With the New Year approaching, many people look to it as a new beginning. It’s a time when people are setting resolutions to change. The most common resolutions tend to be health-related, such as exercising more, losing weight or eating a healthier diet. The challenge is, changing one’s behaviour is hard. 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 providing 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.
Goal setting doesn’t need to be a convoluted process either. We set goals all the time, from targeting a certain grade in your class to that dream vacation to buying a house. These goals can motivate changes in behaviour, such as studying more or saving money. But we’re not always successful in meeting our goals, and some of that has to do with the goal itself. So to get you started on your New Year’s resolution, here’s a plan you can use when setting your new goals.
One of the most used strategies for goal setting is the SMART principle: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely.
Specific means the goal is clear and focused. A goal of wanting to exercise more or eat healthier is worthwhile, but it’s not specific in what that looks like. Having a specific goal is important when it comes to creating lifelong habits such as more exercise or eating healthier. What does it look like to exercise more? A goal of exercising three times per week for 30 minutes each time is clear and specific. The more specific your goal, the more direction it provides in your planning and what is needed to get there.
However, you may choose a goal that isn’t a behaviour itself, but requires you to change behaviours in order to accomplish it. Think of saving to buy a house. Your goal is to buy the house but in order to do that, you need to change your money saving habits. Similarly, a goal of completing your first 5 km fun run or lowering your blood sugar to a specific target can give lead to be more active and healthier eating.
Being measurable means you can assess how well you’re progressing towards your goal and when you’ve achieved it. A goal of eating healthier is hard to measure, making it difficult to determine when you’ve actually completed the goal. Whereas a goal of eating three fruits and three vegetables a day can be easily measured.
Having a measurable goal also makes it easier to track your progress. You can measure how far you go on your walks or runs, or check your blood sugar. If your goal is to quit smoking, you can measure your progress by how many fewer cigarettes your smoking. Tracking your progress doesn’t need to be complicated either. You can use a simple diary or calendar to write things down, or you can use one of many apps or wearable devices. Tracking progress may help you achieve your goal. People who weigh themselves are more likely to lose weight and keep it off.
You also want the goal to be attainable, which means it’s feasible and realistic for you to achieve. 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 may not be feasible. At the same time, you don’t want a goal to be too easy. If a goal is too easy, you may complete it too quickly and it won’t provide motivation. Likewise, if the goal is too challenging, it can be discouraging and you may decide to give up.
When deciding if a goal is attainable or not, draw on your past experience with other goals you’ve had. What made you successful for some and not for others? What behaviour do you need to change to achieve that goal? If you’re goal is to reduce your stress through meditation, but you don’t like meditating, that’s not going to be attainable. So in order to achieve the goal, what you need to complete your goal should also be sustainable and fit into your life.
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 you, it won’t be of any use. If you value time with friends and others, then a goal that incorporates that is more relevant to you. An excellent example is in the above of a man who begins lifting weights so he can carry his granddaughter.
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. This is totally fine. Your goal is for you, and should reflect your own personal desires and not those of 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 timeframe 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.
A timely goal also helps prioritize your days and weeks leading up to that goal. This can help you build it into your daily routine and develop strong habits. If your goal is to lose 5 pounds in the next two months, then you’ll need to plan how you achieve that accordingly. It’s not going to work to wait until the week before.
Once You’ve Got Your Goal Set
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. After writing 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 shorter-term goals or milestones along the way to help reinforce your overall goal and provide ongoing motivation. For example, quitting smoking can be a long-term goal. Having short-term goals of reducing the number of cigarettes smoked in a day can be helpful milestones to your overall goal.
Once Your Goal is Done
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 accomplished your goal and now what? Well, of course it’s time celebrate. But after that, what happens next?
Once a goal has been completed, it no longer serves as motivation. You’ve completed that fun run and now it’s time to move on to something else, or perhaps you want to make another related goal like running faster. With some goals, you may still need to put in effort to maintain them. You’ve lost those 10 pounds, which is great, but many people need to continue to work to maintain their goal weight still focusing on healthy eating and regular activity.
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).
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This post was originally published on June 6, 2018 and updated on December 16, 2020.