. I've found that people often convince themselves they're losing weight for one reason when clearly it's about something else. Thinking about your rewards (the "Why") helps to establish an emotional connection to your goals that will help you get through the "rough times."
Reaching a weight loss goal — or any goal — should never be about chance. Tactics involve setting a detailed plan of action. Know exactly what you will do tomorrow when your "diet" starts. Where are you going to do your walking? What will you eat in your office when you want a snack? Also, focus on key challenges and develop strategies to get through them, such as bringing a healthy dish to a party so you'll have something to eat.
Goals should be measurable so you know if you're on the road to success. For example, weighing yourself once a week tells you at a glance if you're heading in the right direction. And keeping a food diary is a good way to track calorie intake.
Most successful weight-loss maintainers have some kind of "5-pound warning system" to monitor their weight before it gets out of control. It could be something as simple as keeping a "thin" pair of pants rather than getting on the scale, but they all have some way of knowing if they are "slipping" as well as a backup plan to put into action if they receive their "fair warning."
After you evaluate and measure the goals you have set, you will want to revise those that don't make you SMARTER. Goals also need to be updated as circumstances change. For example, if you take on a new job that involves extensive travel, well, your goal to cook most meals at home will need to be revised. You could get pregnant, divorced, married, promoted, demoted or suffer an injury — any number of circumstances could require revising your goals.
Charles Stuart Platkin is a nutrition and public-health advocate. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.