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Making permanent changes to your diet, exercise routine, and overall lifestyle can be challenging. While many people are able to commit for a few weeks or months to a healthier way of life, sticking with those changes in the long term is often difficult.
Maybe you’ve made some resolutions in the past that didn’t stick, and you don’t know why. Or perhaps you got started on a diet or lifestyle change that worked great for a month or two, but slowly fizzled out and left you at the same place you started with your health. Maybe you’re feeling frustrated and demotivated. If this sounds like you, it may be time to take a more constructive approach to setting goals this year.
In this article, I’m going to teach you how to effectively set goals for the new year, as well as stay on track with the goals you’ve set, so that you can achieve the health and vitality you’re seeking!
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Setting “SMART” health goals is a great way to keep yourself on track this year. SMART goals are defined as: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. Choosing goals that fit these criteria allows you to develop a clear plan of action as well as an objective measurement of success as you work towards achieving these goals.
Here are my guidelines for developing your SMART health goals for the new year:
S – Specific
One of the first things I do with my one-on-one clients is to set specific, objective health goals that we can keep track of as time goes on. Many of my clients come to me with vague goals such as “I want to learn how to eat better,” or “I want to heal my gut.” While these are nice overarching goals that will be a major part of the plan we put together, they’re not specific at all and are difficult to keep track of as time goes on.
I work with my clients to develop objective goals that describe their original vague goal in far more detail. For example, instead of setting a goal to “heal your gut”, you can set a goal of 1-2 well formed bowel movements per day. Or instead of saying your goal is to get in better shape, your goal could be to reach a specific body fat percentage range, such as 20-25% for women or 14-17% for men.
Specific goals can also be action-oriented, and it’s important to have a solid understanding of how you will reach your goal. To meet the above health goals, perhaps you have one or two action goals to go along with them, such as eating one serving of fermented foods daily, or adding in 2 sessions of HIIT training to your weekly workout routine. Knowing exactly how you will work towards your goal helps you make the necessary changes that can keep you moving in the right direction in a sustainable way.
M – Measurable
You might have noticed that the two health goals I used as an example both used numbers in them (1-2 bowel movements, exact BF% numbers). While your goals don’t absolutely need to contain a number, they should be quantifiable in some way. The reason for this is because if a goal isn’t measurable, you won’t really be able to tell if you’ve accomplished it, or even if you’re heading in the right direction.
Weight loss goals are easy to attach numbers to, but there are plenty of ways you can make your goal quantifiable. You can create action goals that have specific durations or frequencies (e.g. 15 minutes per day, three miles per week, twice a month), or you can set an outcome goal that can easily be measured (1 bowel movement per day, 7-8 hours of sleep per night, 30 grams of protein per meal, 150 pound bench press). Be sure to measure your starting point, and consider tracking these numbers over time in a journal. Yes, even bowel movement frequency can be tracked!
By having a measurable outcome or action goal, you can easily see if you are progressing, and by measuring where you’ve started, you can look back in a couple weeks or months and see how far you’ve come. I can’t tell you how many clients I’ve had that completely forgot about certain improvements in symptoms until I reminded them about where they’d started! Knowing how far you’ve come can help you keep track, and alternatively, if you see that you’re making no progress (or even getting further from your goal), you can change course and adjust your daily behaviors as necessary to get you moving in the right direction.
A – Attainable
There is a fine line between a goal that is attainable and not attainable, and it’s good to set goals that are challenging but not impossible to accomplish. “Shooting for the stars” is a romantic idea but when it comes to achieving your goals, it’s better to start with something that you’re confident about being able to achieve. The goal needs to be realistic.
Sometimes it helps to get a second opinion about your goal to make sure you’re not setting yourself up for failure. For example, with my weight loss clients, I take several factors into account when helping them decide on a goal weight (if that’s even a priority), including their weight history, age, gender, medical issues, and personal preferences. While there are standard “ideal weights” that can be calculated, I find that most people are better off setting goal weights that make sense for them and that won’t leave them feeling disappointed if they can’t achieve the goal.
If I have a client who has been 100 pounds overweight their whole adult life, I’m happy to set an ideal weight goal that is 20 pounds heavier than their calculated “ideal”, as this is likely far more attainable and possibly even a healthier goal based on their history of weight struggles. That way, they have a good chance of achieving the outcome even if it takes a long time, which prevents future disappointment and feelings of failure if the ultimate goal isn’t accomplished.
This doesn’t just go for weight loss. Any goal you set must be reasonably attainable, even if it’s a challenging goal to reach. Perhaps running a 10K would be a challenging but doable fitness goal for you, whereas running an ultramarathon would not. Be realistic about your abilities, but also believe in yourself so that you are not selling yourself short and settling for easily achieved goals. And remember, you can always set a bigger goal after you’ve accomplished the first goal you set, so err on the side of being more realistic.
