You should go into any race with three goals, a friend once told me: Your “perfect-day” goal in which the stars align and the wind is at your back; your more conservative goal in which you run a solid race with maybe a hiccup or two; and your “well-everything-went-wrong-but-at-least-I-didn’t-die” goal. Sometimes that last one is a time goal, sometimes it’s just to finish.
The idea is to know that, when all is said and done, you have achieved something. It may not have been your greatest race, but you did achieve a goal, no matter how modest.
However, recent research suggests that the 3-goal, or high-low approach has another benefit: It encourages re-engagement with that same kind of activity. The study, set for publication in the Journal of Consumer Research this October, looked at goals ranging from weight loss, to resisting tempting food, to solving puzzles. The researchers found that, although there was no difference in the actual results of the goals – whether they were high-low goals or number specific – those who set high-low goals were more likely to re-enroll at the end of the challenge.
So, maybe you made a goal to lose 10 pounds by the end of the summer, but September rolls around and you’ve only lost 6. You didn’t reach your goal. You’re discouraged and maybe you think this isn’t the kind of thing you can do. But if you set a goal to lose 5-10 pounds by the end of the summer, you’ve given yourself the challenge to achieve something great, but the flexibility to still succeed if things don’t go as planned. Even if you’ve lost 6 pounds by September, you’ve succeeded! And you’ll be more likely to go after another goal like that in the future.
I’ve put this strategy to the test in my own life. A couple of years ago, when I was trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon for the first time, I knew that with the training I’d done I was capable of running close to a 3:20 marathon. However, I also knew that things could go terribly wrong. I’d trained at sea level, and my race started halfway up a mountain. With that in mind, I set my “perfect-day” goal at 3:20, my conservative goal at 3:30, and my “everything-went-wrong” goal at my actual Boston qualifying time: 3:40. When I pushed myself across the line at 3:38, having walked much of the last six miles before getting sick right after I entered the finish line chute, I knew that even though things did not go well, I’d still qualified. Encouraged by having reached that goal despite getting sick, I signed up for another marathon a few months later and came in at 3:22 – my current personal record and a time that still motivates me to keep running.
As you’re making your goals, then, give yourself some wiggle room. Be ambitious, but be flexible. Challenging yourself is important, but so is giving yourself the chance to succeed.
So how do you go about setting goals that are ambitious, flexible, challenging, and appropriate? Here are some tips:
- Start with a plan. Before you begin, have a clear picture of what you want to accomplish. Get to a healthy weight? Swim a certain distance? Run a specific time? Give yourself a timeline for when to reach certain milestones.
- Set yourself up for success. Once you have your goal in mind and a timeline for when to accomplish it, outline what you need to do each day or week in order to reach that goal. Maybe that’s a certain amount of exercise or to cut your calories by a certain number.
- Keep track of your progress. Make notes of what you were able to accomplish each week and improvement you’ve seen in your performance. If you fudge a couple of days, you’ll know that you might be slightly off on your goals, and you’ll be able to factor that into your plan moving forward.
- Be flexible – and forgiving. When things don’t go as well as you had planned, rather than throwing the plan out, adapt to the new situation and keep trying. Just because you had a rough day and ended up missing a key workout or eating more ice cream than you had planned doesn’t mean you’ve ruined everything and should scrap your goal. Pick up where you left off the next day, and move forward.
- Re-evaluate periodically. Maybe your goal is going much better than you thought. Or maybe you realize after a few weeks that you were much too ambitious. Review your goal and see if you need to readjust your expectations based on your current performance.