Do you know you want to make a change, but don’t know where to start? By taking the time to break down your goals in measurable, healthy ways, you’re setting yourself up for success and giving yourself the tools you need to accomplish your goals. Here’s how to set up healthy, realistic goals that you can actually achieve.
Here are 25 tips for setting healthy goals:
1. Stop Waiting Until New Year’s to Set Goals & Resolutions
There is absolutely no reason to wait till January 1st to start a new goal or resolution. If anything, it can set you up for barriers you don’t need. “Change is hard, cumbersome, and full of resistance already, so the worst thing we can do is add artificial barriers, says Eric Patterson, LPC. “Without fail around the fall, I start hearing people say, “starting the new year, I’m going to …” and I really discourage the practice of putting off something that’s important today for tomorrow. It is never too early (or too late) to make changes that benefit you and those you care for. Resolutions can come at any time.”
2. Have a Plan
“Setting a goal is the first step. The second step is developing an action plan. One barrier to sticking to goals is not seeing progress or feeling overwhelmed with what it will take to accomplish the goal. By setting an action plan, a person is able to identify each step and strategies for completing each step. This helps view the process in small segments which then increases confidence in personal ability to achieve the goal. Like the saying goes, ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.’” – Natasha Bryant, LCSW
3. Adopt a New Identity
“This is based on James Clear’s Identity-based approach to developing new habits. While this approach mainly focuses on habits, the habits you develop can help you stick to and achieve your goals.
Changing your identity means you need to change your beliefs. So how can you do it? First, decide the person you want to be. For example, your goal is to lose weight. What type of person usually maintains a healthy weight? Athletes or a person who moves every day. So that’s the person you want to be. Second, prove to yourself that you are this person with small wins. So let’s say the type of person you want to be is someone who moves every day. Do activities that will lead to small wins. You can try walking 50 steps today when you get home from work. Tomorrow, try 100 steps. Increase your steps every day. These small wins can help you develop healthy habits. The next thing you know, you’re already halfway through your goal.” – Sam Nabil, LPC, CEO and Lead Therapist of Naya Clinics
4. Focus on What You Want to Gain or Improve
“What benefits will these new healthy habits bring to your life? How will they improve your physical and mental well-being? This shift in perspective can help make the journey toward your goals feel more positive and empowering.” – Becca Smith, LPC, Chief Clinical Officer at Basepoint Academy
5. Stick to One or Two Goals
It can be easy to want to change everything: “I’m going to eat healthily and workout and lose weight” is a lot for any one person to accomplish. This just sets people up for failure because all of the goals are seen as a packaged deal and not as individual ones. So if a person managed to work out regularly but not eat as healthily as they wanted, they may feel like they still didn’t accomplish anything, Matt Glowiak, Ph.D., LCPC, says. “What happens, then, is we resort back to old thinking and behavioral patterns, perhaps to an even more detrimental degree.”
6. Make Sure Your Goal Is Specific & Observable
Ensure it’s observable – meaning, it’s specific and not vague (“I will sign up for a Tuesday night class” versus “I’ll be more creative”). Also, ask yourself how you’ll know when you’ve reached your goal, and what your indicator for progress will be. A pro tip I’d offer: Wanting to give up on a goal is often a sign of progress. – Jackie Tassiello ATR-BC, LCAT, ATCS
7. Immediately Reward the New Behavior
Rewards are an integral part of accomplishing goals – after all, every step in the right direction is worth celebrating! Plus, rewarding good behavior makes us more likely to continue working towards our goals in the long run. Dianne Grande, Ph.D., says rewarding yourself for exercising every day might look like:
- Have a piece of dark chocolate
- Take a warm bath
- Tell yourself that you’re taking good care of your health
- Read your favorite author/ website after the exercise
- Anything that is healthy and enjoyable for you
8. Start Small & Be Realistic
“I believe the most important thing you need to consider before setting new goals is ‘is this achievable?’ and ‘am I being realistic?’. The truth is, it is great to push yourself and dream wild. However, you also don’t want to go through the mental stress of not achieving your goals because you aimed too high.
When setting new goals, start small and realistic. You are allowed to dream big and push yourself to do beyond your set goals but you should also know your limits. You just have to be honest with yourself and ask:
- Is this a goal I can achieve at the stipulated time?
- How much work do I have to put in to achieve this?
- Can I put in this much time and effort realistically?
- What are the things that can get in the way of achieving this?
- Can I conquer any of these obstacles if they come up?
- If you check all these boxes then you are being reasonable. This is because if you are being honest with yourself, you will know if your goals are achievable with effort.”
-Cynthia Halow, Psychologist and founder of Personality Max
9. Don’t Give Up If You Miss a Day or Goal
According to author James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, it can take up to 66 days for an action to become a habit. Be kind to yourself if you fall off track. “Get back on track the next day or as soon as possible if you miss a day or overindulge one day,” Dianne Grande, Ph.D. recommends.
