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How to Set Health Goals You'll Actually Accomplish
—by Christine Stirparo, RDN, CD
We all have things we want when it comes to our health: lose weight, be more fit, manage chronic diseases—the list goes on and on. But sometimes, turning that goal into a reality can be tough! We know where we’d like to end up, but getting there seems like an impossible task.
When setting new health goals, most people start off inspired and energized with a solid plan in place; they’re having salad every day, easily ignoring the donuts in the break room and happily going to the gym a couple times per week. But then the excitement starts to dwindle, and they miss a couple workouts. They start to tire of salad and look longingly at their coworker’s General Tso chicken. A new project pops up at work, requiring late nights fueled by tacos and energy drinks. Before they know it, they’re back where they started, upset with their apparent lack of willpower.
Sound familiar? The good news is it doesn’t have to be this way! Focusing on a few key steps can make all the difference.
Discover Your Ultimate Objective
I’ll be honest; eating healthy all the time isn’t always easy, even for a dietitian. Sure, at this point it’s become almost second nature for me, but I still have days when I want to throw in the towel and switch to an all-pizza diet. Eating healthy is important to me, but it’s not enough to keep me motivated all the time. What I rely on during those pizza-dreaming days are my two ultimate objectives: I don’t want to spend money unnecessarily, and I want to feel good. Both are extremely important to me and can get me back in action when my motivation starts to waver.
Being able to identify what’s most important to you gives you a safety net for your goal. For example, when a goal of losing 30 pounds is no longer motivating, you can fall back on your ultimate objective of feeling comfortable no matter what you wear.
Manage Your Expectations
Have you heard the saying it takes 21 days to form a new habit? As encouraging and straightforward as that sounds, the truth is, it can actually take up to 240 days. Still feel like packing your lunch is a chore after a couple weeks? That’s ok! Turning a new behavior into an automatic routine is supposed to take a while. Forming new habits doesn’t follow a linear path of progress; slip-ups and forgetfulness are bound to happen along the way. Give yourself permission to make some mistakes as you go and learn from them.
Consider the Cost
When it comes down to it, setting a health goal is actually the easy part. It’s easy to think about what you could do or what you want to do—who wouldn’t want to run a marathon or get 8 hours of sleep every night? The hard part is determining what you’ll need to sacrifice in order to get what you want. Before setting a goal, spend some time thinking about what you’ll need to give up to actually achieve it. Will it be time with your friends, Netflix bingeing or your coworker’s famous double chocolate brownies? Or will you be embarking on a complete lifestyle change where all your old habits and foods will be left behind?
Once you have a clear idea of what you’ll be giving up, ask yourself: Am I willing to accept this sacrifice? Your answer will give you an indication of the likelihood that you’ll accomplish this particular goal. If the costs are too high, it’s unlikely you’ll experience success. If that’s the case, you may need to hightail it back to the drawing board and come up with a goal that’s more realistic.
Plan for Bumps in the Road
Remember those mistakes and slip-ups that are bound to occur? One way to reduce their frequency and minimize their effect is to identify what could cause them to arise in the first place. Maybe your goal is to go for a walk outside every day, but you really dislike being in the rain. Here in Washington, you know there will be plenty of days when it might not be feasible for you to accomplish your goal. For those instances, it’s helpful to have a back-up plan already in place: find a treadmill with a view or a workout class that keeps you moving. When it comes to setting goals, be realistic about your lifestyle and preferences.
Assemble Your Team
Last but certainly not least is sharing your goal with others—putting it out there in the world is what makes it real. Until you let people in on what you’re up to, the only person you’ll have to be accountable to is yourself. And while that may work for some people, most of us are just terrible at holding ourselves accountable. Be honest with yourself about your limitations and find people who can help fill in the gaps. Ask them to be your cheerleaders, support systems or accountability buddies. Have people you can brainstorm with, or even vent to. Having supportive people around you will give you that extra push when you need it and could even make accomplishing your health goals a more enjoyable experience.