The new year stands before us, like a chapter in a book, waiting to be written. We can help write that story by setting goals.
According to research, fitness goals are some of the most popular New Year’s resolutions.
However, most “New Year’s resolutioners” are unsuccessful.
When I was working as a personal trainer in a commercial gym, I witnessed the same cycle every year. Come January 1st, the gym would be flooded with new members. By March, most of them would disappear, never to return… until the following January.
So, if you’ve ever set fitness resolutions that didn’t stick, you’re not the only one.
Of the few studies conducted on this topic, most seem to show that the majority of participants abandon their resolutions after a few months.
For example, in 1985, a study by Norcross and colleagues reported that 77% out of 200 participants stuck to their resolutions for a week, but only 40% were still keeping up with them after six months.
If you’re thinking that a 60% failure rate after six months sounds pretty grim, that’s not all.
In reality, if you’re volunteering for a study measuring the success rate of New Year’s resolutions, you’re likely more motivated to achieve your goals than the average person.
Moreover, after the participants set their resolutions on an initial phone call with the New Year’s Resolution Project staff, they received seven follow-up phone interviews for the next two years.
If you know someone’s going to check on your progress every few months, you’ll probably take your resolutions far more seriously than if you were left to your own devices.
So, in real life, New Year’s resolutions likely fail even more often than in research.
However, since you’re reading this blog post, you are more motivated than the average person. By applying the four steps covered in the article, you’ll have better-than-average odds of succeeding, too.
You’ve come to the right website.
Let’s start your year with a bang.
Step #1: Choose the most successful goal type.
McGregor and Elliott’s 2 x 2 achievement goal framework, proposed in 2001, comprises four different goal types. Two of these are based on the definition of competence, and two on its valence.
The two goal types based on the definition of competence are mastery and performance goals. Mastery goals focus on achieving competence by developing a skill, whereas performance goals focus on demonstrating competence to others by outperforming them.
For example, “I want to train for a stronger squat, bench, and deadlift” is a mastery goal, whereas “I want to win a powerlifting competition” is a performance goal. The two goal types result in the same outcome of increasing your strength in these three lifts, but your mindset is very different.
Mastery goals emphasise the process over the outcome, and reframe “failure” as a normal and expected part of said process. By setting a mastery goal, you can’t “lose”. When you fall short of a target, you learn from this experience and plan to do better next time thanks to this acquired knowledge.
On the other hand, performance goals are all about the outcome, so you’ll be demotivated and thus more likely to give up if you “lose”.
Moreover, research on health behaviour change seems to show that mastery goals are associated with greater performance, knowledge, and self-efficacy, which is the belief that you can perform a certain action.
Therefore, when your intent is to accomplish a long-lasting lifestyle transformation, then mastery goals may be the most appropriate choice in the majority of cases.
To be clear, I don’t want to imply that performance goals never work.
A competition can be a fun and rewarding process every once in a while. However, a combination of mastery and performance goals, with a greater emphasis on the former type, is likely a more successful long-term approach than focusing solely on performance goals.
The other two goal types included in McGregor and Elliott’s framework, which are based on the valence of competence, are approach goals and avoidance goals. Approach goals focus on achieving success, whereas avoidance goals focus on avoiding failure.
“I want to replace the chocolate bar I usually snack on with an apple” is an approach goal, whilst “I don’t want to eat ‘junk food’” is an avoidance goal. Again, the desired outcome – eating fewer chocolate bars – is the same, but it’s the way you think about the process of making this change that can make the difference between success and failure.
By setting approach goals, you encourage yourself to reframe fitness as something that adds value to your life instead of taking away from it. Furthermore, approach goals seem to be associated with more positive emotions, thoughts, and mental well-being than avoidance goals.
In summary, in the pursuit of a fitness lifestyle transformation, prioritise mastery and approach goals over performance and avoidance goals.
Step #2: Choose the right goals for you and manage your expectations.
To pick resolutions that truly stick, be mindful of these two components: your values and your expectations.
First, identify and write down your fitness-related values, then choose goals that align with them.
For instance, following an extreme diet that cuts out entire food groups, is less congruent with the value of sustainability than an inclusive approach emphasising moderation.
In addition, if your expectations aren’t realistic, you may perceive that you’re “failing”, when in fact you expected too much from yourself to start with.
As an example, if you’ve only been exercising once or twice a week as of late, you’ll probably burn yourself out after a week by jumping into a five- or six-day training program tomorrow. For most people in this situation, sticking to two weekly workouts for a month is a much better and more realistic place to start.
Having said that, there are some cases in which an extreme goal can successfully kickstart progress. At the start of a new journey, you have a high reserve of motivation, which you can draw upon to be consistent with the extreme behaviours required to accomplish said extreme goal.
However, this reserve will dwindle over time. For this reason, in my experience, taking an extreme approach only works when your expectation is that it’s going to be temporary.
