One of the biggest challenges in adopting a healthier lifestyle is just getting started. Often this is because people feel they need to adopt significant, wholesale changes to their current lifestyle to see any improvement. This is unsurprising given that wellness programs, particularly those for weight loss, demand unwavering commitment (for example, adhering to a strict diet or following a specific exercise regimen) for at least several weeks if not months. But the key to adopting new and long-lasting behavior changes is to start small and think S.M.A.R.T. Research shows that people are more likely to adopt and stick with behavior changes if they set smaller, clearly identifiable goals that feel within their reach.
So, how do you set S.M.A.R.T. goals?
Specific – identify exactly what steps will be taken, how often these changes will be implemented, and for how long the behavior change will be implemented. For example, rather than striving to be more mindful, set a goal of meditating first thing in the morning for two days per week. This way, you have a clear idea of what you are trying to accomplish in the immediate future.
Measurable – choose quantifiable goals that make it easy to know when you have succeeded. For example, rather than deciding to exercise more, commit to working out three times per week for at least 30 minutes each session. If you manage three 30-minute workouts, you know you have met your goal for the week.
Achievable – goals should be challenging while still being realistic. Meeting one’s expectations helps build confidence while failure to accomplish goals, even clearly unrealistic goals, decreases motivation and self-efficacy. For example, if you often work late, rather than striving to cook dinner each evening (which is unlikely to happen), set a goal of identifying and ordering healthier options from nearby restaurants.
Relevant – your goals should reflect your individual values, build on your proven strengths, and guide you towards your personal vision of success. Like setting achievable goals, relevant goals will help build motivation and confidence better than adopting someone else’s idea of wellness. If you love to learn, plan to read about the behavior change first to understand how it will help you. If you enjoy meeting new people (like I do!), incorporate a social element into your goal like taking a group fitness class.
Time-bound – set short-term goals and evaluate your progress regularly. If you are struggling, it may be that the goal is inappropriate for your current circumstances (life happens). But, quickly assessing the situation and brainstorming a new course of action can prevent a loss of motivation and feeling of defeat. Setting short-term goals also helps eliminate some of the fear of committing to a plan – trying to go to bed by 10:00pm on three nights per week for the next week sounds more manageable than setting a goal of going to bed early every day for the next month, doesn’t it?*
Here’s a quick checklist to help you set S.M.A.R.T. goals for yourself:
What is it you want to accomplish with respect to your health (think big picture here)?
What can you do this week to help start you off on that journey?
How often do you plan to do this each week?
Do you have the resources (time, equipment) to do this?
Does taking these next steps feel important to you?
After how many days or weeks will you evaluate your progress?
By breaking down your big picture objective into smaller, action-oriented next steps, daunting lifestyle changes become manageable short-term experiments in finding what works for you. So, instead of thinking about where you want to be next year, try starting with where you want to be next week!
*Source: Mayo Clinic Wellness Coaching Training Course.