The trick to real and lasting lifestyle changes

Regardless of the time of year that we decide to eat better, exercise more, or be less stressed, it can be hard to make a lifestyle change, and even harder to make it stick.

But there is a way to up your chances of success.

Experts say efforts to make lifestyle changes are more likely to produce results if they are SMART — that is, specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-based. If you're thinking of making a change, see if your goal can pass the SMART test:

  1. Set a very specific goal. For example: I will add one fruit serving — that's half a cup, chopped — to my current daily diet.
  2. Find a way to measure progress. For example, I will log my efforts each day on my calendar.
  3. Make sure it's achievable. For example, don't set a goal of a daily 5 mile run if you're out of shape. If you can't safely or reasonably accomplish your goal, set a smaller, achievable one.
  4. Make sure it's realistic. It may seem counterintuitive, but 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 sure bets: 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.
  5. Set time commitments. Pick a date and time to start. For example, Wednesday at breakfast, I'll add frozen blueberries to cereal. Pick 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. Find an outside deadline that will help keep you motivated. For example, signing up for a charity run or sprint triathlon on a certain date prods you to get a training program under way.

You can make the changes necessary for a healthier, more rewarding life. The strategies offered in Simple Changes, Big Rewards, a Special Health Report from the Harvard Medical School, can help you do just that.