So you can jump into a five-day training program right off the bat, but you may want to set it as your goal only for the first two to four weeks, then switch to a more sustainable program for a longer period of time.
Setting goals with the right expectations, you won’t only be more successful and therefore more motivated and confident in your own abilities. You’ll also become more skilled at achieving more challenging targets in the future. For instance, by getting better at scheduling your two weekly workouts, you’ll have better odds of sticking with three in the future.
Furthermore, realistic expectations can help you better understand if your goal is indeed in line with your values.
As an example, it takes months to see the results of a productive bulk. Depending on the length of this phase – and of any maintenance or fat loss phases you may also choose to do – you’ll likely have to wait eight to twelve months for visible results, like my client P.
If the degree of patience required doesn’t seem worth it to you, then maybe this physique goal isn’t in true alignment with your values.
Step #3: Use a goal hierarchy to organise your resolutions.
I’m sure you’re familiar with SMART goals, or goals that are “specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound”.
The problem with the SMART acronym is that it can only be applied to short-term goals, whereas most fitness goals are long-term by nature. Even so, they require the setting and achievement of medium- and short-term goals, too.
For instance, “fat loss” is a long-term goal, but, in order to achieve it, you also need to accomplish the shorter-term goal of “eating in a calorie deficit every day”.
Therefore you need a goal structure combining short- and long-term goals.
Höchli and colleagues have proposed a “goal hierarchy” that includes three goal categories in the following order: superordinate, intermediate, and subordinate goals.
The longest-term of the three, superordinate goals are based on your identity and values, and they’re less well-defined than the other two. “I want to get healthier” is an example of a superordinate goal based on the value of health.
The most obvious drawback to this goal category is its degree of abstraction. What does “being healthy” mean to you? Which behaviours will result in your becoming healthier? How long and how often do you need to engage in these behaviours in order to see results?
That’s where intermediate and subordinate goals come in, providing more precision and clarity. However, without a superordinate goal to guide you, you wouldn’t be able to set intermediate and subordinate goals in the first place.
For instance, you might set a short-term goal of “eating vegetables three times a day”, but you probably wouldn’t feel motivated to do it for long if you didn’t know how this behaviour fits into the bigger picture of what you value, which is to get healthier.
Therefore superordinate goals are the foundation on which the other two goal categories stand.
As the name suggests, intermediate goals focus on a shorter period of time than superordinate goals and have a higher degree of precision. As an example, with a superordinate goal of “getting healthier”, you could then set an intermediate goal of “losing body fat in the next three months”.
The shortest-term and most specific of the three goals in this hierarchy, subordinate goals can be set using the SMART framework.
“I’m going to eat 150g of protein per day”, “I’m going to hit 8000 steps a day”, and “I’ll go to the gym on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday every week” are all examples of subordinate goals.
In summary, subordinate goals are the daily behaviours needed to achieve your intermediate goals, which in turn are the milestones needed to achieve your superordinate goals.
By using this goal hierarchy, you can overcome the shortcomings of the SMART framework and create an effective plan to accomplish your fitness resolutions.
If you’re interested in learning more about the applications of this goal hierarchy in the context of fat loss, I recorded an entire podcast episode on this very topic here.
Step #4: Build an accountability system.
A Swedish study on New Year’s resolutions divided volunteer participants into three different groups: a “no support” group, a “some support” group, and an “extended support” group.
What’s interesting about the results is that, according to the paper, “participants (…) consistently considered themselves more successful than participants in any previous study—with the one exception”.
As the researchers argue, all of these participants volunteered for the study, so they were already very motivated. In addition to that, all three groups received at least some level of support.
Even the participants in Group 1, despite being defined as the “no support” group, received three follow-ups throughout the year, and had to report periodically on their success rate, quality of life, procrastination, self-efficacy, and conviction that they’d achieve their goal.
Therefore, this study highlights the importance of building an accountability system to support the goal achievement process.
This system can include a variety of different tools.
My first recommendation is to schedule progress reviews, which are regular appointments with yourself or, better yet, with somebody else, like a coach.
My online clients check in with me once a week to reflect on the previous seven days, ask questions, and brainstorm ways to overcome challenges and continue moving forward until the following check-in.
Beyond helping with accountability, a coach can also support you with realistic goal setting and the management of expectations.
Another valuable tool is a social support system, involving friends or family that you can trust to help you make the journey smoother. For instance, a friend, parent, or partner who’s willing to help you cook healthful meals, or a friend to go to the gym with, can be a priceless ally in your goal achievement journey.
To increase your chances of achieving your New Year’s resolutions:
Thanks for reading. May you make the best gains.
To receive helpful fitness information like this on a regular basis, you can sign up for my newsletter by clicking here.
To learn how to develop an effective mindset for long-term fat loss success, you can sign up for my free email course, No Quit Kit, by clicking here.
To listen to my podcast, click here.
An online fitness coach who likes bodybuilding, superheroes, and bread.
Want to work with me? Check out my services!