10. Focus on the Process, Not the Outcome
“The outcome is what you get, while the process is what you do to get that outcome you want. People who fail are often so focused on the outcome that they forget about the process. For example, some people who want to lose weight sometimes lose sight of the process that they exercise until exhaustion and go sedentary for the next few months.
When you have a goal, develop a step-by-step process that will help you achieve it. Remember to trust the process because healthy goals are not achieved overnight. Go slow and small. This can help you sustain the habits you develop through the process of achieving your new healthy goal.” – Sam Nabil, LPC, CEO and Lead Therapist of Naya Clinic
11. Stop the Excuses
“It is all too easy to come up with excuses about why you can’t be as healthy as you dream. Costs, time constraints, and more are common excuses for not achieving the healthy life you truly want. Have an honest conversation with yourself about what you are allowing to get in your way. For example, if budget is a concern, try buying healthy foods in bulk with a friend or start walking/ jogging outdoors instead of joining a gym.” – Dr. Candice Seti, Psy.D., CPT, CNC
12. Increase Your Resilience
“Hard situations encourage growth in ways that happy times do not. Taking on problems and overcoming them increases resilience capability. Knowing that one can overcome hurdles, learn from difficulties, and profit from mistakes provides a solid basis for future success. If you come into an obstacle, consider how you may overcome it.” – Jessica Miller, LMHC, psychemag
Top Rated Online Therapy Services for 2023
BetterHelp – Best Overall
BetterHelp “quickly connects you with a licensed counselor or therapist and earned 4 out of 5 stars” Visit BetterHelp
Online-Therapy.com – Honorable Mention
“CBT program is included with all of the subscriptions and one of its strongest features” Visit Online-Therapy.com
Read our full article Best Online Therapy Services For 2023
Choosing Therapy partners with leading mental health companies and is compensated for marketing by BetterHelp and Online-Therapy
13. Keep It S.M.A.R.T.
Kate Truitt, Ph.D., M.B.A., says setting goals that are smart, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely are how you ensure you can reach your goals. She describes them in more detail:
- “Specific—When setting a goal, use clear, descriptive words. Words such as “good” or “successful” are not specific. The more descriptive you are with your goal the clearer it will be to you that you are accomplishing your goal.
- Measurable—A goal is measurable when you can tell that you have met it. Ask yourself, how will I know when I have completed this goal?
- Achievable—Are you capable of reaching this goal, even though it may be difficult? Check to make sure that this goal is not dependent on anyone else.
- Realistic—Is this goal reasonable for you at this time? Are your expectations possibly too high? Is your goal challenging enough for you?
- Timely—Do you have a deadline for when you will have reached this goal? A timeframe will be helpful in reminding you to work on your goal.”
14. Set Up Accountability
“One tip for actually starting your goals that you’ve set is to find some sort of accountability for completing them. Sometimes this can be enlisting a friend who is also working on goals to have someone to report your progress to on a regular basis. Other times, you can track your own progress weekly in a journal. Some people also use a calendar that they hang on the wall that they see all the time and then they mark off the days they did something on the path to their goal. Visual reminders and tracking systems work well for most people for goal accountability and motivation, as long as they remember to update and view them regularly.” – Risa Williams, LMFT
15. Clarify Roadblocks You May Face (And Figure Out Plans to Overcome Them)
It’s important to consider what might get in the way of your goals just as much as how you’re going to accomplish them. “I recommend spending time examining the “A” and the “R” in the SMART acronym—Achievable and Reasonable—because in these times there may be fundamental roadblocks that may impede our baby steps, some of which are out of your control,” Dr. Truitt says. “For example, some of my clients previously had goals for building a new healthy community around themselves. In the face of the pandemic, accommodations must be made with that goal, because many of the places where people normally go to build community have changed. This also applies to dating or gaining new skills that involve working with a teacher like learning to play an instrument or working closely with a personal trainer.”
16. Have a Visual Reminder
Having a visual is always helpful. Writing little notes to yourself and leaving them in places you know will help prompt these changes is beneficial. You can use post it notes and write out your goals and place them in your bedroom, bathroom and car to remind yourself to take those steps in meeting your goals. –Jaclyn Gulotta, PhD, LMHC
17. Write Out Three Baby Steps For Your Goal
Dr. Truitt recommends figuring out small, actionable steps you can take towards your goals. If exercising before work every morning is one of your goals, taking smaller steps like packing your gym bag the night before, setting your alarm, and getting dressed to work out on time, will help you get all the more closer to actually getting to the gym every morning.
18. Don’t Go “All or Nothing” On Your Goals
Going with an “all or nothing” approach does nothing for your goals or your motivation. Louis Laves-Webb, LCSW, LPC-S, says setting goals is always a process, not just a destination. “When making a big change, it’s normal to ‘slip up,’ especially at first. These setbacks are normal and shouldn’t be viewed as a failure at achieving your goals. Instead view these inevitable challenges as learning opportunities and pivot points. Do your best to avoid throwing in the towel. Some people may think, ‘Well, I’ve already messed up. I might as well just give up since I obviously can’t do this.’” When that happens, he says, try again tomorrow.
