• Dr Lottie Miles

A goal setting strategy for long-term motivation

Next Friday (24th July) is a very significant day for gyms and leisure centres across the UK. Finally, after 125 long days (18 weeks / 4.5 months) of COVID-19 lockdown, these facilities will be allowed to open their doors to the public once more.

This week's post is about approaching exercise after a long layoff. In particular, I’m going to talk about goal setting, and how you can use this powerful tool to not only put you on the right track, but to keep you super motivated for the weeks, months and years to come!

Phase 1: Where are you now?

Developing your fitness, losing weight or gaining weight is all about making consistent and gradual progress. Progress is addictive, as long as you can see it! Setting goals and checking off successes each week will keep you excited and motivated about exercise. Will power on the other hand will quickly evaporate and leave you dreading your workouts.

So, the first part of setting goals and making progress is to take a good look at the current state of your health, fitness and training. I recommend you start a journal or open a document on your phone or computer and make some notes, write down some thoughts. You will actually appreciate this later, trust me!

Phase 2: Where are you going?

Next you need to set a direction – what are you working towards? This is your outcome goal and it’s vital for setting your direction and purpose.

Consider where you’d like to be a year from now and make a note of it. However, just working towards that kind of loooooong-term goal will mean you’ve got to wait 12 months before judging your success and seeing much progress – not so exciting. Therefore, I want you to set your goals 3-months at a time.

Where can you get to 3-months’ from now? This isn’t the finished product of where you’d like to be in a year or more, it’s a checkpoint you want to hit on your way to greater things.

There are a few rules I need you to follow when writing your 3-month outcome goal:

  • Identify a specific target or goal you want to hit (such as lose 10lbs, run 10miles without stopping, hit a 100kg squat…)

  • Set a specific date or a deadline, when you will assess your success or failure in pursuing this goal (in around 3 months’ time!)

  • Think about what is feasible in that timeframe - your goal needs to be challenging but achievable

  • Make sure your goal is within your control – setting yourself the objective to ‘win’ something is not controllable, because you can’t affect your opponent’s performance.

  • Your goal must be measurable; a number you can tick off and say you have or have not achieved it.

  • You can work towards several 3-month goals at once, as long as they all complement each other. Make sure you write each goal down in your journal – note your deadline and how you will measure whether you’ve been successful or not.

OK, so now you’ve got your well planned 3-month outcome goal(s) written in your journal. Good job, but you’re not done! It’s all very well setting a target, but now you need to commit to a plan that will get you there…

Phase 3: How will you get there?

Your path to success lies in actions you take each week in order to hit your 3-month goals.

Get your journal out again, and now I want you to set yourself a few actions or ‘process goals’ you will do each week for the next 3months. Make sure you specify when (or how often) you need to do them and what constitutes successful completion or failure.

For someone who is targeting weight loss, a process goal might be logging your calories after each meal or attending the gym for a workout 3 times a week. As before, these goals need to be achievable, controllable and measurable and of course they need to be building towards your outcome goal(s) – setting a goal to make your bed every morning is admirable, but it won’t get you fitter!

By the way, make sure you have a process goal to review your process goals each week!!

Now, here’s the magic bit of goal setting; track every occasion when you hit or miss a process goal! There are lots of ways to do this – draw a table in your journal where you can add ticks and crosses, create yourself a spreadsheet, use a habit tracking phone app or even use a calendar to mark off successful days. I like putting a paper clip into a jar every time I do a workout… when 3-months are up, that jar will be full, and I can see right there in front of me the accumulation of all my hard work!

Remember, the most important thing about process goals is to celebrate every little success and acknowledge every little miss. You’ll find yourself motivated to keep up your winning streaks and striving harder than ever to avoid the misses. (Everyone does miss or fail on a goal periodically, breaking a streak isn’t a disaster as long as you make sure you don’t miss twice!)

If you can keep yourself focused on hitting your process goals each day, you’ll find your motivation remains high, even when things get a little tough.

Phase 4: Three Months Later…

When 3-months are up, don’t forget to review your progress. Test yourself, measure your progress against your 3-month outcome goals and of course, make a note of it in your journal.

Don’t panic if you fail to reach a goal – you won’t win every battle and if you did, I would question if your goals are challenging enough (easy goals are quite frankly boring and not very effective in eliciting significant change). Falling short of a goal might just mean you were a bit too ambitious with your timeframe and/or measure, or you need to amend your process goals to up the ante.

This review process is important, and you should set aside a bit of time to do it. Look back at where you started and look at where you are now. Keep writing notes in your journal – does this sound familiar? It should because guess what? Your back in phase 1 again and starting to plan for the next 3-month period!


Being able to get to the gym is exciting, but perhaps consider making a long-term plan to make sure you stick at it and make some real, tangible progress.

Effective goal setting will keep you motivated and excited about making progress every day. The phases of goal setting are:

1. Review where you are now

2. Decide where you want to go (set 3-month outcome goals)

3. Plan how you will get there (set process goals)

4. Review your progress and go back to phase 1

Remember to focus on and track your process goals each and every day. If you can stick to these, the outcome goals will take care of themselves.

Keep working hard and focusing on your processes and you’ll be fitter and healthier than ever in no time!


Sport Mentality is a free blog written to help casual exercisers, sports enthusiasts and athletes get the most out of their activities and performances. Please feel free to share these posts with friends, team mates and coaches, and don't forget to subscribe to my weekly newsletter (see the form below) to get alerts about new posts, article summaries and Research Watch links from Sport Mentality each week.

sport mentality

by dr Lottie miles