To Achieve Goals, Focus on Behavior
This post originally appeared on the Pattern Health blog.
The holiday season is upon us, whether you’re ready for it or not. Many people overeat in the holiday season (all those leftover treats at home, cookies in the office, how could you resist?!) And — no surprise — it shows up in our waistlines. People tend to gain weight each holiday season and on average, an additional pound lingers by the time March rolls around (Yanovski et al., 2000).
Say that, hypothetically, you’d like to avoid that seasonal gain this year. Seems like a nice long-term goal. And a good one to think about with Thanksgiving right around the corner. You might wonder what the best way is to ensure that you keep off those extra pounds.
Long-term goals are made up of many short-term goals
First, think of this long-term (or “superordinate”) goal as the outcome of a series of short-term goals (or “sub-goals”). And this isn’t unusual; any project is made up of smaller steps. Think about what it takes to plan a conference or wedding, or build a house — all these big projects are made up of smaller projects. It’s the same for your weight. To reach your long-term goal of maintaining your weight from now until the flowers start to bloom, you’ll need to succeed at a series of short-term goals; many days of healthy eating and exercise. You’ll have to avoid overeating, and exercise the recommended amount (say, a total of 150 minutes a week, or 5 days of 30-minute bouts).
So there are really two types of goals at play here. Your long-term goal, or the outcome, is to not gain weight, and your short-term goal is the behavior, or what you need to do in order to get there. But which of these types is more helpful for you to focus on as you try to reach your goals?
Are people more successful at achieving their long-term goals when they set process-oriented goals that detail the behavior to be performed, or when they set outcome-oriented goals that emphasize the ultimate end goal?
Researchers have looked at this exact question: Are people more successful at achieving their long-term goals when they set process-oriented goals that detail the behavior to be performed, or when they set outcome-oriented goals that emphasize the ultimate end goal? In one study, Wilson and Brookfield (2009) invited participants to engage in a six-week exercise program, and randomly assigned them to a control group or one of two goal groups where they either set process-oriented goals or outcome-oriented goals. The researchers found that participants in the process-oriented goal group were not only more enthusiastic about exercise over the course of the study (scoring higher on interest, enjoyment and perceived choice, and lower on pressure and tension) but also had significantly higher adherence to their exercise regimen after the intervention period had ended, compared to the outcome goal and control groups. So they were not only more successful in objective terms, but actually enjoyed their exercise more.
Participants in the process-oriented goal group were not only more successful in objective terms, but actually enjoyed their exercise more.
What could explain the benefit of focusing on behaviors over outcomes?
And this makes sense. We only have control over our behaviors, so when we focus on outcomes, we are just dreaming without a path. In contrast, we can actually do something about our behavior. You can decide to go to the gym and lift weights twice a week, but you can’t simply decide that your blood pressure will become lower. On top of this, behavior is much more likely to be measurable; it can be easy to track and understand, whereas outcomes are not.
When we focus on outcomes, we are just dreaming without a path.
Take weight as an outcome, for example. If you have ever weighed yourself regularly, you’ll know that there is an incredible amount of small fluctuation in weight; you might gain two pounds in a day, or lose three overnight. If you look at a graph of weight measurements over a short period of time, it’s very difficult to parse out the signal from the noise.
There can be quite a bit of fluctuation in a person’s weight over time, and not all of this fluctuation is meaningful. It is a daunting task to interpret, and the day-to-day experience for dieters can be both confusing and demotivating as they try to parse through mixed signals. Imagine you go for a run one day and gain a pound, then nothing happens for a week (no gain or loss), so you give in to a few slices of apple pie — and then you lose weight. Could it be that running causes weight gain, and apple pie causes weight loss? Surely not, but these mixed signals crop up because our body reacts in stochastic ways in response to our activity, often with a time delay. It’s not as if every good day leads to weight loss and every bad day leads to weight gain. The body is a complex, dynamic system, and it doesn’t always respond as it “should” in the short term.
The body is a complex, dynamic system, and it doesn’t always respond as it “should” in the short term.
As a result, it is nearly impossible to determine whether you are making progress toward the ultimate goal of weight maintenance if you simply attune to fluctuating weight information. On the other hand, it is relatively easy and reliable to track your behavior.
Pattern Health emphasizes behaviors that people can control
Because it is more motivating to focus on behaviors, and because these are the aspects within people’s control, the Pattern Health platform is designed to emphasize these types of activities. A patient with diabetes might be assigned a program where they are asked to measure their blood glucose, get a certain amount of physical activity (customized to their level of fitness), and take their medications — but they would not be asked to set a goal of getting their A1C to a certain level.
So as you are trying to maintain your weight over the holidays, the most effective strategy for your well-being and for your success is to focus on the behaviors that will help you ultimately lose weight: stepping on the scale each morning, exercising 30 minutes a day for five days a week, and closing your eyes when the dessert tray rolls around so you don’t exceed your allotted 1200 calories for the day. If you would like to maintain your weight this holiday season, don’t worry so much about your actual weight. But do worry about your eating habits and your physical activity, and focus on these controllable behaviors rather than uncontrollable outcomes.
Yanovski, J. A., Yanovski, S. Z., Sovik, K. N., Nguyen, T. T., O’Neil, P. M., & Sebring, N. G. (2000). A prospective study of holiday weight gain. New England Journal of Medicine, 342(12), 861-867.
Wilson, K., & Brookfield, D. (2009). Effect of goal setting on motivation and adherence in a six-week exercise program, International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 7(1), 89-100.