19. Get Support From Others
Those who enlist the help of others with their goals are more likely to accomplish them, Laves-Webb says. “This helps give you a sense of accountability as well as build a community of supportive people around you. By giving your friends and family updates, you’ll feel a sense of pride and motivation to continue delivering good news,” he says. “Above all, remember to practice patience and compassion with yourself during this process. If you keep putting in the time and effort, you’ll get there—even if it’s not as quickly as you hoped.”
20. Remember Your Worth (Goals or No Goals)
Laves-Webb says it’s important to be aware of the motivations behind why you want to accomplish a certain goal. “If you’re choosing a goal to help express your strengths, self-esteem, and sense of efficacy, goals can be extremely rewarding and allow for a sense of overall betterment,” he says. “However, if goal setting instead takes the place of a positive sense of self or stems from a place of shame or ‘lack,’ the process can actually perpetuate feelings of low self-worth or shame, creating a vicious shame-inducing failure and ineffectiveness.”
If your goal is to lose weight because you think you have no worth at your current weight, then your goal isn’t really sustaining you in a healthy way. In short: whatever you do, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons, and take the time to cultivate compassion for yourself in all of your goals.
21. Make It Reasonable
Big, lofty goals with no action plan and no smaller, actionable steps are asking for the same thing: failure. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set big goals, Laves-Webb says, but you should consider where you are and what’s a reasonable expectation in the future. “For instance, if you don’t currently exercise and your goal is to exercise more in the new year, don’t resolve to go to the gym for two hours every day of the week. You’ll likely get burnt out after the first week and quit. Instead, a more realistic goal would be to find a physical activity you enjoy and try to do it at least twice a week, like enrolling in a yoga class or taking up biking,” he suggests.
22. Embrace the Hiccups & Challenges That Come With Making Changes to Improve Your Health
“Temporary setbacks may teach valuable lessons and provide opportunities for growth, so don’t let them discourage you from continuing your journey. Progress is not a linear process, and it’s okay to have off days or slip up occasionally. Rushing or forcing yourself to adhere strictly to a rigid plan can often lead to burnout, so be kind and patient with yourself.” – Becca Smith, LPC, Chief Clinical Officer at Basepoint Academy
23. Reward Yourself as You Work Toward Your Goal
“Keep track of how often you stay focused on your goal and assign a monetary value to those days. For example, if your goal is to workout more, keep track of how many days each month you work out and give yourself a monetary “reward” for doing so. Let’s say you “give” yourself a dollar for every workout and after a month you worked out 12 times, and you now have $12 in your “jar”. You can let this amount accumulate over time. Use this money to purchase something you have always wanted or something you normally wouldn’t buy for yourself. You are rewarding yourself for sticking to your goals as you move closer to achieving them.” – Tracy Wrocklage, LPC, Positive Reflections Counseling
24. Don’t Be too Hard on Yourself
We’ve talked about not giving up and knowing your worth, but that all really boils down to the same thing: be kind to yourself during this process. Dr. Brian Wind, a clinical psychologist, and chief clinical officer at JourneyPure, says not achieving your goals the way you wanted can bring about feelings of disappointment or frustration, but turning those thoughts inward won’t help. “Ask yourself if you’ve done everything you could. If you have, give yourself a pat on the back for the progress you’ve made. If you haven’t, reflect on what went wrong and what could have gone better, and give yourself a pat on the back for the lessons you’ve learned,” he says.
25. Focus on 3-6 Month Increments, Instead of the Whole Year
It’s easy to be intimidated by the thought of the entire year ahead of you, Dr. Wind says, or to procrastinate on your goals because you have the entire year to do it. That’s why he recommends breaking up your goals into smaller time increments, like three or six-month plans. “It’s also easier to plan when you want to achieve your goals in the short term when you have more certainty about the events ahead and your priorities. It gives you more structure, and by achieving your short-term goals you gain momentum building up to your bigger goals.”
Bonus: Consider Seeing a Therapist to Help You Achieve Your Goals
“If you have specific goals that you find difficult to achieve alone, a therapist can help you break down your goals into realistic goals that you can achieve. A therapist may ask you what you feel is holding you back from achieving your goals, your expectations, and what you hope to achieve through your goals so that you can effectively prioritize your goals,” Dr. Wind says.
“Working with a therapist enables you to break down the specific pieces of your life. Therapy enables you to more easily define and achieve the bigger goals that you have for yourself. Not only that, but it makes it so that you do not have to do it alone. You have the support of your therapist,” Dr. Santhouse says.
Therapists are great for goal-setting: They can help you identify reasonable goals, provide accountability and support, and give guidance when things go awry. If you struggle with setting goals, feel overwhelmed by the process, or are discouraged by the failure of past resolutions, talking with a therapist can bring you clarity, motivation, and accountability. If you’re not sure where to find a therapist, an online therapist directory can be a great place to start.