Weight-loss and fitness goals often backfire. Here’s what to do instead

If you want to achieve your health goals, focus on getting better.
If you want to achieve your health goals, focus on getting better.
Image: AP Photo/Ed Reinke
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The proliferation of Fitbits, sleep trackers, and dieting apps have made it possible for us to closely track and measure just about all things wellness—and to share the results on social media. The outcome is that many of us take for granted the idea that we should strive to be the “best,” healthiest version of ourselves, while outdoing everyone else.

But this is the wrong mindset. If you want to achieve your health goals, you shouldn’t focus on being the best. You should focus on being the best at getting better.

I learned this firsthand through my experience with running. When I began pounding the pavement about 10 years ago, all I wanted was to finish a half-marathon. But I quickly realized that if I wanted to be a lifelong runner, this specific goal set me up for failure. If I finished the race, I had no other athletic goals to work toward, so I might well stop running entirely. And if I failed to finish the race, I’d feel dejected—and more likely to quit.

So I shifted my mindset and sought simply to become a better runner—that is, to get faster, run longer, and enjoy the act of running itself. Thanks to this shift in mindset, I’ve finished countless half marathons and marathons. I haven’t always achieved my more specific goals; for example, I wanted to complete my last marathon within three hours, and I was five minutes over. But I have become a much better runner, learning from each race and incorporating those lessons into future competitions.

The same logic applies to areas beyond diet and exercise—whether our goals involve parenting, relationships, careers, or our creative ambitions. Research shows that the problem with focusing too much on end results and big goals is that they’re too black and white: you either achieve the goal or you don’t. If you do achieve them, then it’s all too easy to get carried away basking in the glory. You’re liable to become complacent and next thing you know, you’ve already fallen behind your competition. If you fail to achieve your big goals, however, then the opposite holds true: you’re likely to become sad, lose motivation, and in the worst-case scenario, burn out and quit whatever it is you were doing altogether.

Psychologists call this mindset “obsessive passion”—when a person’s drive is fueled not by how much they enjoy a given activity, but by external results, recognition, and rewards. Obsessive passion is linked to anxiety, cheating, depression, and burnout.

And so when you are working toward a goal, your best bet is to concern yourself less with a specific result—say, losing 10 pounds—and more with the process of getting better at healthy eating and exercise. In this way, you’ll become resilient to both success and failure.

Nearly all of the people I encountered in my research for my book, Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success, embodied this mindset. Here are a few steps you can take to embody it too.

Select a specific capacity or area of your life in which you want to grow. For example, perhaps you want to cook more meals at home. Be intentional and specific. Remember that it’s really hard to take on too many challenges at once.

Assess where you currently stand. Be honest in your self-evaluation. Perhaps even ask trusted friends or advisors who you know will give you a truthful answer.

Ask yourself: What’s the next logical step? A common trap is to take on too much too soon—for example, drastically cutting calories, and ramping up exercise, and sleeping two more hours per night all at once. Don’t fall for it. Remember that small progress in the short term leads to big progress in the long term.

Focus on nailing whatever incremental objective you came up with. Once you’ve done just that, ask yourself what the next logical step is, and then go about nailing that. For instance, perhaps you’ve been consistent with four 30-minute workouts per week. Now you could consider upping that to five, or perhaps increasing the duration to 40 or 45 minutes. Or, if you’re a writer, maybe you’ve kept a high-quality blog for six months and gained a readership. Now is the time to try pitching a smaller magazine. It’s this sort of upward spiral that you’re after.

Avoid comparing yourself to others. Doing so only leads to insecurity, which makes you either sad or reckless (or sometimes both).

When you do progress through waypoints that have measurable results, abide by the 48-hour rule. Give yourself up to 48 hours to feel happy or sad, but then return to your efforts. There’s something magical about doing the work itself that puts both success and failure in their respective places.

Regularly remind yourself that your “goal” is to get better for the sake of getting better, and that this goal knows no end. Pursue progress for your own sake—not for some type of external validation.