Goal Setting Series Part 2 – Goals that are “Too Tight”

Feeling the Burnout?  Give Yourself A Fighting Chance –   Part 2 of the Goal Setting Series

Mary Elizabeth Brown – Fitness Competitor and Lover of Cream Cheese Frosting…Anything With Cream Cheese, Really…

This blog post is brought to you by our friend, the Marshmallow Peep.  But not the blue ones.  Because blue peeps are gross. (I hope this is not me being a Peep-ist.)    

In the last post, we discussed the concept of a “too loose” goal.  Failing to set a deadline only gives you one thing – no end in sight – which is a daunting concept for someone trying to avoid Cheetos and Tacos for any length of time.  In this installment of powerless goal setting, I will discuss the opposite end of that spectrum.  Goals that are too tight can be equally as dangerous and just as foreboding of an accomplishment killer.  If you read the first blog and said to yourself, “Oh that is definitely not me” (looking at you, Type A Personalities…) then this idea of a too tight goal just might be the problem that needs solving.  If your goals are too tight, you’ll never make it far enough down the path to see the finish line to begin with before you crack.  What’s worse, a too tight goal is not unlike too tight jeans – even if you can fit yourself in to them, there’s always that problem with spillover once they finally button at the very end of an arduous struggle.

How do I know if my goals are too tight?

It’s important to set goals that actually give yourself a fighting chance.  I’ve ruined many calendars in my day planner with goals that were too tight.  After planning a full 90- day hybrid-style exercise plan with two hour-long workouts per day, six days per week, I would dutifully write each workout into neat little blocks on my calendar.  After all, one of the sage tidbits of wisdom in the workout industry is to schedule your workouts as you would appointments or dates – with yourself. Sure enough, three weeks in to my overly-restrictive workout regimen, I would find myself looking at my calendar with all of the pre-planned workouts and scoffing at myself – “Ha!  Remember when I was doing that?  That’s funny.  Like I had time for all of that.”    I’m not arguing that writing it all down and scheduling it isn’t helpful.  But if you’re torturing yourself in the process, it’s time to re-examine.

Do you hate the treadmill?  Then why, for God’s sake, are you putting yourself on it for four days a week?  Nothing says “reschedule that meeting” louder than scheduling a date with yourself that includes self-torture.  Here’s the reality – it doesn’t matter how many calories a one-hour treadmill workout burns if you a) hate every second of it, or, b) because you hate every second of it have plenty of reason to “cancel” on yourself when the time comes up.  Canceling your own workout date with yourself burns zero calories!  Rather sit in a meeting for an hour after work than go to spin class?  Then stop telling yourself that you have to go.  Pick something else, for crying out loud!  When I decided last year that I was going to run a half marathon (shout out to all those runners out there!  That stuff is hard!)  I found a buddy who would listen to me whine throughout the duration of go with me on my long runs.  On the first day, I said to her, “It doesn’t matter how far we go, as long as I still like this tomorrow.”  I knew that if I had to be dragged to the start line every day, it wouldn’t take long before I gave up.  If a two mile run was hell, why would I even put myself in a position to build up to a 13 mile run?  This isn’t an arranged marriage.  While you might “grow to love” something, your love handles will be growing while you’re waiting for that special spark between you and the rowing machine.  So stop.  I hereby grant you permission to choose a mode of exercise that you like over a mode of exercise that gets the most results the fastest.   We often choose unenjoyable workouts because they have a tendency to yield the results we want the quickest.  Unless you are a masochist, your fitness goal is not supposed to make your life hell.  Keeping in mind that this is, overall, a lifestyle change, what kind of lifestyle are you wanting to move in to?  Make sure you like how it fits.  Otherwise, when you reach that goal and make that deadline, your first order of business will be to bury your head in a bag of Oreos (I may or may not be speaking from experience).

While a non-enjoyable workout regimen can mean a too tight goal, sheer volume can also bode disastrous.  Too much, too long, or too intense of workouts are another way that the goals you set for yourself can be too tight.  Ask yourself what you can reasonably accomplish within your goal’s allotted time frame.  It should be more than what you’re currently doing, but not overkill.  Too often we think that the only way to achieve our lifestyle goals is to throw everything we love out the window in favor of an uber-restrictive workout and diet regimen.  While there are some cases where this is true (take for example, marathon training or bodybuilding), we don’t have to apply this tactic to every fitness goal.  We are so easily sold on the idea that in “just 90 days” we will go from soft and doughy to crispy and hard-bodied that if we don’t do it like “they” do it in the infomercials, there’s no possible way to be successful.  Take your weekly time commitment in baby steps and go slow to go fast. You’ll be pleasantly surprised with the results.  If you’ve been working out two days a week, commit to three.  Do that for three weeks.  It will get much easier to push yourself to four per week if you’ve already found success completing three.  Going from zero to 10 workouts a week right from the couch is a surefire progress killer.  This is how you’ll find yourself saying “I’ve tried everything and nothing works.”  Of course you’ve tried everything.  You trying everything all at once.  It’s not supposed to work that way.  Give yourself a break and build up slowly.  Remember, you have to like it tomorrow.  When I first started training for bikini competitions, I was working out five days a week for about 30 minutes in the mornings before work.  By the time I was one week out from my competition, I was doing 12 workouts per week, at an hour in the morning and an hour and a half to two hours in the afternoon.  Imagine the utter and abject failure I would have experienced had I started like that from day one.  I’d have never made it to that competition.  I’d have never lost 30 pounds, and I’d probably have put on some weight in the meantime because I would have ate my feelings over failing to meet my goals.

