Creating Long-Term Habits: Goal Setting in 7 Steps

This post has been peer-reviewed by Dr Lynne Johnston (Registered Principal Clinical Psychologist, member of the Motivational Interviewing Network of Trainers (MINT), PhD in Exercise Science, Doctorate in Clinical Psychology). You can find out more about Lynne and her company ‘Halley Johnston Associates Limited’ here.


Whilst the goal setting approach may not suit everybody, for others it can be a very helpful step in providing structure and guidance when thinking about making changes.

Remember that it is important to be in a healthy mindset about making changes before starting to set goals (as outlined in the first blog of this series). Making successful changes is also an individual process; so it’s best to think about how these suggestions might apply to you, then adapt any relevant points as needed. You could also ask your doctor to refer you to a Dietitian for individually tailored coaching.

At the end of this post you can download a Free Dietetically Speaking Goal Setting Sheet which you can fill in yourself to help you to get started!

Step 1: Think about the ‘Why’

Before setting any goals it is important to think about why it is important to you to make changes to your lifestyle. Writing a list of specific reasons for change can be motivating and can also help you to prioritise which areas are the most important to you, and the reasons for this. When writing this list it can be helpful to picture yourself in a few years (e.g. in 5 years time or on your 40th birthday etc), how might things be for you if you did make some changes and how might they be if you didn’t? How would it feel to be the healthiest version of you and why might this be important to you? How do these reasons for change link to your own values (e.g. health, independence, family life etc.)?

For example:

Why making healthy changes are important to me?
  • Giving myself the best chance of staying healthy for as long as possible
  • Being able to run around with my children
  • Feeling good about myself
  • Having more energy
  • Getting fit

Step 2: Choose Your Goals

Once you have thought about what motivates you to make changes, you can then start to think about some specific areas to focus on, and then prioritise these. It is important to take it one step at a time rather than overwhelming yourself with a complete lifestyle overhaul in one go. It is usually more realistic and motivating to choose 1-3 things to focus on at a time; in fact just starting with one change per week is often a good idea. Once you are achieving this goal, you can then build on this gradually by adding to the same goal (eg. increase from 15 minutes to 30 minutes of activity per day) or by adding in new goals.

For example:

Which three changes are the most important to me? Why are these important to me?
  1. Exercising more
To become fitter and not get out of breath so easily in my day to day life.
  1. Eating more vegetables
To improve my overall health.
  1. Controlling night time snacking
I feel bad afterwards and I eat more too many unhealthy snacks at this time.

Then prioritise one goal:

What one change will I focus on first?
Eating more vegetables

Further tips when choosing goals:

  • Short, medium and long-term goals: The amount of time it takes to achieve a goal can vary quite a bit depending on whether it is a short term goal (e.g. exercising on 4 days next week), a medium term goal (e.g. complete the ‘couch to 5k’ programme within the next 3 months), or a longer term goal (e.g. run a half marathon within the next 2 years). A good approach is to focus mainly on how we achieve something (i.e. process goals), while still keeping an eye on what we achieve (i.e. outcome goals). Process goals are usually short term goals which are within your power to achieve, such as walking for 20 minutes every day, whereas an outcome goal is a longer-term goal which we have less control over, such as reducing your blood pressure.
  • Focus on positive changes: Framing your goals in a positive way is often more motivating in the long-run as your focus is on positive action rather than restriction. For example, positive goals would be: ‘eat more vegetables’, ‘drink more water’ or ‘move more’ rather than negative goals such as: ‘eat less chocolate’ or ‘snack less’.
  • A ‘whole lifestyle’ approach: Remember to think about the big picture of your lifestyle rather than just focusing on your weight or a specific ‘diet’. This can include: getting more active, getting more sleep, relaxing more, quitting smoking or spending more time with your family etc.
  • Physical activity advice: when planning physical activity goals it is good to bear in mind that adults should aim for a minimum of 30mins of moderate physical activity (such as cycling or brisk walking) every week, and strengthening exercises (such as yoga or lifting weights) on two or more days a week (see here for more information about physical activity). Depending on your current activity levels this might be a longer term goal to work towards, or it can help to break it up into achievable time slots, such as 10 minutes of exercise three times per day (see my post Things That Motivate Me to Exercise for tips for getting into a regular exercise routine).
  • Become a creature of habit: We are usually more likely to make a long-term change if we can incorporate this into our daily or weekly routine. For example: walking or cycling to work or doing a gym class on the way home from work every Monday and Wednesday etc. To form an automatic habit it is good to doing something at the same time each day; for example: 15mins of exercise after you brush your teeth in the morning, or as the first thing you do when you get in the door from work (for more tips see: How to Exercise Regularly Even if You Lack Discipline).

Step 3: Make Your Goals SMART

Now that you have chosen one change to focus on it is a good idea to write this down as a clearly defined SMART goal.

