How Goal-Setting Can Help With Healthy Behaviour Changes
Updated: Jun 15, 2022
Sounds big. Where do we start? When we are talking about goals we are talking about making changes, and that’s tricky. So, how should we go about planning the change? We all want to succeed at the end; is there a “best” way to do it?
When thinking of setting goals and making changes, there are a couple of great simple steps we can take, however, there is no one “best way” to make a change, this will differ person to person.
Firstly, give yourself time to work out what you really want and clearly define the outcome. What is your reason to make this change? You might not have a clear idea about this for a while, and that is okay. This can take a couple days or even months. Don’t rush yourself. Defining the outcome before jumping into action is as important as the action itself - that is what we call “goal setting”. Without setting a specific goal and knowing your reason for change you may easily lose sight in the process and this is only the first step.
“Goals are mental representations of desired outcomes, and goal setting is the process by which one identifies specific goals and determines how they will be achieved.” (Bailey, 2019)
Secondly, make a plan. Write it down and spend time working out how you are going to implement change(s) in your life. Remember you reason, this will be your motivation. My best advice here is to try to think outside the box. Life will happen and it will, for sure, mess your plans up at some point. We all know how that works, nothing is perfect. However, this should not discourage you from making a change.
Now you may ask: But how can I plan for “life happening”? Quite easily actually. Include a thousand different scenarios that could hinder your change, and have an option B for each. Be reactive and prioritise your goal! Life happening can be overwhelming but prioritising your goal helps you to stay on track. If you cannot do as planned, you shouldn’t feel that you have failed. Right the opposite! Let go of the “All or nothing” attitude. Take a breath and move on. You have gained a valuable insight into what are those daily distractions that you need to have a solution for in order to achieve your goal.
“Setting a goal for health behaviour change, however, is seldom sufficient for behaviour change to actually occur.” (Bailey, 2019)
Lastly, make acting on your intentions easy for yourself. Whatever your plans are, t here will be barriers. As I mentioned above, life happens, but also, barriers that you put there, those in your head. We call them excuses, I am sure you’re well acquainted. Being comfortable after all is much easier than putting effort into something, isn’t it?! For you to succeed however, you must eliminate these barriers. How?
Let’s say you’re planning to go for a run in the morning as part of your change working towards your ultimate goal of running 4 times a week? Wonderful; put your running gear out in the evening, go to bed early to make sure you’re not tired, make yourself some lovely overnight oats you can look forward to eating when you get up, open your curtains in the morning to let some light in (soon we’ll have that, but putting your light on is a good option B) and if getting up early is a challenge (I can relate) move your phone/clock far away from you so that you surely get out of bed. By doing these tiny super simple steps, you have already eliminated some barriers you might have otherwise encountered.
“Intention precedes action; therefore, one must act on one’s intentions in order to change behaviour.” (Bailey, 2019)
Stages of change
You might have heard about the Stages of Change Model or Transtheoretical Model developed by Prochaska and DiClemente (1982). This model helps us to look at behavioural change as a process. Keep in mind however, it isn’t always this simple, so do not take this as written in stone.
Just to recap, goal setting and making a plan would be in the Contemplation phase, part of this could be to make small preparations, small changes.
Your Action phase only comes after careful planning and goal setting. This is when you are engaging in the new behaviour, such as running every Monday morning.
As you can see, the Maintenance phase is a crucial one, as here you get to the point of either relapsing, or becoming 100% self-sufficient. For the latter, you need to sustain your new behaviour for a period of time and enjoy it, which takes me to my last but not least important points.
Enjoyment and taking small steps are underrated
We want it all and we want it right now, better yet, yesterday! I am sorry to say, but some goals - depending on the level of skill and motivation they require - take months, even years to achieve. Being impatient will only hinder your progress or make you give up altogether.
Your plan for change should include small steps that are sustainable on a long term. What I mean is, if your goal is to stop smoking then this should not happen in a day. Why? Well, most likely you will not be able to maintain the “new behaviour” (equals not smoking), as there was nothing to ease you into the change, no progression towards your goal, and you’ll most likely fail. Changing anything is a process, like the leaves turning from green to brown during autumn. If you decide on a goal that is unrealistic (lose 10kg in a month), the change is not sustainable (means too much effort - closely connected to setting unrealistic goals), or too dramatic (like giving up smoking in a day), you are setting yourself up for failure. Depending on how well or not-so-well you take failure, this may even stop you from trying again, but for sure, will make you feel pretty awful.
You know what will also kill your progress? The lack of enjoyment or joy you get out of it. Change can be hard but enjoying the journey towards your goal helps, you just need to make it fun. This is where incentives come into the picture. Incentives can help you make your process of change enjoyable. Managed to get up super early for your run; well done, why not grab a coffee after if that is what makes you happy? Or you managed to keep up your exercise routine for two months; impressive, give yourself an extra hour of reading time in the evening. I know, these examples might not excite you as such, but that is fine. You should choose the things that make you happy as your incentives, these are different for everyone. For some just the simple sense of achievement will be enough.
But what about the ultimate incentive?
What? - You’re asking.
You reaching your goal. That is where it’s at. You must keep reminding yourself why you chose your goal to begin with, what was that one big incentive that drives you to achieve it? What was your reason? Will you reaching your goal make you feel happier, healthier, smarter or just super proud of yourself (absolutely nothing wrong with that)? If the answer is no and you cannot come up with anything that drives you, then you should go back to the start, learn from this experience, set a new goal and replan your actions. It’s never too late to restart!
Eszter O. Szabo is the Dietetic Assistant for City Dietitians.
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