The biggest place where “too tight” goals creep in is not from exercise, but diet.  Restricting your caloric intake too severely too soon is a recipe for disaster for a number of reasons.  First, it is a surefire way to destroy a normal and healthy metabolism.  Many diet regimens claiming to be balanced and geared toward success are just crash diets in disguise.  Your body is a tricky and shrewd machine.  If you’re consuming 2,000 calories a day, it will find a way to burn exactly 2,000 calories.  And if you do that for too long, it will find a way to burn exactly 1500 calories to save those extra calories as fat in case you hit famine times a la caveman of yore.  My body is such a calculating master at this that my trainer has made sweeping changes to my diet mid-week in response to stagnant weight loss.  More often than not, that change has been adding calories to my diet, not subtracting them.    If you’ve decided that a drastic calorie deficit is just the ticket to getting you to your fitness goals, my suggestion is to do some more research on that method.  Here’s the summary of that research:  It’s not going to go as planned.  Further, if you reduce calories too much, your body starts to break down muscle tissue to compensate for the deficit.  Since muscle chews through calories like a buzz saw, you want as much of that muscle tissue as you can keep.

Let’s also not ignore the fact that an overly restrictive diet has the tendency to send you overly over the edge when (notice I didn’t say if) you crack.  Even in a state of diet and exercise for weight loss, you shouldn’t be hungry.  Those hunger pangs are what send me head first in to the lair of the Donut Dragon, and I always come out of that lair with some powdered sugar on my lip – evidence of a battle fought and lost.  I find that if I don’t eat enough during the day, I go down hard in the evenings – right about the time the body goes in to calorie storage mode.  Bad idea.  Eating more high quality foods at regular intervals helps the body to stay on track to meeting goals.  Restricting your calorie intake too much too soon not only makes it harder to stay on track, it makes it feel worse when you can’t maintain it.  It’s hard enough not to reward yourself with food for “doing so well all day today.”  Don’t put a starving body and brain in the position to have to resist a treat.  It’s hard enough to say no on its own.  I won’t give a daily calorie recommendation here because everyone’s needs are different.  But I will say that you should be eating every three to four hours – while some science suggests this isn’t necessary, I find that as a scientist myself, sometimes science can’t compensate for sanity – and eating every 3 to 4 hours keeps me sane.  It’s nice to always have a meal to look forward to, isn’t it?

Let’s not forget that this is a lifestyle change, not a 90 day one-and-done kind of deal.  Think about the impact a too-restrictive diet will have after those 90 days.  If you guessed a flying leap off the fitness wagon, you guessed right.  With your current calorie and food variety, ask yourself if you can keep eating the way you are eating after you’ve reached your weight loss goals?  If the answer is “not a chance”, your diet goals are way too tight.   If you can reasonably accommodate your dieting caloric intake and variety, with only an occasional visit to the Lair of the Donut Dragon, or the Cave of Cream Cheese Dipping Dinosaurs, or the House of the Happy Hour Hyenas – so long as you have left a trail of bread crumbs back to the Fitness Wagon – then your diet regimen is in decent shape.  Remember, it’s important to go slow to go fast.  If the diet is not maintainable, you’ll never get far enough along in  your progress to ever see the finish line.

Help!  My goals might be too tight.  How do I know?  What should I do?

Now that you’ve made sure your goals aren’t too loose, ask yourself, “Are my goals too tight?”  Give your goals the “too tight” test by asking the following questions:

  1. Are you increasing your time commitment incrementally, or all in one big leap? Not sure?  Start with a 5% rule.  Commit to 5% more/less time/calories/weights/days/minutes than you’ve done in the past.  Feel like you can do more?  Great!  Add 5% next week.  Give your body time to adjust.
  2. Are you cutting your calories to greater than a 500 calorie deficit per day? If yes, stop the madness, unless you are on a very tight time frame.
  3. Are you sprinting to that deadline, or did you set a deadline in too close of a time frame to be successful, even with inevitable setbacks? Re-evaluate your goal deadline and make sure your time frame is appropriate to accomplishing what you’ve set out to do.  From my previous post, I suggest 12 weeks as a good jumping off point.
  4. Are you happy with your chosen form of fitness? Will you still like it tomorrow?  I think this is the most important part of goal setting.  Make sure you are doing the things you enjoy.  Don’t be afraid to sweat a little, though!  There’s a difference between challenge and torture.  Select a chosen form of exercise or dieting goals that are on the higher end of the challenge spectrum, but don’t dare set a foot in the torture range.  At least not yet.


If you’ve set your goals at the right level of “tight” but still aren’t seeing results, read on to the third installment of powerless goals – goals that are “too big”.





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