Do S.M.A.R.T. goals work for weight loss?

SMART goals

When you consider over 70% of our population is 30+ pounds heavier than its ideal weight, you have to wonder if setting goals for weight loss really works.  If it works so well, why does our nation keep getting fatter and fatter?

Is there something fundamentally wrong with human beings or is the goal setting system broken?

What are S.M.A.R.T. goals?

Supposedly, people don’t achieve goals that are vague.  Examples of vague goals include:

  • I want to lose some weight.
  • I want to exercise more.
  • I want to eat healthier.

What do these goals mean?  What is some?  What is moreHealthier than what?  Or how do you define healthy?

S = Specific

The first step in setting S.M.A.R.T. goals is to make the goal specific.  What is your target?  What are you trying to attain?  Once you define this, you’ll be able to set up action steps and game plans to take you to your goal.

M = Measurable

healthy eating on a budgetWhen your goal is vague, how do you know when you’re done?  When have you achieved success?  To avoid this problem, the idea is to set a goal that creates accountability.  If you set a goal of:

  • I will exercise for 30 minutes on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday evenings,

at the end of the week, you can measure your success by identifying whether or not you exercised for at least 30 minutes on the days specified.

A = Achievable

Is your goal achievable?  Taking the exercise example above, if you have to take your kids to a school function on Wednesday night, your goal isn’t achievable.  You’ve set yourself up for failure before even starting.

R = Realistic

Realistic can be a tough to figure out.  When you’re starting out in something new, you may not know what realistic expectations are.  Can you lose 50 pounds in a month?  If you’re basing your goal on lose-weight-quick tricks and diet fad advertisements, you might believe that’s a realistic goal.  You may not know it’s unhealthy to lose that much weight that fast, or that you’ll be likely to gain most of the weight back if you do lose it that fast.

T = Timely

Making TimeWhen it comes to weight loss, setting time limits on your goal is almost a sure way to be disappointed when you reach your set date. What do I mean by that?

Many people now know a healthy rate of weight loss is one to two pounds per week.  So they’ll do the math and set a goal date based on how much they want to lose divided by 2.

After all, this is what makes your goal timely, right?

Your body doesn’t work that way.  It will not lose two pounds a week every week.  Some weeks you might lose five pounds.  Other weeks, you’ll lose none.  The closer you get to goal, the slower the weight loss will be.

If you’re actively working on making better food choices combined with physical activity, you’ll be lighter than you were when you started by the time your “due date” comes around.  Why be disappointed by not having “reached goal?”

The problem with S.M.A.R.T. goals

I’ve already hinted at some problems in the above definitions, but let’s break this down.

The first problem with S.M.A.R.T. goals is they are so complicated.  They require a lot of work to create and then follow through to completion.

Let’s say you want to follow the latest USDA dietary guidelines, because this is your idea of healthy eating.  If you’re a 45 year old woman, your goal would look something like this:

  • Each day, I will eat 1 1/2 cups of fruit, 2 1/2 cups of vegetables, 6 ounces of grains (half of which will be whole grains), 5 ounces of protein, 3 cups of dairy, and 5 teaspoons of oil.

2011 plateArguably, this goal could be more specific by spelling out which foods you’ll eat to satisfy each requirement, but let’s call this specific enough.  It outlines USDA guidelines for a 45 year old woman who gets less than 30 minutes per day of moderate physical activity.

This goal is measurable.  In order to measure it, you’ll need to keep a food log every day and write down every food that passes your lips, how much of it passed and which food group it belongs in.

Since these are quantities the USDA deems a 45 year old should be eating for optimum health, we’ll have to assume it decided this eating regiment is achievable and realistic for us.

And the timely part is satisfied by deciding you will do this every day.  So each day you either have success or you have failure.

I think you can see, we took something as simple as eating and turned it into a major chore.  A boatload of planning has to go into each day.  You’ll need to predetermine which foods you’ll eat to satisfy all these quotients, because there’s no way it’ll happen by eating what you want as you go along unless you’re already a seasoned healthy eating veteran (in which case, you probably don’t need this goal).

Each day you will be tied to your food log.  It will need to be with you all day long, because what if you decide to have a piece of birthday cake your friend brought to work today?

What if you had to pick up your sick kid from day care and take him to the doctor so now you’re ordering pizza for dinner instead of cooking your planned meal?

More problems with S.M.A.R.T. goals

A S.M.A.R.T. goal could cause you to hyper focus on this one area of your life.  There is so much involved in tracking it; you have so much time and effort invested in reaching it; you just have to reach the goal in the timely manner you chose so you ignore everything else.

