An easier way to set and achieve health goals

A unique strategy for establishing personal goals helps you stay focused and on track for optimum wellness.

Published: August, 2017

Image: © cacaroot/Thinkstock

Staying engaged in life as you age is essential for your health.

"Men have spent a good deal of their earlier life focused on reaching goals, from career advancement to self-improvement," says Susan Flashner-Fineman, the Vitality 360 Wellness Coaching Program coach at Harvard-affiliated Hebrew SeniorLife. "As you get older, you may not recognize the need for accomplishments, yet they are crucial to keeping your mental and physical skills sharp. 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."

Find your purpose

Goals should revolve around a purpose in your life: What matters to you now? What is important? "Your goal has to be related to a result, or otherwise you won't do it," says Flashner-Fineman.

For instance, it's not enough to say you want to exercise more. Instead, connect this goal with a meaningful outcome. Improved strength and endurance from exercise could mean you'll have the stamina to take a cross-country trip to attend a wedding or graduation.

Have SMART goals

Once you have settled on a goal, make sure it's SMART, which stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound.

The SMART approach ensures you've defined your goals clearly and can attain them. "It also gives you accountability, which helps you stay focused and committed," says Flashner-Fineman.

Specific: Goals need to be clear and detailed. Vague goals can feel overwhelming. Don't say, "I want to be more active." Instead, say, "I will exercise 30 minutes, five days a week."

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" is a popular goal that works better with a measurable outcome, such as "I'm going to lose 15 pounds by December."

Attainable: 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 example, while learning a language can help with cognitive health, it might be better suited if you plan to visit a new country.

Time-bound: Is your goal something that you can take on right now — or is it best for later? Also, is the time frame you chosen 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.

Overcome obstacles

Many times, we talk ourselves out of goals because of obstacles or the idea that goals must be achieved in a certain way. When challenges and doubts arise, change your approach.

"If you want to learn artwork, but don't think you can because you can't see well, or can't hold a small brush, or can't attend classes, then focus on what you can do," says Flashner-Fineman.

For example, switch to another art form that's better suited to you physically, like sculpting, or create an at-home studio. "The point is that there are many paths to getting to your goal, and sometimes you have to try different routes."

Goal setting also can be a wonderful journey of self-discovery. "You might abandon your initial goal or never quite reach it, and that's just fine," says Flashner-Fineman.

"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."

Tips to stay focused

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 a reward in itself, so share your accomplishments with friends and family — in person or on social media. You also can reward yourself with purchases related to your goal, like new art supplies.

Monitor your progress. Set up daily or weekly reminders, or ask a friend or family member to check in with how you're doing.

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.

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