That said, setting goals can sometimes be a trickier prospect than you think. Here's what I've learned:
They have to be reasonable and attainable
This was actually the hardest lesson for me. I don't like being reasonable. If I want to do something, my default setting is balls to the wall, take no prisoners. This might work when it involves staying up to three in the morning trying to make some kind of ridiculous word count, but the sad truth is your body is not a well-oiled machine that can take that kind of abuse right out of the gate. Physical limitations exist, and there's not a lot we can do about it as mere mortals. As much as that pisses me off on occasion.
So how do you make a reasonable, attainable goal? That's something you have to learn over time, since your rate of improvement is going to be different from mine. We've all got different walls we have to get past, different challenges when it comes to getting this thing done.
What I can suggest is start slow. Give yourself a short-term goal that isn't too far ahead of where you are currently. If you hit that goal easily and early, crank it up next time. Keep doing that until you figure out what amounts to challenging, but not impossible.
They can't be too easy, either
You might as well just pat yourself on the ass and have done with it, really.
Have more than one goal, with different time spans
I like having a bunch of short term goals, where I set a new one as soon as I knock the previous one down. But I also like having a long-term goal. For running, my current long-term goal is to run a 5k, because how cool would that be?
Short term goals normally last a week or two, and I tend to go for distance - I want to run four miles three times a week, for example. Short term goals should be things that ratchet up slowly, each one just a little tougher than the last. And ultimately, all those short term goals should add up to get you to your long term goal.
Mostly, it should just be the warm feeling of 'fuck yeah' when you hit a goal and get to set a new one. Because that means you're working hard and getting somewhere. But I also think that when you hit some kind of milestone, or hit a major goal, you should reward yourself.
The reward is up to you. You know what kind of treat will motivate you to keep pushing even when your muscles are burning and you just want to lay down under a tree and die. Make it a fun thing that you normally don't get to do, a break in your routine. Go see a movie, pick up some new running music, or get that video game you've been needing an excuse to buy. Heck, go to the pet store and look at the kittens if that's enough to keep you going. The last major goal I hit, I bought a Kinect for the Xbox so I could play dance games.
Two things I'd add:
1) Don't reward yourself with time off. You want this to be a routine, and it should also be fun. Hitting a goal so you can have a day off of doing this awful, agonizing thing probably means you need to find something more fun to do.
2) Personally, I prefer not to make food into a reward. I've already got an unhealthy enough relationship with what I eat. I've been trying to make food into a normal thing, not an obsession, and promising myself a chocolate bar or ice cream really doesn't help that. If you don't have my food issues, though, and having a pint of Americone Dream waiting for you at the end of a major run keeps you going, more power to you.
Make like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle
Once you've hit a certain point of Fit Fat Nerdness that's currently beyond where I'm at, you can probably chuck this one out of the window if you want. But generally for running (or bike rides) I like to pick either a set time or a set distance to make, not both. I don't like picking a hard number for how fast I have to be, since that can mean pushing yourself a lot harder than you necessarily should. Be as fast as you are and call it good.
By preference, I like setting distance goals and just letting the time be whatever it's going to be. Rest assured, as you hit the same distance over and over again, you will eventually get faster.
For goodness sake, don't make it a weight
There is a lot I could say about the entire weight issue in terms of fitness, and even more in terms of diet. And I plan to, at length, some day soon once my rantypants get back from the cleaners. Considering I'm already 900 words into this, I'm going to keep it simple here.
1) You should be doing this because you want to be fit. That is not the same thing as your weight equaling a particular number. Ever. Full stop. Done. Discussion over.
2) If you are losing weight - and it's honestly likely you will if you go from being a couch surfer to someone that partakes in regular exercise - your weight loss will not be constant, or predictable. For the first 10% or so of your body weight it'll likely fall away pretty fast. After that, it gets a lot more squirrely, and trying to set your sights on an unpredictable number that changes throughout the day is the path to madness.
3) Your actual weight is not going to say anything about how much you've progressed as a runner, biker, or whatever. Being able to, say, hit five miles without stopping will.
4) When you miss a goal, you should shrug, maybe frown a little, and move on, ready to try again. If you're concerned enough about your weight that you're even thinking making goals about it, I sincerely doubt that missing a weight goal will be something you can just shrug over and go on with your day. I've been there. It's crushing, depressing, and a lot of other very unhappy verbs. This is supposed to be fun, not a way for you to destroy your own self esteem.
The most important thing: Don't torture yourself
Because hey kids, torture isn't fun. All of this is supposed to ultimately help you. So if you're the type that gets down about goals when you miss them, toss all this advice out the window and move on to something more useful.
Consider it a corollary to Wheaton's Law: Don't be a dick. That also means don't be a dick to yourself.
Hi, I'm Rachael. I'm a fat nerd. I also run 3-4 miles a day and have done kung fu for eight years. I'm not writing this because I want to be some kind of fitness guru. Hell no, that would be ridiculous. I'm writing this because I've got a lot of friends that struggle with the [metaphorical] Fitness Demon and I'm hoping my experience might make things a little easier for them. I'm also writing this because it's a lot of stuff I wish someone had told me, back when I was making attempt after unsuccessful attempt to get into this exercise thing. If it helps you out, great.