“I’m going to lift weights 6 times a week and also do cardio 4 of those days.”
That’s a real goal that comes from a real person that I worked with to develop their fitness habits. At the time, this person had no fitness routine and was barely active.
The mistake of setting unrealistic goals is a common and natural one – it’s not something to be ashamed of, but it is something to address.
In fact, unrealistic goals are so common that there’s an area of psychological study based on understanding why they happen (the planning fallacy).
If you set excessively unrealistic goals, you set yourself up for disappointment. Someone without an exercise habit is probably not going to successfully start working out 20x a week. I have an exercise habit, and I would likely find it difficult, if not impossible.
The consequences of unrealistic goals are significant. Not reaching goals results in negative emotions: disappointment, frustration, and feeling like a failure. It also makes you more likely to quit, be even less healthy, and claim that your genetics make success impossible.
I want to help you set better goals and avoid that disappointment. Goals are a critical part of a comprehensive fitness plan. You can reach your goals – if you set them well.
Here I’ll break down why we set unrealistic goals and how we can set better ones.
If you want a full guide that breaks down the psychology of goals and teaches you how to stay consistent when “life gets in the way,” just let me know where to send it.
Why We Set Unrealistic Fitness Goals
Through my email course and coaching experience, I’ve had the opportunity to see a lot of goals. Throughout this experience I’ve learned that people never think their goals are unrealistic. Why?
There are two major reasons we set unrealistic goals:
When we set goals, we don’t take a step back and consider that, hey, maybe it isn’t the best idea to 10x our exercise right away. A drastic lifestyle change like that is hard to stick to.
We don’t consider that we’ll start feeling resentful when we sacrifice other parts of our life, guilty when we start missing sessions, and disappointed when we eventually throw in the towel.
Instead we feel excited and energized. Even if we’ve never stuck to an exercise program for more than a couple months, we think things like:
- THIS time I’m going to do it
- I’m gonna push it until I can fit into my old jeans
- I’ll keep going until I have a toned, fit, strong body
I want to make it very clear – this is natural. Everyone thinks like this about something (tonight I’ll actually go to bed early, tomorrow I’ll actually stop snacking, etc.). But if you can break out of that thinking, you can create a plan that will work.
It is possible to accomplish the above goals, but if you use the same methods you’ve tried in the past you’re likely to have the same results you’ve always had.
When most people set an unrealistic goal, their plan is to will themselves to success. The odds against that plan are high.
Now, I have nothing against optimism. In fact, I think it’s important to battle negative thoughts and remain positive throughout your fitness journey. However, optimism needs to be tempered by realism.
Ask yourself: how much would I need to change my life in order to achieve this goal?
If the answer is a lot, it might make sense to scale back a little.
The second reason for unrealistic goal-setting is much simpler: we aren’t sure what a realistic goal is. Maybe we’ve heard stories of crash diets, where people lose 10 pounds a week for a month, and think that goal is realistic.
Usually uncertainty goals involve losing too much weight or building too much muscle too quickly. Goals like “I want to lose 60 pounds in 2 months” or “I want to gain 40 pounds of muscle in 6 months” are probably not achievable. It took me 4.5 years to gain 40 pounds of muscle without fat. When I’ve trimmed weight, it’s rarely come off faster than .5-1lbs a week (although around 2lbs per week is possible if you’re more overweight).
It makes sense – of course we want to achieve success as quickly as possible. Still, there are physiological limits to how much weight we can gain or lose safely in a given period of time.
How to Set Reasonable Goals
Setting realistic goals is challenging, but people also make it more challenging than it needs to be. It’s critical to keep in mind that you have more than one goal-setting opportunity – as long as you are setting checkpoints.
If you are setting frequent checkpoints, you will be able to assess your progress and correct your course as necessary.
The methods of correction depend on whether your unrealistic goal stems from optimism or uncertainty, but they have one thing in common.
It’s all about the long term.
Consistency trumps everything. If you reach your goal in 3 months but your system is unsustainable, you’ll backslide and end up right where you started. If you don’t reach your goal after 3 months and get frustrated, you’re more likely to assume that there’s something wrong with you, that you’re just too lazy, or that your goal was never really possible anyway.
If, on the other hand, you build good habits, you can achieve your goals for a lifetime.
Again, it’s understandable that we don’t want to build up our habits slowly. We want to do more now and get results faster. But building up our habits over the long term will get results – eventually. Even if the start is small, the momentum will gather faster than you think.
On the other hand, going all in up front might get results. It might also leave you terribly frustrated and spark a backslide that leaves you worse off than when you started.
Adopt a habits mindset instead of an intensity one. With that in mind, let’s talk about fixes.
Overcoming Unrealistic Optimism Goals
There are two fixes if you reach a checkpoint and discover that your goal is too optimistic.
- Scale back the frequency of your workouts
- Scale back the intensity of your workouts
Let’s use the goal at the beginning of this article as an example:
“I’m going to lift weights 6 times a week and also do cardio 4 of those days.”
This goal can be made more manageable by reducing the number of days per week. Instead of lifting 6 times a week, try 3, or even 1.
This idea is often met with resistance. “One or two days a week? That won’t accomplish anything.” Yes, it will – it gives you a place to start and scale up from.
The other option is to scale back the intensity of each workout.
So you want to work out 6 times a week – fine, but make them super short workouts. Doing a set of squats and running on the treadmill for 2 minutes counts as 1 lifting day and 1 cardio day.
Again, what does this accomplish? It gets you started. You can scale up the intensity gradually, and you’ll probably find that you wind up doing more than just one set anyway.
But by reducing the commitment up front, you give yourself an out. You don’t need to “work out for at least an hour every day” (another common goal). You just need to do something. If that turns into an hour, awesome! If it doesn’t, that’s ok too – you can put a plan in place to build up to that.
Overcoming Unrealistic Uncertainty Goals
Once again unrealistic uncertainty goals are simpler than optimist ones. If you reach a checkpoint and it turns out you were way off the mark, all you have to do is reassess.
First, take a look at the habits you have in place. Were you sticking to your plan? Is your plan a credible one that you know can get results?
If the answer is yes but you haven’t reached your checkpoint sub-goal, your goal might have been unrealistic. Scale it back – try losing 20 pounds in two months instead of 40, or 10 pounds of muscle in a year instead of 40 in 6 months.
Then, reassess again at your next checkpoint.
Realistic goals are important – they reduce frustration and make you more likely to reach your goals.
The most common mistakes we make in goal setting happen because we are overly optimistic or uncertain.
We also tend to rush towards results right away, without considering that it’s better to be successful in the long term than the short term.
There’s nothing to be ashamed of if you make these mistakes – we all do. The mistakes don’t matter as long as you set realistic goals and get back on track.
You can be a little fitter in 3 months, or you can be really fit for the rest of your life.
What are your realistic goals?