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


Former Editor, Harvard Health

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.


  1. Anonymous

    This is the good post..do exercise and fit eat right and sleep well….

  2. Ruth

    Great advice, and especially true if you are training for endurance events like the marathon or triathlon. I find it best to plan my training up front and then track my actual activity level daily. I am a tri-athlete and found an easy to use training log at [URL removed by moderator]

    I prefer to use a paper-based log as opposed to the online variety.

  3. Robby

    I can’t agree more whit you. You need to make your goals SMART! if you want to have a better health than you need to set good goals, and if you use the SMART method your chances to succeed will become much bigger.
    I’m from holland, for people who are Dutch can visit http://www.smartformuleren.com there you can find some information about Smart goals in dutch.

  4. Dr.Subhash Dabir

    SMART goal may get success if one works for it sincierly and determinently.

  5. Neil

    Those were really some fabulous tips from Dr. Edward Phillips. Well, if you do effective water management in your daily routine life as Dr. have said, then it is for sure that your immune system will become much more stronger and you will be prevented from various diseases. Drink plenty of water, take healthy diet and say bye-bye to medications.

    • Michael

      Start your goal with a healthy diet and exercise.
      Crash dieting is a big NO.
      Instead of frying food, opt for steamed or roasted ones instead.
      It would help if you know how to steam fish or how to roast a whole chicken, this will be the first step to healthy eating.

  6. Dave Velasco

    Most people who wants to be healthy and physically fit make their own diet plans for the whole week, avoiding foods, etc. Well, the most important part of becoming healthy is discipline. Even though how perfect or healthy your plan is, if you don’t follow it with discipline then nothing will surely happen.

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  7. Johboo


    This is a interesting Article which is all true, maybe also good to have a short term goal and a long term goal.

    Thankyou and goodluck with everything.

    • Diane

      Great article. Indeed, the right way to begin with something is to start with realistic goals. Exercise daily, eat right and sleep well! Live life to the fullest.


  8. Fran

    Great Article! It’s important to be aware so that we can improve our quality of life just by applying some small changes in our daily lives.
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  9. Gerard

    Yep! Start with a right goal, be “smart”, & start small!

  10. Margo Riddle

    Great reminders for all! Thank you!

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