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The first step to healthy change

Setting the right goal is critical to getting you where you want to go
Older couple running together

When you want to start and maintain a new behaviour, it’s key to have a goal. Goals give focus and direction, providing the foundation for your plan, as well as motivation. 

Not having a goal is like getting in your car and driving with no destination; you don’t know where you’re going or how to get there.

Your goal is usually the reason for starting to exercise, beginning a new healthy eating routine or quitting smoking. With your goal in mind, you can start to plan how you will get there.

The SMART approach

A common guideline for goal setting is the SMART principle: making your goal Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely.

  • Specific means that the goal should be clear and focused. A goal of getting more exercise is less specific than a goal of wanting to exercise three times per week for 30 minutes each time. The more specific your goal, the more direction it provides in your planning.
  • A measurable goal lets you assess how well you’re progressing — and when you’ve achieved it. For the goal above, you can count the times you exercise, and measure the duration. This makes it easy to track your progress. I use a calendar to write down what I’ve done. I also include comments on how I felt. When it comes to long-term weight loss, we know that people who are successful are more likely to track their progress in some way. The same can be said for diet, exercise, sleeping habits, and many other goals.
  • You want the goal to be achievable, which means that it is feasible and realistic for you to accomplish. If a goal is too easy, or too hard for that matter, it won’t help motivate you.
  • The goal should be relevant in terms of what you enjoy and value. If you don’t like running, then a goal of completing a 10 km run is not for you. Even if you have a similar goal as someone else (many people have weight loss goals), how you go about achieving it can be vastly different and reflects your own personal desires, which is totally fine. Your goal is for you, and not anyone else.
  • The last piece is having a goal that is timely. Set a timeline for when you wish to achieve the goal. Many people who smoke want to quit, but never assign a time frame to it and then never get started. People who say they wish to quit within two months are more likely to follow through.

Once you have your goal, the next thing to do is to write it down. This is important. There’s something about writing a goal down that makes it more real; it’s like having a contract with yourself. You may even want to put it in a prominent place, like the front inside page of your diary or on the fridge.

Tell someone

Another thing you can do is tell others about your goal. This furthers the accountability in that verbalizing and sharing your goal will solidify your intentions. However, sharing your personal goals may not be for everyone.

As you develop your goal, you may realize it will take time to achieve it. That’s totally fine. Having long-term goals is great, but sometimes they may be too far in the future to seem real. In that case you may want to create a number of short-term goals or milestones along the way. For example, quitting smoking for some can be a long-term goal; having short-term goals of reducing the number of cigarettes in a day can be helpful to break down what may seem like a big overall challenge.

There’s something about writing a goal down that makes it more real.

Dr. Scott Lear

So you’ve got your goal and your plan, and you’re well on your way to achieving it. Great. Fast-forward to the future when you’ve accomplished your goal. It’s time celebrate, but what next?

On to the next

Once a goal has been completed, it no longer serves as motivation. You’ve done that 5 km run and now it’s time to move on to something else. Perhaps you want to set another related goal, like running the 5 km faster. 

With some goals, you may still need to put in effort to maintain them. You’ve lost those 10 pounds, but to maintain that goal weight you need to keep your focus on healthy eating and regular activity.

Having goals, and a plan to achieve them, is a great way to help you accomplish the things you want throughout life. The goals don’t need to be huge, just meaningful to you. 

The SMART way of goal setting can help guide you through making changes to a healthy lifestyle as well as any other goal you may have.

Dr. Scott LearDr. Scott Lear is a leading researcher in the prevention and management of heart disease. He holds the Pfizer/Heart and Stroke Foundation Chair in Cardiovascular Prevention Research at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, and he is a professor in the faculty of health sciences and the department of biomedical physiology and kinesiology at Simon Fraser University. Dr. Lear also lives with heart disease himself. Follow his blog at drscottlear.com. 

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