Experts share how to reach health or fitness goals

Like so many people quarantined in New York City this past spring, I began thinking that my fitness goals were almost impossible to attain. I’d fallen into what I call the time-trap — when you have grand designs of tackling massive projects or visualizing big changes without the bandwidth to take them on.

At some point in April, I looked at my yoga mat and decided I would spare one minute a day to plank. There would never be a day when devoting 60 seconds to myself would be too much. As it turns out, demanding only a tiny, incremental amount of time from myself made this commitment so much easier. I stuck to it — and worked my way up to a minute and a half.

Tackling small, incremental goals helped Dina Regine, a New York City-based musician and DJ, get in shape this year, too. “When I think of setting aside one chunk of time to do it all it never happens,” Regine told TODAY. “Small, little workouts I do during the day — as opposed to doing it all in an hour — are easier to stick to. I will use my little elliptical machine or weight train while TV binging. The same when watching some YouTube videos, or learning songs for livestreams. I’ll take a few minutes to do ballet pliés or yoga stretches in between working on the computer.”

Incremental habits can be beneficial, B.J. Fogg, Ph.D., a behavioral scientist at Stanford University’s Behavior Design Lab in California and author of “Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything,” told TODAY. Fogg doesn’t focus specifically on goal-setting in his practice. “I don’t have people set goals, and I don’t use that word,” he said, but he does focus on habits. “One of the things that most of us lack is spare time. We can create habits, but we have to be realistic about how much time those habits can take in our daily lives.”

To pick up a “tiny habit,” Fogg recommends choosing something to accomplish every day that takes little to no time (like my daily one-minute plank), and attaching this activity to something else you already do every day. He gave an example of doing 5 squats every morning while your coffee brews.

“If you want something to become part of your life, part of your routine, then you’ve got to design it in,” said Fogg. “That action you do, like starting the coffee maker, is the reminder to do the new habit. You’ve used your existing routine to remind you with very little effort.”

Once you’ve incorporated a new tiny habit into your life, said Fogg, the immediate benefit is something he refers to as “shine,” or a sense of pride in your commitment and accomplishment. “The new habits don’t have to be huge to have a big impact on people’s lives,” he said, “and that’s one thing that people don’t understand. If you pick the right tiny things to change and make those habits, they can have a huge effect on you.”

Szu-chi Huang, Ph.D., an associate professor of marketing at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, lead a study that took a look at the effects of setting what she calls “sub-goals” on human motivation. In the first part of her study, breaking up a large goal into smaller sub-goals shifted participants’ perception and made them feel that their goals were more attainable.

“We naturally are drawn to big goals because they are aspirational. But when we first start working on a big goal, the critical concern is whether it’s attainable or not,” Huang told TODAY. “Big goals, such as a big promotion or being very fit, provide high value, but they take a long time to achieve. It is nice to have a big goal, but at the same time, it is really important to do the work by breaking it into smaller things that you can actually do each day. It’s more about if we can actually do it because if it is not possible, why would we spend more time or (put) effort into something that’s not possible?”

Huang explained that achieving sub-goals inspires us to keep working toward our greater goals. “Any kind of failure experience in the beginning can be very detrimental,” she said. “That is why, in the beginning, it’s really important to kind of create an experience of success, because when we start to accumulate this positive experience of accomplishing small goals it helps affirm that, yes, I can actually do this.”

Fogg also emphasized that small successes lead to greater success. “Somebody’s perception of the world in that moment affects how they
respond to opportunities and challenges,” he said. “When you feel successful, when you feel like you’ve succeeded, then you perceive the world differently around you. You start thinking about yourself differently: I’m the kind of person who can follow through or I’m the kind of person who works out. I’m the kind of person who can be consistent.”

Huang’s findings, however, presented a twist to keep in mind. Her research indicated a need to shift perspective to the big picture once you pass the halfway mark of progress toward your goal. “The closer people get to the end, sometimes all of a sudden (the sub-goal) loses attraction because it is a small thing that doesn’t really immediately give you this big value,” she said. “Then it could be helpful to switch your focus to the bigger goal. Keeping an eye on the big goal gives you that boost of inspiration you need.”

So, whether you want to plank every day or go for a big promotion, these experts say you’re more likely to reach your goal if you start out with a low bar. “Don’t raise the bar on yourself,” said Fogg. “Set it low and keep it low. You will actually do more. Once you get a taste of the shine, you want more shine.”