Harvard Health Publications

Want to make a healthy change? Start with the right goal

Posted By Annmarie Dadoly On October 3, 2011

Each year, countless people vow to get healthier: Lose five pounds. Exercise every day. Quit smoking. Unfortunately, replacing unhealthy behaviors with healthier ones usually isn’t easy, and many ambitious attempts often fall short. But you’re more likely to succeed if you start by choosing the right goal.

Choosing a goal seems simple enough. If that muffin top is bothering you, you should plan to lose those extra 10 pounds, right? Not necessarily, says Dr. Edward Phillips, Director and Founder of the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine and assistant professor of the Harvard Medical School’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. If you tackle the goal you’re most likely to accomplish—rather than the goal you think you should make—you’re better able to achieve it and build up a head of steam to tackle tougher goals.

Listen to Dr. Phillips’ advice on how to make a healthy change that will last.

Simple Changes

Dr. Phillips is also the editor of Simple Changes, Big Rewards: A Practical, Easy Guide for Healthy, Happy Living, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School. The report recommends breaking goals into bite-sized pieces. Look for surefire bets. For example, instead of saying “I’m going to drink more water instead of soda,” divide your goal in this way:

  • I’ll find, or buy, a water bottle.
  • At night I’ll wash the bottle out, fill it up, and put it in the refrigerator.
  • I’ll put a sticky note on the front door to remind me to take my water with me.

From there, you can continue with other small steps—like setting up your phone to ping you with a reminder about drinking water or taking breaks at certain times during your workday to freshen up your water. Being able to check off items will build your confidence and move you toward your ultimate goal. Making your goal a SMART one (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-based) puts it within better reach, as well. Here’s how Dr. Phillips explains it:

Simple Changes 2

Not sure if your goal passes the SMART test? Here are a few more details on setting a SMART goal from Simple Changes, Big Rewards:

S — Set a very specific goal. For example, “I will add one fruit serving—that’s half a cup, chopped—to my current daily diet.”

M — Find a way to measure progress. In the case above, “I will log my efforts each day on my calendar.”

A — Make sure it’s achievable. Be sure you’re physically capable of safely accomplishing your goal. If not, aim for a smaller goal.

R — Make sure it’s realistic. Again, choosing the change you most need to make—let’s say, quitting smoking or losing weight—isn’t as successful as choosing the change you’re most confident you’ll be able to make. Focus on a goal that is both important to you and is comfortably within your grasp. If you picture a 10-point scale of confidence in achieving your goal, where 1 equals no confidence and 10 equals 100% certainty, you should land in the 7-to-10 zone. An additional fruit serving a day is a small, manageable step toward better health.

T — Set time commitments. Pick a date and time to start—”Wednesday at breakfast, I’ll add frozen blueberries to cereal”—and regular check-in dates—”I’ll check my log every week and decide if I should make any changes in my routines to succeed.” When setting commitments, outside deadlines can be really helpful. Signing up for a charity run or a sprint triathlon on a certain date prods you to get a training program under way.

I hope these tips will set you up for success! Let us know if and how they worked for you in our comments section.

Simple Changes, Big Rewards: A Practical, Easy Guide for Healthy, Happy Living is one of more than 60 Special Health Reports available from Harvard Medical School. You can read an excerpt of the report or buy it online at www.health.harvard.edu/change.

Related Information: The Harvard Medical School 6-Week Plan for Healthy Eating

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