Getting short-term wins from long-term goals

Our brains are wired to embrace immediate reward rather than strive for long term gain, so,
asks Susy Natal, how can we work with this tendency to help clients achieve bigger picture goals?



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One of the primary roles of a personal trainer is to motivate and direct clients down a path that will allow them to achieve their health and fitness goals. There are many people who, even when provided with sufficient knowledge about how to train, will still struggle to remain focused on their health and fitness for long periods of time when left to their own devices. This stems largely from how the human brain organises and perceives the importance of goals and rewards based on time-frames.

The body can undergo impressive changes in a short period of time if a person is relatively deconditioned or has been eating and exercising in one specific way for a while, and then makes drastic changes to training and nutrition. This is where the selling point of the challenge comes in: an individual commits to making dramatic lifestyle changes within a set period of time, and this will generally translate to significant changes in the body.

Although extreme training and eating behaviours are neither sustainable nor healthy when maintained for longer periods of time, they can be safe in short, discrete bursts, such as in a challenge. Challenges can be useful, therefore, for kick-starting someone, getting them back into the gym or refocusing their training if they are lacking direction. However, it is important to avoid having your clients get into the habit of expecting all changes to take place so quickly, because this simply will not be the case most of the time, and if it is expected then the more common, slower changes associated with regular training will become tiresome and adherence will become a problem.

A study in time and distance

The human brain, like the rest of the body, functions to keep us safe. Objects that are far away are not as salient to us as objects that are near to us, since the closer ones can present more immediate risk and therefore demand our attention. Something similar occurs with rewards and time – a reward that we will receive sooner, if all else is the same, is perceived as greater than one that will happen further on down the track. This makes sense when the rewards are identical, because not having to wait for something is more satisfying than having to wait for the same thing. The issue, however, is that this is also the case when the more distant reward is greater than the one that occurs sooner. That is, our brains struggle to embrace the bigger picture.

There have been many studies in which participants have opted to collect significantly smaller amounts of money immediately, rather than wait to be rewarded with much larger sums, and we make the same error of attributing too much value to the immediate when it comes to decisions about health and fitness. Having a burger and fries now, even though it does not align with our current nutrition goals, is more immediately rewarding than dropping a dress size over the next two months. Staying in bed and sleeping in is more immediately rewarding than getting up earlier, particularly in the colder months, and working out in a bid to attain results that we won’t see for many months. The salience of the immediate can be overpowering, and cause many of your clients to run into trouble with their exercise adherence.

Micro-goals and celebrating small wins

This demonstrates a few pointers for personal trainers: your clients will be more likely to succeed if there is a tangible reward to be obtained from their work, and even more if this reward is available in the short-term. The issue then arises, as mentioned above, that the body will initially make rapid changes and then progress will gradually slow down, so truly large and sustainable health and fitness goals actually operate in the long-term. This is where micro-goals and regular check-ins come into play to keep your clients focused and committed to their larger goals.

This means, for example, that if your client’s goal is to drop three dress sizes, but they are new to training and food choices are an issue for them, then the long-term goal of the three-size drop needs to be broken down. This can be done in several different ways. Obviously, each size dropped, or decrease in body measurements, is one way to do this, but even so, your client might stagnate for a while at one size and start to lose interest if no progress is seen for some time.

This is where goals such as not missing any training sessions, sticking to a healthy and balanced diet for a whole fortnight and other smaller goals that they can constantly work towards will help keep them focused. These smaller goals can be regularly achieved, which allows for consistent celebrations of the little wins. This will help increase the feeling that they have what it takes to be able to achieve their longer term goal, which will in turn increase their adherence and motivation to stay on track.

The more experienced your client is with setting long-term goals, particularly within the context of health and fitness, the less you will need to break this down. Conversely, beginners will need very small and regular micro-goals to keep making progress without feeling overwhelmed by the perceived enormity of the goals at hand. Generally, when setting micro-goals with a client, start small and take on their feedback – if the micro-goal seems too easy then break it down less, and if it seems intimidating or unachievable, then break it down further.

Plan the next goal to avoid regression

Finally, as a trainer you always need to think ahead. When your client is approaching the completion of a goal then this is the time to start setting the next one. Take the time to celebrate the completion of the goal, as this is a huge achievement for your client, but ensure you have the next goal in sight. The absence of a next step can send many people tumbling off the wagon, as no direction can prompt a regression to old habits. Don’t wait for the completion of the previous goal – get in ahead so that there is already something to keep the client focused during the celebration period.

Goals should drive your work with every single one of your clients, and these need to be personalised to their needs, including how you structure the goals for them. Based on the client’s individual personality, determine the amount and frequency of micro-goals to keep them interested, challenged and invested in their training.


Susy Natal is a Sydney-based performance coach, wellness writer and personal trainer with a background in psychology. She works with a varied clientele, from beginners through to competing athletes across multiple sports. susynatal.com