One extreme example is the car salesman who lost his job, because all his time was spent in the company kitchen prepping his meals, eating and recording what he ate so he was never on the showroom floor to help customers.

Another example is getting angry at people for upsetting your routine by inviting you out to eat or asking you to come to a party.  So you choose to stop socializing to keep from falling off track with your eating goal.

S.M.A.R.T. goals make the assumption everything in your life and about your life is under your control.  They force you into a mentality that unless you reach the goal as specified, you failed.  They also require you to judge yourself and analyze your progress.  This can create a lot of negative self talk if you’re falling off track no matter how valid your reason is for doing so.

A more natural evolution

If goals are to be set at all, I feel they should focus on gaining new information and experimenting with that new-found knowledge.

Our brains don’t like change.  You might start off strong on any new endeavor, but eventually your brain undermines you.  You lose incentive.  You don’t know why, but you seek the comfort of what you used to do.  You’re even more likely to return to old patterns when under stress.

south beach dietFor that reason, diet or exercise plans which require you to make sweeping changes all at once rarely work or stick for the long term.

You may know your ultimate goal is to follow USDA guidelines as closely as possible to help you reach or stay at your ideal weight.  But it’s better to identify which portion of that huge goal you’re ready to do now.  Focus on that one small portion until you do it out of habit – even when stressed – before adding in another component.

While tracking can be beneficial to see how and when you typically fall of track, don’t let it become a burden.  Celebrate your improvements instead of chastising yourself for not being in full compliance.

When first learning how to set goals, some people go hog-wild and set up action plans for everything!  This will cause overwhelm and pretty much guarantees you’ll succeed at none of your goals.  Take stock of how busy your day is now.  Can you realistically focus on three new habits at once?  If not, pick one or two instead.

It’s better to make improvements slowly so the changes stick than to change everything at once, do it for two months and then quit.

Your turn

Have you ever used S.M.A.R.T. goals successfully, either for weight loss or something else?  If so, please share your experience in the comments below!

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  1. Tammy R says:

    Hello Lori! I really like your example of not socializing because it might throw you off your goal. After I started eating healthy, I admit I was concerned when I committed to social gatherings – not because I didn’t trust myself but because I didn’t want to offend anyone. What I realized is there are ways to politely decline food (or even delay it, “Oh, thanks so much! I just ate, but I’m going to save it.”). I am a school teacher, so SMART goals were “the” thing for a bit – driving me and everyone else crazy. I can’t imagine trying to apply them to diet. I just make sure I walk every day, eat the same things four days a week, and have guidelines for eating out – like No Fries, No Dessert, and No Creamy Sauces. Those aren’t all, but you get the gist! I am so glad you brought this to light because I think micro-managing sets you up for failure whereas guidelines and habits allow you some flexibility!

    • Lori Stalter says:

      I definitely find SMART goals burdonsome. They seem so logical and well thought out that I get sucked in trying to use them time and time again. I’ll do what I’m supposed for about a month and then crash and burn.

      It’s kinda funny, because as I was researching for this article and finding out current psychology studies say they don’t work, I was setting up SMART goal accountability for my training and online biz. DOH! Sure enough. I kept track of my daily progress every day for a month and this past week I haven’t done it once. Now I look at it and wonder if I should go back to doing it and all I can think is it’s such a time hog and P.I.T.A.

  2. cj says:

    Hi Lori! Never used SMART goals, but enjoyed reading your post and your point about avoiding sweeping changes is resonant with me. I am a tweaker. I am somewhat allergic to goals. I do love to prioritize, work hard and tweak to get the best results, but I refrain from predicting the future whenever I can, which is most of the time. Playing classical guitar for 20+ years has taught me the value of slow, methodical change. Have a split pea evening!

    • Lori Stalter says:

      I love tweaking, although I did do a complete diet overhaul in 2004 when I tried South Beach Diet. Luckily, my man was fully on board with trying it out with me PLUS he did most of the cooking. We also did grocery shopping together. If it wasn’t for how much support he gave me and all the stuff we did together to make it work, I don’t think we would have lasted on it for ong. On my own, I like to tweak over time and make adjustments as I learn what works and what doesn’t. Or as I go through cycles. I’m back to not minding having to chop up fresh ingredients and doing some batch cooking over the weekend to make the week easier. This cycle will eventually die when I find the weekend thing burdensome and then I’ll have to iterate through yet another choice of healthy eating. 😀

      Speaking of split peas, I think I have some in the cabinet that need to be used up!