Why I Don’t Want to Set Weight Loss Goals

I was at my Weight Watchers meeting recently and we were taking about setting goals. A member talked about having a goal to loss X number of pounds by the end of Y month.  And, I hear that from a lot of people.  I want to lose 10 pounds a month or 25 pounds in 3 months or 1 pound a week or whatever.  I have shied away from setting that kind of short-term weight loss goal.  In fact, in the first post I did on this blog (over two years ago) about goal setting, I said the following:

I am not going to set up a monthly goal to lose a certain amount of weight.  I know that works for a lot of people.  For me, it doesn’t.  I think that is because I can’t totally control whether it is achieved.  That is, I can do the things that I think would lead to a certain loss and over the long term that is realistic.  That is why I feel OK having a goal to basically lose 41 pounds this year.  But, over the short term, the body doesn’t always cooperate.  And, when it doesn’t show the loss that the numbers say should exist, it tends to throw me off track, even if the loss shows up the next week.  So, I won’t set weight loss goals for a short time period.

At the time, I thought I was being very realistic by setting a goal to lose 41 pounds in a year while not setting a short term weight loss goal.  In reality, my mistake was in making it a goal to lose 41 pounds that year.

I often hear people setting short term weight loss goals as part of establishing S.M.A.R.T. goals.  Different people use different words for the letters, but I have often seen:

  • Specific
  • Measureable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time-related

So, I see people saying that you need to have a specific weight loss goal for a specific time so you can meet the S.M.A.R.T. criteria.  It isn’t good enough to say you want to lose weight sometime.  You need to say I will lose X pounds in Y amount of time in order to have a specific, measurable goal.  And, then the debate is often whether the criteria is realistic.  So, for example, I wouldn’t set a goal to lose 10 pounds in a month because for me that just isn’t realistic. Most of the debate then becomes about what is a realistic, achievable weight loss goal.

I have always had issues with the concept of a short-term weight loss goal even if it, on paper, seems very realistic.  Say, half a pound a week or 2 pounds a month.  As I said in that long ago post, the big issue is that I can’t control whether a specific weight loss goal for a specific period of time can be achieved.  While I know what I mean, at times, I have found it hard to articulate it.

Recently, I found two articles by a physician that lays this out clearly.  The problem with setting up weight loss as a goal and the reason I can’t totally control it is that weight loss is not a behavior. Exercising 5 times a week, or eating X number of calories (or SmartPoints) a day, or eating 5 servings of fruits/veggies each day, or walking 10,000 steps are all behaviors.  I can do or not do them.  Weight loss?  That is not a behavior.  Weight loss is the desired result of all the behaviors I engage in that I hope will lead to that result.

At the website of Dr. Arya Sharma he has a couple of posts that discuss this.  In a post entitled “Weight Loss is Not a Goal” he explains why weight loss is not a good goal for S.M.A.R.T. criteria:

One aspect that is clear to me at least is that weight-loss itself should not be a goal as weight loss is not a behaviour. If the goal of the intervention is to change behaviour then the goals should probably be behavioural goals that meet the S.M.A.R.T. (or S.T.A.R.T.) criteria.

He also discusses the issue in an article “Weight Loss is Not a Behaviour!”  He points out that when he tells patients to lose weight, he hasn’t told them what behavior to change.  He analogizes telling a patient to lose 20 pounds to telling a patient to stop smoking.  When he tells a patient to stop smoking, the behavior to be changed is very clear — smoking.  But, when he tells a patient to lose 20 pounds he is telling the patient the outcome wanted, not the behavior to change to get there.  He makes it very clear:

“I want to cut my daily caloric intake by 500 calories” is a behavioral goal; “I want to lose one pound a week”, is not!

(indeed you may well find yourself “successfully” cutting your daily intake by 500 calories without coming anywhere close to losing one pound a week – let alone 20 pounds any time soon).

Another article about this concept, suggests focusing on healthy behavior goals, not weight goals.

It is, of course, easy to say that losing a pound a week is the same as cutting daily calorie intake by 500 calories a day since a calorie deficit of 3500 calories should produce a pound of weight loss.  Yet, it really isn’t that simple.  There are many reasons that cutting 500 calories a day may not actually lead to losing a pound a week.  Just a few reasons off the top of my head:  you burned fewer calories after cutting your calorie intake, you ate something that caused water retention, you exercised heavily shortly before weighing, you were constipated,  you retained water due to hormonal reasons or medication, etc.  We can control what we do, but we don’t always control the result.  Dr. Sharma succinctly uses a sports analogy to say that “kicking the ball at the goal is a BEHAVIOUR – scoring a goal is not!”

