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Harvard Health Blog
Get SMART about your goals to stay focused and on track at any age
When you were younger, life revolved around goals: college degree, new job, traveling to a foreign country, running a marathon. Having your eyes (and mind) on a prize kept you motivated and engaged.
But as you age that focus tends to wane. What's left to accomplish? Is it even worth striving for something anymore? Yet you need goals as you age more than ever.
"Goals are crucial to keeping your mental and physical skills sharp," says Susan Flashner-Fineman, a coach at the Vitality 360 Wellness Coaching Program at Harvard-affiliated Hebrew SeniorLife. "You want your remaining years to be good ones, so what do you want them to look like? Goal setting can help you get there."
A good way to establish new goals is to make them SMART, which stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely. The SMART approach ensures you've defined your goals clearly and can attain them. Here is how it breaks down.
- Specific: Goals need to be clear, detailed, and connected to a meaningful outcome. Instead of "I want to be more active," try, "I will exercise 30 minutes, five days a week so I can have the strength and stamina to travel to a new country."
- Measurable: If you have no way to measure a goal, it's tough to know when you've met it. "I'm going to lose weight" works better with a measurable outcome, such as "I'm going to lose 15 pounds by my birthday in three months."
- Achievable: Avoid overly grand goals. "They should be based on what you realistically can do now, and not when you were younger," says Flashner-Fineman. "If you used to be able to walk five miles without fatigue and now can only do a mile, lower your expectations with a goal of walking three miles without fatigue."
- Relevant: Is your goal important to your life right now? "You don't want to set goals just to have a goal," says Flashner-Fineman. "It needs to have a purpose, or you may find it difficult to stick with." For instance, do you want to learn a language because it sounds fun, or do you want to connect with your family's history or improve your cognitive health?
- Timely: Is your goal something that you can take on right now — or is it best for later? Also, is the time frame suitable? You probably won't be able to safely lose 20 pounds in three weeks or master a new skill in a few months. Make sure you give yourself adequate time.
Goal setting also can be a wonderful journey of self-discovery, says Flashner-Fineman. "You might abandon your initial goal or never quite reach it, and that's just fine. Consider it a learning experience, and try again. Or you may realize that it wasn't what you really wanted to do and venture into a new direction."
4 goal-setting tips
- Break big goals into smaller ones. They won't feel so daunting, and you'll be able to celebrate success along the way. For example, if you want to write your memoirs, focus first on attending a writing class or researching your family history.
- Reward yourself. Positive feedback is itself a reward, so share your accomplishments with friends and family or reward yourself with purchases related to your goal.
- Change your approach to challenges. For instance, if you want to learn to paint, but don't think you can because you can't see well, or can't hold a small brush, then perhaps switch to another art form that's better suited to you physically, like sculpting.
- Use visual reminders. Keep a photo related to your goal in constant view, like a vacation destination or the sign-up form for a 5K race.
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles.
No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
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