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Goal Setting: Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Outcomes

“New Year, new you. Am I right?”

– New Year’s resolution marketing ploy to influence you to spend X amount of dollars on a (likely) product/plan/program that has no solid science or research to back it up.

It’s easy to buy into goals set by Instagram influencers and companies. It's also easy to continue to set the same, unmet resolutions from the past few years.

But if you fail to deconstruct the process taken to reach your goal then you’re likely to fail—and could spend a lot of unneeded money in the process.

Goal Setting Requires Honesty and Planning

When creating goals or a New Year’s resolution, the ideas of SMART goal setting and evaluating if you’re truly ready to make changes towards accomplishing your goal are both great advice. However, breaking down your thought processes based on past events should be part of your reflection and future goal setting.

For instance, if you keep taking your car to a mechanic when the same problem arises and fail to question why the issue is reoccurring, the next time your car breaks you’ll visit the mechanic, be frustrated, and have spent a lot of money in the process (sound familiar, diet culture?).

Yet if you ask why the same issue is reoccurring, honestly reflect on the situation, and activate preventative methods to maintain your car’s health, you may reduce the need to visit with the mechanic.

Enter Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)?

Having a Master of Science degree in behavior change, one of the counseling methods I use with athletes is CBT. Our brains have a lot of work to do, so they rely on past events to make future, identical decision-making situations easier—nearly automatic.

CBT has two noticeable stages—the typical A leads to B route:

  1. Event.

  2. Outcome.

The non-noticeable stage that we seem to breeze over involves the thoughts and feelings we have that lead us to a certain outcome.

CBT then becomes three stages (refer to the below figure):

  1. Event: I’m hungry.

  2. Thoughts/Feelings: The feeling of hunger is unsettling. If I don’t eat something soon I’m going to have a headache. I'm starving. I can’t stop thinking about food.

  3. Outcome: I’m eating lunch.

In the CBT model, you need to stop, think, and be mindful—and honest with yourself—surrounding all factors contributing to a decision that you're trying to make.

CBT involves challenging and changing your automatic thoughts/feelings, so that your preferred outcome is more likely to occur.

CBT includes three stages. The middle stage (thoughts/feelings) is what we tend to ignore, which speeds up the process of decision making.

Applying CBT: Eating Less Junk Food*

*Whatever this may mean to you.

For this example, let's break CBT down into three main steps.

Step 1 – Use history to highlight your weak spots regarding junk food consumption:

In the past year/month/week, write down any time junk foods were consumed. Examples could be easy access to the food, skipping meals and becoming too hungry, ignoring hunger signals until it was too late, feeling sad, or the food present at social events.

Some athletes may have no clue, and that’s OK—that’s the brain making quick decisions and the athlete remaining passive about the process. Before completing step 1, they may need to begin with a 3-day food record that includes each snack or meal consumed; the time of day; thoughts and feelings before, during, and after eating; and how hungry or full they were before and after eating. The food record can help highlight when junk foods were consumed, and hints as to why they were consumed (e.g., feeling lonely on Friday nights and ordering an unhealthful delivery meal).

Step 2 – What thoughts and feelings are historically associated with consuming “junk foods”?

Be honest with yourself: How do you typically feel? What thoughts run through your head?

  • Before indulging, you may feel excited, anxious, or ravenous. You may be hyper-focused on eating junk food to the point where it has overcome you.

  • While indulging, you may feel euphoric or rebellious. You may begin thinking about how poorly you'll feel—both mentally and physically—after the fact.

  • After indulging, you may feel happy, bloated, or upset with yourself. You then convince yourself to commit to only eating salad for the next week or swearing off eating—regardless of any true hunger you may feel—until tomorrow morning.

Record these thoughts/feelings. You'll need them for step 4.

Step 3 – Challenge your thoughts:

Eventually, you’re bound to be in the situations you listed in step 1. Now, think about what realistic lines of thinking you can instill that lead to your goal of eating fewer junk foods (i.e., the middle thoughts/feelings stage in the CBT model).

You need to make a plan for when those weak spots pop up. Creating a plan to reduce the likelihood of the thoughts/feelings listed in step 2 can make the outcome goal more likely. Your plan, then, is to list new thoughts/feelings that you deem helpful to reach your goal (i.e., disrupting your automatic thoughts/feelings).

Willpower is not a muscle that can be constantly flexed.

Step 4 – Draw out two CBT triangles on the same page (refer to the below figure):

The first will be your automatic, or past, decision making process (step 1). List any associated thoughts/feelings you typically have (step 2).

The second will be your new line of thinking. If you’re aware of how not eating junk food feels, add those in, too.

For both triangles, the more honest, reflective detail you can provide, the deeper you dig, and the better prepared you will handle this event when it occurs in the future.

Comparison of old versus new lines of thinking for an identical event.

Note the changes in thoughts/feelings and outcome.

In the above example, reducing the severity of the extreme hunger (the event) felt would be a great place to start. When we feel famished, our brain becomes more aggressive and our hunger signals more severe (i.e., you're not likely to choose a salad over licorice).

Other examples may stem solely in the thoughts/feelings, since you're not going to turn down all social gatherings (the event) that could potentially include unhealthful foods. This situation involves creating helpful thoughts/feelings that will allow you to meet your goal (the outcome).

CBT Evolves and So Should Your Plan of Action

Granted, CBT is individualized and will change as you progress (or regress) with time. Reshuffling thoughts/feelings is expected as you continue to mindfully and honestly reflect on the event leading to an outcome.

Further Resources

Anxiety sounds heavy, but nutrition is commonly an outlet for negative thinking. I also like how the workbook's examples are unrelated to nutrition, which can be eye opening as to where your thoughts/feelings are truly coming from when nutrition is the outlet.

The Appetite Awareness Workbook” by Linda W. Craighead, PhD.

This workbook combines CBT with appetite awareness training, the latter of which is a clinically proven method for the treatment of bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder.


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