R – Relevant
In order to maintain your focus and dedication, you need to choose a goal that really matters to you. When you identify goals that are most important to you, you begin to figure out ways you can make them come true. You also will be much more likely to do the work it requires to reach a goal that is really important to you.
This may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many times I’ve had a client who started out thinking they wanted one thing, and realizing along the way that their goal wasn’t that important to them. Weight loss is one of those goals that comes to mind, especially when it’s weight loss for aesthetic reasons (e.g. the “look good naked” weight) as opposed to health. It can be tough to motivate yourself to “lose the last 10 pounds” if you don’t really feel that passionate about achieving that goal. So make sure your goals are relevant to your values, desires, and even your dreams.
Your action goals also need to be results oriented, or relevant to the ultimate health goal you’ve set for yourself. For example, if your goal is better digestion, it doesn’t make sense to set an action goal of running 10 miles per week. A more “relevant” action goal would be to commit to using digestive bitters before every meal for 30 days. Whatever your action goal is, there should be clear evidence that this action would move you towards your ultimate outcome goal.
And remember, this goal needs to be relevant and important to YOU. Not anyone else. Never set a goal that is intended to please someone else or meet their expectations. Not only is it difficult to stay motivated when you’re working to make someone else happy, but even if you achieve the goal you won’t feel as good about accomplishing it. And it may even go against your better judgement if it’s something someone else wants you to do. I’m picking on weight loss again, but if someone else wants you to lose weight and you are completely happy with your body, you shouldn’t set a weight loss goal, especially if that weight loss has more to do with your looks than your health.
Be very clear about what you want to accomplish and why you want to accomplish it. Consider sitting down for 20-30 minutes and writing down all the reasons you want to accomplish the goal you’re planning on setting. Not only can that help motivate you as you get started, but it can also provide clarity about whether or not the goal is even worth setting in the first place!
T – Time-Bound
There are many different ways to ground your goals within a specific time frame. For example, you can give them a target date that you want a goal to happen by. You can also break the goal into time-based steps. For example, what do you want to see happen 1 week from now? What about 1 month from now? Or 1 year from now? Setting smaller step-by-step goals across a defined period of time can help keep you motivated with small “wins” and will allow you to evaluate your progress to the greater goal.
You need to consider the other SMART aspects of the goal when setting a specific date – for example, if you want to lose 30 pounds in 4 weeks because your 20 year high school reunion is happening on that date, the lack of attainability trumps the relevance, specificity, measurability, and timing for that goal. So always keep in mind whether the time frame allows you to still have a goal that is attainable!
You can also use time as a recurring event when setting an action goal. For example, maybe your goal is to attend a yoga class every Friday for the next 6 months. Not only do you have a duration of the goal (6 months) but you have a specific day of the week (Friday) that your action goal takes place on. Heck, you can even get more detailed and say that you’ll attend the 7:00 AM class that day too – the more detailed you are with the time parameter, the easier it will be to determine if you’re sticking to the plan.
After you’ve set your SMART goals, identify if self-sabotage or self-destructive habits are holding you back. All of us are prone to self-destructive behaviors from time to time, if not on a regular basis. No one is perfect! But some people are more prone than others to struggling with self-discipline and behavior change.
You don’t have to have superhuman willpower to stick to your goals over the long run. This fantastic article by Zenhabits will give you nine solid tips for not only making long-term changes, but also cultivating both a mindset and an external environment that will help keep you on track for the long haul.
Support from family and friends can also help you stay focused and motivated over time. Accepting help from those who care about you and will listen strengthens your resilience and commitment. Tell those who care about you that you’ve made plans to change, and ask for their support and encouragement along the way.
Don’t Give Up!
Making the changes that you want takes time and commitment, but you can do it! Just remember that no one is perfect – not even those of us who teach others how to be healthy. Expect to have occasional hiccups along your journey. Be kind to yourself and stay positive.
When you eat a brownie or skip a workout, don’t give up or consider yourself a failure. Minor missteps and detours on the road to reaching your health goals are normal and okay. Simply resolve to accept the decision you’ve made and get back on track as soon as possible. Most importantly, believe in yourself and your ability to make these changes.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the thought of changing your health as a New Years Resolution, instead of panicking or giving up, get help! Working with a nutritionist, health coach, psychologist, or other health professional can make a huge difference in your ability to stay on track with your goals. The guidance, empathy, and accountability you can get from a health professional may be the missing piece that takes you to the next level in your health and wellness this year.
Here’s your chance to practice setting achievable goals: Share one of your goals for the new year in the comments below, and write the goal in a way that follows the SMART format. I’ll give feedback to everyone that writes their goal here, to help make sure you’re hitting all 5 of the SMART goal parameters.
Don’t be bashful – now’s the time to publicly commit yourself to some big changes! (And let’s support and encourage each other too!)