For example, instead of ‘eat more vegetables’ a SMART goal would be:


S Specific (i.e. what, why, and how) Fill half of my plate with vegetables at dinner time at least 4 times per week
M Measurable (i.e. specify amounts, something you can track) Half a dinner plate, 4 times per week
A Attainable (i.e. realistic and achievable) 4 times per week may be more realistic than every night when starting out
R Rewarding (i.e. stated positively) Eating more veg is a positive statement compared to focusing on restriction e.g. “eat less chips” (etc)
T Time-bound (i.e. choose a time-frame or end-point) Aim to achieve this goal on 4 days by the end of the week

For more information about SMART goals see here.  

Step 4: Plan to Succeed!

Now that you know what you are focusing on, it is crucial that you do some planning to help you achieve this goal and to ‘make the healthy choice the easy choice’.

This might include: batch cooking so that there are healthy meals available during the week, not having many tempting options in the house, preparing healthy snacks that you can bring to work, planning which exercise classes you will go to during the week etc.

Here is an example based on the above SMART goal:

What will I need to plan/prepare to help me reach my goal?
  • Plan meals for the week at the weekend
  • Make sure I buy all the veg and salad I need when shopping
  • Keep frozen veg as a back-up
  • Order a side salad along with my meal when I eat out on Thursday

For tips on staying healthy and meal planning see:

For recipe ideas see:

Step 5: Track Your Progress 

It can be motivating to monitor how your weekly goals are going by writing these down in a notebook or on a whiteboard; using or making a progress chart can work particularly well. There are also apps which can track eating and exercise goals such as: MyFitnessPal, Fooducate, Freeletics, Runtastic; and the UK based Couch to 5K and Drinkaware Alcohol Tracker. If you decide to monitor your goals it is important to congratulate yourself for every positive action that you do, but not to be too harsh or strict with yourself if you don’t quite reach your goal (see previous blog post for more tips on maintaining a healthy mindset to create long-term habits).

Here is an example of a progress chart:

M T W T F S S Total:
SMART Goal 1:

Fill half of my plate with vegetables at dinner time at least 4 times per week

X X X 4 times

Achieved goal! 🙂

SMART Goal 2:

Walk for 30 minutes at least 5 times per week

X 6 times

Exceeded goal! 🙂

For more information about health apps see here

Step 6: Managing Potential Slip-ups

We all have setbacks from time to time when we don’t manage to reach our goals, above all else it is important to maintain a healthy mindset about making changes and not to dwell on the negative (see the first blog post of this series). But to minimise the risk of having a slip-up it can be useful to plan ahead before you start making changes, or at any stage in the process, in case there are specific barriers that you can be prepared for. The most important part of this process is thinking of solutions to these barriers, so it’s best to write down things which you have some control over.

For example:

What might get in the way of my SMART goals: Possible solutions:
Feeling tired
  • Getting into a good sleep routine
  • Planning realistic changes
  • Relaxing and managing stress
Comfort eating
  • Ensuring I eat enough at meal times
  • Plan healthy snacks
  • Occupying myself when I feel the urge to comfort eat if I am not hungry (e.g. draw, go for a walk, clean up etc)
Lack of time
  • Plan and prepare at the weekend
  • Focus on small, realistic goals
  • Incorporate changes into my lifestyle (e.g. walk to work, take the stairs)
  • Find some quick healthy recipes to make

When a ‘slip-up’ has occurred you can also view this as an opportunity to learn from, to reduce the risk of this happening again.

For example, it can be helpful to think about what happened before and after the event by using an ABC approach:


A Antecedents (i.e. triggers) e.g. feeling tired or emotional, leaving a long gap between meals
B Behaviour (i.e. what happened) e.g. ate a full packet of biscuits really quickly
C Consequences e.g. feeling guilty/shameful, feeling uncomfortably full, being grumpy with your family

Step 7: Recognise Your Success!

An important part of the goal setting journey is congratulating yourself when you have achieved a goal. This is because feeling good about what you have achieved is likely to encourage you to continue with your new habits as well as continuing to set and work towards goals overall. So my all means give yourself a pat on the back! See Creating Long-Term Habits: A Healthy Mindset for more information about this.

 

For more information on creating long-term habits check out:

Creating Long-Term Habits: A Healthy Mindset 

Creating Long-Term Habits: 10 Tips for Healthy Eating

Don’t Forget to Download your FREE Goal Setting Sheet Below!

 


Disclaimer: I am not a psychologist but have been lucky to have worked with and received training from some excellent clinical psychologists in relation to behaviour change. This post reflects my clinical and personal experience of promoting healthy habits, but as this is a very individual topic, each point may not be relevant to everyone. This post is intended to be view as suggestions rather than strict rules to follow. If you find it difficult making healthy changes by yourself you can ask your GP to refer to to a dietitian or psychologist.

 

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