SMART Goals for Lifestyle Change

Set Effective Health Goals Using This Method and Template

What are SMART goals

Verywell / Alison Czinkota

Setting SMART goals is a method that is used to help people define and implement intentions. SMART goals are often used in healthcare settings, but they are also used successfully in business and educational settings because they help to create increase a sense of ownership and personal importance when trying to make important changes.

A SMART goal is one that is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. The SMART criteria help to incorporate guidance and realistic direction in goal setting, which increases motivation and leads to better results in achieving lasting change.

Changing Behavior With SMART Goals

Even though people are often highly motivated to change certain health-related habits, the process of behavior change remains challenging for most. For this reason, researchers have studied various methods to make health-related behavior change more effective. The use of SMART goals remains one of the more consistently used and well-regarded methods to not only identify reasonable goals but also to specify characteristics that make goal achievement more likely.

Setting a SMART goal requires the goal setter to think about the factors involved in achieving their goal. Defining each of the five characteristics can help to define a pathway to reaching the goal. The more well-defined that pathway becomes, the easier it is to follow.

For example, the goal of simply wanting to lose weight or be healthier is too vague and does not incorporate the SMART criteria. But if you use the SMART criteria, a more clear objective might be aiming to walk for 30 minutes, five times per week, for a period of four weeks. It identifies clear, actionable steps and a scheduled end-point where non-judgmental evaluation can take place.

SMART Goal Setting

To set your own SMART goal, set aside about 30 minutes to define your intentions. Taking some time to recognize your objectives and use the SMART criteria will help you put more detail and direction into setting your health and lifestyle goals. Putting your SMART goal in writing may help you remember the details.

S: Specific

  • Being specific helps to incorporate the method into the goal, not just the outcome.
  • Create your goal as an instruction whereby you tell yourself what to do. Try creating a statement for your goal, such as “I want to increase my weekly physical activity by walking for 30 minutes after dinner four times per week."
  • Start by stating the objective you wish to meet as specifically as possible. Rather than saying, "I want to get in shape," set a specific activity-related goal (such as walking for 30 minutes after dinner) to help define the pathway more clearly.
  • Approach goals tend to be more effective than avoidance goals. Try to set a goal for an action that you want to take rather than one you want to avoid.

Keep in mind that "performance" goals may be less effective than "mastery" goals. A performance goal is one where you try to achieve a specific outcome ("I want to lose 20 pounds"). A mastery goal is one in which you try to learn a new skill or build upon a pre-existing ability ("I will walk every night for 30 minutes after dinner").

Researchers have found that when challenges arise as part of a mastery goal, they are often perceived as a natural part of the goal-achievement process. They encourage problem-solving and active engagement in the process. For example, if your goal is to walk every night after dinner and work tasks have prevented you from meeting that goal, you might change your walking time to lunchtime in order to meet your goal.

Many times, not reaching a performance goal can be interpreted as a failure of one’s abilities because it involves judgment. Even if you take specific steps to change lifestyle behaviors, you still may not reach a goal of losing 20 pounds which can lead to feelings of defeat and frustration. If you have a weight loss goal in mind, it may be more effective to break it into smaller mastery-based goals, such as making small dietary changes or increasing physical activity in specific and measurable ways.

M: Measurable

  • Adding quantifiable or measurable criteria to your goal will allow you to measure progress as you work towards achieving your goal.
  • Being able to count off the numbers as you progress will feel good, and measuring can help keep you from cheating. For example, the goal of exercising four times per week can be tracked on a calendar.
  • Consider creative methods of tracking your progress. If you want to reduce stress, you might set a goal to take short 10-minute meditation breaks twice each day. Keep a log and record your meditation sessions as well as your stress level each day to track your progress.
  • Measuring results can help you adjust your goals as you work towards meeting your objectives. Using the goal of stress reduction as an example, measurement and tracking allow you to watch for trends, such as situations that cause you more stress, so that you can avoid them or respond differently in the future.