When we say we will lose X amount of weight in Y amount of time, we are taking on to ourselves a result that may be something that — despite our best efforts – we can’t achieve.  We don’t have control over everything that will lead to the outcome we want.  Even if we did have that control, there are so many factors that can influence whether we lose the exact amount of weight wanted in the specific period.  I’ve had great weeks where I lost weight.  I’ve had great weeks where I gained weight, or had only a tiny loss.  Yes, over the long term, I’ve lost 63 pounds, but I have never been able to control the exact amount lost.

I used to attempt to do so.  I would be pretty realistic and want to lose, say, 1 pound a week.  That seems eminently reasonable.  And, sometimes, that occurred.  I felt great.  And, then there would a week or two or three where I did everything “right”, but I didn’t lose a pound a week.  And, I felt awful.  I felt like a failure.  Often times, I did lose over that period of time, just not the pound a week that I had arbitrarily decided was what I should lose.  My behaviors were good, but the weight loss I had set as a goal didn’t happen so I failed (in my own mind).  It took me time to get out of that mindset to realize that I had to focus on what I was doing and seeing what happened.

Now, I am not saying that there is anything wrong with wanting to lose weight or to have some idea of where you might want to end up.  What I am saying is that saying is that setting a “goal” to lose X amount of pounds in Y amount of times was not really helpful to me in actually losing weight.

When I went back to Weight Watchers I knew in the back of my head that I wanted to get to a normal BMI.  But, wanting that doesn’t really tell me how to get there.  And, it certainly doesn’t tell me when I will get there.  I went back to Weight Watchers in August, 2010 weighing over 200 pounds.  It took me 5 years to get to that normal BMI, way longer than I thought it would.  There were times I tried to set a goal to lose a certain amount of weight each week or each month.  And, I always failed at this.  I realize now that part of my problem was in setting a desired outcome as a time-limited goal.

As mentioned above, in 2014 I had a goal to lose 41 pounds that year (to get to a normal BMI), but I didn’t set short term monthly weight loss goals.  I was really only halfway there in realizing I do better not setting goals to lose weight.  I worked really hard in 2014 to change a lot of my behaviors.  I ate more fruits and vegetables, I limited processed foods, I cooked more real food, I exercised more (this was hampered due to a leg injury).  I didn’t meet all my behavioral goals, but I made a lot of progress on them.

But, I didn’t lose 41 pounds.  I “failed” that goal.  Yet, a funny thing happened.  I didn’t feel like a failure.  I actually did lose 28 pounds and moved from obese to overweight.   Why didn’t I feel like a failure?  I think it was because I was able to mostly focus on the positive behavioral changes that I had made, which had resulted in some weight loss, although not the specific amount of weight loss I had wanted for that year.

In fact, I still hadn’t learned.  In 2015, I set quarterly goals so I decided I would set a quarterly weight loss goal.  I wanted to lose 8.9 pounds in the first quarter of the year.  And, once again, I failed.  I lost 5.8 pounds.  But, funnily enough, I wasn’t upset.:

At best, I lost 5.8 pounds.  While this goal was probably my “biggest” goal, I’m actually not upset about not making it.  I had been on a horrendous plateau for months.  And I finally got out of it.  And, there was a lot that happened this quarter that made it hard.  I had some times in February that were super stressful.  Also, I was sick for a couple of weeks.  And, we are currently in a situation where we have a lot of driving around we have to do and places to go so I’m away from home more often in situations where I really have to eat out.  This won’t last forever (another month), but it made working on weight loss more difficult.

Also, as I get closer to my goal weight of 146 pounds, it is harder to lose.  I feel positive about where I am overall right now in my weight loss journey and I have complete confidence that I will get to my goal.

And, so I set a new goal for the second quarter — to lose 7.4 pounds to get to my goal weight of 146 pounds. I didn’t make that goal either  although I did get to 148 pounds so that I was free lifetime at Weight Watchers.  And, I was still not unhappy about not reaching my goal:

Lose 7.4 pounds to get to my goal weight of 146 – This did not happen.  I did get to 148 which means I’m free lifetime at Weight Watchers.  I’m not actually unhappy about this.  It does take longer to lose weight as you get closer to goal.  Setting a weight loss goal by a date certain is usually something I avoid as it is not something I can directly control.  I can control what my body does and what I eat, but I can’t control exactly when the loss shows up on the scale.  I am confident I will get to that goal weight soon.

And, for the next quarter I went ahead and set a goal to lose 2 pounds to get to my goal weight of 146 pounds and I did achieve that.  It is only now that I realize that the reason why I wasn’t really that upset about not reaching my weight loss goals was that I really wasn’t invested mentally in meeting those goals in the time period specific.  The weight loss goals for me by then were more like the finish line of a race.  I knew the outcome I wanted — to finish the race — but I recognized that there were many factors in how fast I got to the finish line and not all of them were within my control.

