A key element of starting, and maintaining, a new behaviour is to have a goal. Goals give focus and direction providing the foundation for your plan, as well as motivation. Not having a goal is like getting in your car and driving with no destination; you don’t know where you’re going or how to get there.

Your goal is usually the reason for starting to exercise, beginning a new healthy eating routine or quitting smoking . It may also be one of the pros (benefits) of the new behaviour as discussed in my previous blog. With your goal in mind, you can start to plan how you will get there.

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A common guideline for goal setting are the SMART principles: Specific, Measurable, Acheivable, Relevant and Timely.

Specific means that the goal should be clear and focused. A goal of wanting to exercise isn’t as specific as having a goal of wanting to exercise three times per week for 30 minutes each time. The more specific your goal, the more direction it provides in your planning.

Being measurable means you can assess how well you’re progressing towards your goal and when you’ve achieved it. For the goal above, you can measure the number of times exercising, as well as the duration. This makes it easy to track your progress and you might do this with a simple diary or using one of the many wearable devices that can monitor physical activity.

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For me, I have a calendar I write down what I’ve done. I also include comments on how I felt if things didn’t go as well or if I was away or sick. When it comes to long-term weight loss, we know that people who are successful are more likely to track their progress in some way. The same can be said for diet, exercise, sleeping habits, and many other goals.

You also want the goal to be achievable, which means that it is feasible and realistic for you to accomplish. Your goal can be specific and measurable such as wanting to run a marathon under 2 hours and 30 minutes, but for many of us, that goal may not be feasible. At the same time, you don’t want a goal to be too easy. If a goal is too easy, or too hard for that matter, it won’t help motivate you.

The goal should be relevant to you as a person in terms of what you enjoy and value. You may know people with great goals who have an awesome plan to attain them, but if their goal isn’t relevant to your life, it won’t be of any use. If you don’t like running, then a goal of completing a 10 km run is not for you. Even if you have a similar goal as someone else (many people have weight loss goals), how you go about achieving it can be vastly different and reflects your own personal desires, which is totally fine. Your goal is for you, and not anyone else.

The last piece is having a goal that is timely. This means that you have set a timeline for when you wish to achieve the goal. Many people who smoke have a goal of wanting to quit, but never assign a time frame to it and then never get started. While those people who say they wish to quit within two months, are more likely to follow through. This also ties into ensuring your goal is measurable.

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Once you have your goal, the next thing to do is to write it down. This is important. There’s something about writing a goal down that makes it more real; it’s like having a contract with yourself. Once you’ve written it down, you may want to put it in a prominent place, like the front inside page of your diary or post it on the fridge. This way you keep the goal in the forefront of your mind.

Another thing you can do is tell others about your goal. This furthers the accountability in that verbalizing and sharing your goal will solidify your intentions. However, sharing one’s personal goals may not be for everyone.

As you develop your goal, you may realize it will take time to achieve it. That’s totally fine. Having long-term goals is great, but sometimes they may be too far in the future to seem real. In that case you may want to create a number of short-term goals or milestones along the way to help reinforce your overall goal and provide ongoing motivation. For example, quitting smoking for some can be a long-term goal, having short-term goals of reducing the number of cigarettes smoked in a day can be helpful to breakdown what may seem like a big overall goal.

you did it

So you’ve got your goal and your plan, and your well on your way to achieving it. Great. Fast-forward to the future when you’ve accomplished your goal and now what? Well, of course it’s time celebrate but what next?

Once a goal has been completed, it no longer serves as motivation. You’ve completed that 5 km run and now it’s time to move on to something else, or perhaps you want to make another related goal like running the 5 km faster. With some goals, you may still need to put in effort to maintain them. You’ve lost those 10 pounds, but need to continue to work to maintain that goal weight continuing to focus on healthy eating and regular activity. For these types of goals, this is where the planning and maintenance phase of the Stages of Change comes in.

Having goals, and a plan to achieve them, is a great way to help you accomplish the things you want throughout life. The goals don’t need to be huge or over-the-top but just need to be meaningful to you. The SMART way of goal setting can help guide you through making changes to a healthy lifestyle as well as any other goal you may have (a new job, buying a home, getting a degree).

Next week I’ll discuss how failure is an important part of success.