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How to Set Motivating Goals (According to Research)

goal setting goal structure motivation process research sub goals weight loss Jan 26, 2020

When it comes to setting health and fitness goals, do you just get amped about making it to the gym one day without thinking about any related long-term fat loss goals?⁣

Or, do you get out your sticky notes and plaster your LOSE 10LBS BY MARCH 1ST goal all over the house, hoping that it keeps you motivated to go to the gym?⁣

It’s Coach Kasey here to talk to you about the research on effective goal setting and help you set goals that you’ll actually achieve. 


What the Research Says About Goal Setting

When looking at research into effective goal setting, you’re most likely to achieve your goals using a combination of some long-term focus AND some shorter-term, in-the-moment focus. 

The approach you choose and the timing of that approach matters because setting a goal is never just setting ONE goal. 

Regardless of what your main goal is, there are daily, weekly, or monthly practices that are required to attain that goal. In research, these are called “sub-goals.”


The Best Goal Setting Method, According to Research


At some point, we’ve all been told to “focus on the process,” but is that really the best method?

The research is mixed.

Some research provides evidence that focusing on sub-goals helps reduce the difficulty of achieving goals and provides reinforcement (Soman & Shi, 2003). 

Other work shows evidence against sub-goals, indicating that success in sub-goals can lead to self-congratulation and disinterest in attaining the long-term goal (Fishbach et al., 2006). 

However, more recent research, across four different settings and populations, took this confusion into account and discovered a very important finding: sub-goals are motivating, but only in the beginning. 

RESEARCH EXAMPLE: The Calorie Burn Goal Study


This study was conducted by Huang et al. (2017), who sought to better understand how motivated people were when they had a calorie-burning goal. 

In the study, 134 people were assigned to two separate groups and needed to complete an exercise routine that hypothetically burned 200 calories. 

The first group needed to burn the 200 calories in one session (“overall goal” group). The second group needed to burn the 200 calories in 4 separate 50 calorie stages (“sub-goals” group).

All participants were randomly assigned to either exercise for 5 minutes (¼ of the total time) or 15 minutes (¾ of the total time). 

Methods of the Study


After exercising for either 5 or 15 minutes, participants were told to stop exercising and record their heart rate in a computer system. 

The “overall goal” group was then shown a progress bar reflecting where they were at compared to their 200 calorie goal.

The “sub-goal” group was shown 4 horizontal bars to represent where they were at compared to the 4 stages of 50 calories leading up to the overall goal of 200 calories. 

After receiving feedback, all participants were instructed to return to the exercise task and work towards the remainder of the 200 calories. 

Researchers recorded the level of effort (number of steps, amount of movement) during the remaining time. 

Results of the Study


The researchers found that people in the “overall goal” group had more motivation to work harder toward the remainder of the total 200 calorie burn goal than the “sub-goal” group depending on when they were given the progress feedback. 

Providing feedback at the 5-minute mark resulted in those in the “sub-goal” group working harder. 

Providing feedback at the 15-minute mark resulted in those in the “overall goal” group working harder. 

Apply this research to your goals


Now it’s time to apply this research to real life!

Say you have an overall goal to lose 10 pounds in 5 months. 

Set smaller goals working toward your larger goals when you are starting off. This could look like focusing on losing 2 pounds each month. 

But as you get closer to your overall goal (e.g., month 3 or 4), it might be better to zero in on your overall progress. You could shift your focus to “I’m just 4 pounds away from my goal of losing 10 pounds,” rather than focusing on the sub-goal. 

In the beginning, you might be better off by keeping the big, sometimes scary, long-term goal out of your mind (temporarily, of course!).

During the early stages, you might find more success by focusing on your sub-goals, such as what you have to do each day and week to meet your overall goal. This could look like determining your calorie deficit, daily steps, or the number of workout sessions you’ll do per week. 

When you start thinking, “I’ve been at this for a while, and I see the light at the end of the tunnel,” — that’s when focusing on the finish line (the big goal) can come in handy.⁣

Of course, experiment and figure out what works best for YOU.⁣

But you might be better off saving the sticky notes for later.⁣

Who Can Help You??


You don’t need to swallow your pride and go at this all alone.

In fact, you’re more likely to be successful if you can learn to lean on your resources (people included!)

At KJO Coaching we’ve got a stellar team of coaches who know how to help you achieve your goals in a way that is sustainable.

You can learn more about coaching here or, if you aren’t ready to commit to coaching just yet, you can dive into our 4 Week Fit Foundations course, where you’ll learn the basics of nutrition and strength training. Check out 4FF here!


Connect with us!

Email: [email protected]

IG: @coachkaseyjo @kjocoaching



​​Fishbach, A., Dhar, R., & Zhang, Y. (2006). Subgoals as substitutes or complements: the role of goal accessibility. Journal of personality and social psychology, 91(2), 232.

Huang, S. C., Jin, L., & Zhang, Y. (2017). Step by step: Sub-goals as a source of motivation. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 141, 1-15.

Soman, D., & Shi, M. (2003). Virtual progress: The effect of path characteristics on perceptions of progress and choice. Management Science, 49(9), 1229-1250.

Hi, I'm Kasey!

I coach, mentor, write, and teach with one main focus: Build strong bodies and healthy lifestyles, starting with your mindset.


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