What I have realized is that I was confusing wanting an outcome — weighing 146 pounds – with setting a specific goal (lose X pounds in Y amount of time).  Having in mind that outcome (a normal BMI) was for me a finish line I could head for, but it wasn’t very helpful to me in setting specific goals for behavior changes to achieve that outcome.  And, that is why I didn’t set a specific weight loss goal for this year even though I know that I still have body fat to lose to be where I want to be in terms of body composition.  In fact, I probably shouldn’t have set a goal to improve body composition.  That is, once again, an outcome that I want.  The goals I set should be behavioral in nature, not simply the outcome that I want.



  1. Janet says

    Well said. I am a long time lapsed lifetime weight watchers member who just rejoined in January. About 4 weeks ago I was asked at my weigh in to set a weight loss goal for the month. It bothered me, but I couldn’t think on my feet quickly enough to eloquently tell her why I didn’t want to do that. If this happens again I will be prepared to tell her why I will not do this. I also will try to come up with a polite response when I am told that I have not lost anything that week, or only lost 1/10Th of a pound. If I’m eating a healthy diet, exercising and not gaining weight it’s going to happen. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this blog.

  2. says

    Excellent post, Kitty. I totally agree about time-based goals because, as you point out, they can make success be defined as failure. Also I really like the reference from Dr Sharma that the point is behavioral change; what a wonderful way to describe what is really the goal, not just the effect of the change.
    SO, as to the reason why the calories “burned” don’t always (or in fact rarely to never) equal the weight lost, are you familiar with Zoe Harcombe’s work, and her repeated point that there is no science behind the theory that a pound of fat equals 3,500 calories? She had another recent article about this, and your post about time-based goals really jogged my memory on this. IN case you are interested…
    Wendy recently posted…Non-responsive.My Profile

    • says

      I have read about what she says. The truth is that like so many things in nutrition…I just don’t know. And, that is why I find it more helpful to me to focus on doing the things that I know are good for me and then realizing that the weight loss follows (perhaps not that swiftly, but it adds up over time).
      Kitty recently posted…Why I Don’t Want to Set Weight Loss GoalsMy Profile

  3. says

    I always feel under pressure when I start setting goals, whether they are weight loss ones or exercise ones. I’m off to the big City at Christmas to spend it with our daughter and grandkids. I know that I know even the thought of being at goal weight isn’t going to happen, but I did do the “if” game of if I lose so much each week then I’ll be at X on the scales. That just makes me feel like “I have to”. Now I just think that if I am lighter than I am now then I’ll feel so much better and enjoy myself more and that will have to be good enough for me.

    • says

      I think that is a good way to look at it. I get sucked into the whole thing of if I lose X a week, then I will lose so much this year or whatever. I do better when I just do the things that are likely to lead to a loss and not stress about how fast I get there. I do look at what I’m doing to see if it is working, of course, but I did better when I didn’t feel a failure for losing slowly. And, I did eventually lose 63 pounds.

  4. Beth S says

    Nice post Kitty. I’m a really slow loser so I think the consistency thing is really key. Right now I’m 14.2 down — so I’d love to hit 15 by the time we leave for spring break and 20 down by summer. And just being able to even contemplate that I’ll lose 20 is so exciting – I’m a lifetime member and gained back close to 40 lbs. And it’s been on for years and I’ve recently really recommitted to WW. Would I love to be back at goal at the end of 2016 — absolutely. But I have to just take it pound by pound. We have a wedding in October and I know what dress I’d like to fit back into!

  5. says

    I love your blog, and I must point out that it applies to SO much of life! As a teacher, my state requires that I set SMART goals for my class. I abhor these! It’s the exact same issue! I can say that 25% of my students will achieve scores of 90% until I’m blue in the face; I don’t actually have control over their score. It would be so much more useful to set goals about how and when I give students feedback or the lessons I teach. My general hatred for SMART goals (as I know them in education) has led me to forcefully refuse to set SMART weightloss goals. I could never explain the connection, but I knew it was there. Thank you for laying it out in such a clear way! I set truly intelligent goals by aiming for a certain amount of water intake, or a set number of runs each week.
    Lucy recently posted…Day 240 – Less than 10 min & too many caloriesMy Profile

    • says

      What a good point. And, it is one I have to remember myself. To set only those goals that relate to what I can control (which is my behavior).

  6. Julie says

    Thank you so much. i think this is what has been holding me back. I’m going to change my thought process immediately.

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