The Grind

How to set wellness goals that actually work

April 21, 2022, 10:32 p.m.

It’s been four months since we set our New Year’s resolutions. If you’re having a hard time sticking to your wellness goals, despite having the best intentions, you’re not alone. It can be extremely hard. 

But spring quarter is here — it’s the perfect time to set new wellness goals. From my experience and studies as a certified health coach, personal trainer and M.S. candidate in community health and prevention research, I cover the groundwork for the goal-setting process and the mindset needed for the journey to help you achieve tangible and sustainable results.

Ditch the all-or-nothing approach

All-or-nothing mentality refers to thinking in extremes, seeing outcomes as a success or a failure. This approach not only leads to harsh and unjustified self-judgment, but also can prevent you from achieving your goals.

Imagine missing a workout one day. Since you missed it, you shouldn’t even bother with eating healthy or working out at all this week, because this week is already a failure, right?

I used to feel this way after starting my day with a breakfast that wasn’t aligned with my healthy eating plan. Thinking that since I’m already not on track with my daily plan, today is unsuccessful, and I should just try again tomorrow. As I was studying for my health coaching certification a few years ago, I realized that rather than trying to perfect the plan, knowing how to manage setbacks and unexpected changes to the plan is what will truly make the diet last. Understanding that perfectionism is impossible and one meal isn’t defining the trajectory of my day, I shifted from this all-or-nothing mentality to working with the circumstances and focusing on the victories. Now, if I have to run to my morning class and eat a breakfast that is less healthy than my usual breakfast, I am more intentional and determined to eat healthier at lunch and dinner. Thus, success depends on long-term consistency, achieved by resiliency. It’s all about how you react to the setbacks, your ability to bounce back and move forward.

One missed workout won’t take away all of your achievements from prior workouts, just as one workout won’t make all your fitness dreams come true.

So, what can you do to shift away from this all-or-nothing mentality?

Practice self-compassion

Focus on your successes and accomplishments this week, and recognize that this journey will not go exactly according to plan. That’s okay.

Kristin Neff, an expert on self-compassion and co-founder of the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, illustrates self-compassion in three elements: self-kindness, humanity and mindfulness. With self-kindness, we give ourselves understanding, rather than self-criticism, when we fail. Recognizing that personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience, mindfulness helps us create “a non-judgmental mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them.” 

Not sure where to start? Here are Kristin Neff’s self-compassion practices and exercises.

Make the best out of the situation and remember that even small efforts add up

Even if you didn’t make it to your planned one-hour workout today, a 10-minute workout is better than nothing.

During the winter quarter’s final week, I had to invest more time in schoolwork and give up my usual workouts. With no specific time dedicated, I planned to walk at every opportunity I could. I walked while speaking on the phone, listening to lectures, even during breaks to clear my mind between studies. While those short walking breaks seemed pointless at first, they added up quickly — my steps resulting in an average of 3.5 miles a day, and a total of 24.5 miles for the week (according to my Fitbit). While calories aren’t all that matter, those small efforts helped me burn an extra 1,850 calories for the week.

Set SMART goals

I learned about the SMART goal framework in my health coaching studies. Since then, I used it for my personal wellness goals as well as with my clients. Using the SMART tool helped many of my clients gain clarity around their goals and plan the right strategy to achieve their goals.

Using the SMART acronym framework, you can create process-oriented objectives, making it easier to be successful in achieving your goal. SMART stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound.

  1. Specific: What exactly do you want to achieve and how? Break down your big goal into daily or weekly goals. “Who?” “What?” “Where?” “When?” and “Why?”
  2. Measurable: How will you track your progress toward achieving your goal?
  3. Attainable: How realistic is your goal? Do you have the set-up, space and time needed to accomplish this goal?
  4. Relevant: What is the purpose of achieving this goal for you? How will it help you in your everyday life?
  5. Time-bound: What is the right timeframe in accomplishing this goal?

For many goals, the timeframe can be determined with recommendations and guidance from experts in your goal’s field. For example, if your goal is to run a half marathon, some professional runners say the ideal plan for beginners is three to four months. You can also set a timeframe that’s aligned with certain events in your life, such as the end of the spring semester, your graduation ceremony or even a special vacation.

Even if you aren’t 100% sure what the right timeframe is, start with your best guess. Setting one for your goal can help ignite motivation to stick to the schedule and help you track your progress toward the goal’s completion.

Worried that you might forget or won’t commit to the timeline? Create a visual map of your timeframe or share it with a friend or a family member and ask them to hold you accountable.

Monitor progress

For you readers, at the end of each week, check in to get a sense of where you are in your journey with your goal and how you’re feeling. To monitor your progress beyond measuring it, write down what worked well that week, what skills you might have to pay extra attention to next week, what triggered an unwanted behavior and how you coped with setbacks. Make adjustments to the plan as necessary, and occasionally remind yourself of why you originally set this goal.

I would recommend keeping track of your progress using your computer or a notebook dedicated only to that goal and tracking its progress. Lifetick is a great app that can help you manage your progress. It allows you to write out your SMART goal, journal and track your progress. (There are many other online tools out there as well.) Otherwise, grab a notebook, write down your SMART goal on the first page and use this notebook for the journal entries, plan modifications and track progress. 

Celebrate small wins

You should always acknowledge your hard work and celebrate all success, even the small wins. As examples, small wins can be achieving the weekly goals set in the SMART framework or different milestones on the way to the big goal. Decide what those milestones are and how you plan to celebrate them. These celebrations could be anything — a self-care activity, treating yourself with your favorite food, listening to a music playlist you created for celebrations.

The road to accomplishing your goal can be long, and celebration along the way can help keep your motivation high, boost your confidence and help you recognize how far you’ve already come.

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