A: Attainable

  • Break large goals into smaller goals and spell out the process required to achieve your objectives.
  • Don't set yourself up for failure by selecting unattainable goals. For example, setting a goal to lose 20 pounds in two weeks is both difficult to do and unhealthy to achieve. Goals should be ambitious but not impossible. Choose a goal that you are confident you can reach, but that will challenge you to follow through with smaller, more attainable actions required to achieve it.
  • Make sure that the process is also realistic so that you can achieve all of the individual steps that you need. If you don't have time, supplies, or the right location, make adjustments to your methods and goals.

R: Relevant

  • Each step of attaining the goal should make sense to you and have some level of personal importance or relevance. If you want to increase your physical activity, for example, be sure to select a type of exercise that you enjoy. Zumba, jogging, cycling, and swimming are all effective forms of exercise, but not everyone considers each of these enjoyable. Pick the method that is right for you.
  • Goals should be inspiring enough that it motivates you to succeed. If you are not determined to meet your goal, obstacles will be very difficult to overcome.
  • If you don't care about the goal, you are unlikely to work on it. For example, if your goal is to switch to a vegan diet, but you don't actually enjoy vegan foods, then you are far less likely to stick to it.
  • If your doctor says, “lose weight," but you are not inspired by this statement, find another goal you care about to pursue. For example, it might be much more inspiring to you to say, "I want to have more energy to play with my kids" or "I want to fit back into my college football jersey" in order to feel inspired to create smaller, process-based goals.
  • Your goal should be meaningful to you and set by you—not set by someone else.

T: Time Bound

  • When will you achieve your goal? You need to choose a time that is realistic but not too far off into the future.
  • Saying “I will get fit this year” sounds good, but saying “I will walk after dinner for 30 minutes four times per week for 10 weeks” provides a more reasonable schedule and gives you a finish line that is foreseeable. Once you reach the 10-week endpoint, evaluate your process and set a new goal based on your progress and interests.

Get Started With a Template

Use the following sentence as a template to set your SMART goal:

"I will [your goal here] by [how you will do the goal]. I will know I am making progress because [how you will measure the goal] for [time goes here]."

For example: "I will increase my physical activity by doing cardio and weight training at the gym four times a week for the next 10 weeks. I will track my progress by keeping a workout log."

Tips for Success

You don't have to wait for New Year's Eve to set your SMART goals. There is no better time to start than today, but keep in mind that the method requires a bit of practice.

The following tips can help you better achieve success in reaching your goals:

  • Accept that sometimes things happen and making adjustments to a goal is part of the learning process. Don't beat yourself up. Instead, evaluate your progress and your goals to see whether you missed a SMART criterion or step. Simply readjust your goals, and jump back in.
  • Don’t set yourself up for failure by taking on too much or setting an unattainable goal. For example, if you work an office job 65 hours a week, don't set a goal of going to the gym seven days a week for 2 hours a day unless that is actually a feasible schedule for you.
  • Focus on process goals instead of just an outcome. Focussing on an outcome gives you a target, but it doesn't address how you will reach the goal.
  • For sustainable lifestyle changes, feel free to set long-term goals to keep the big picture in mind. However, break down the long-term goal into a series of smaller short-term goals in order to track progress and keep yourself motivated.
  • Remember that someone else's goals are not your goals. Your goals have to be meaningful and attainable for you.
  • Share it with others. It's much more difficult to give up on your goals when others know about them.
  • Work on changing behaviors and habits.
  • Write your SMART goal down. This will allow you to go back to your goal to reference and review.

Press Play for Advice on Goal-Setting

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares a technique that will help you reach your goals. Click below to listen now.

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2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Nelis SM, Thom JM, Jones IR, Hindle JV, Clare L. Goal-setting to promote a healthier lifestyle in later life: Qualitative evaluation of the AgeWell TrialClin Gerontol. 2018;41(4):335-345. doi:10.1080/07317115.2017.1416509

  2. Bailey RR. Goal setting and action planning for health behavior changeAm J Lifestyle Med. 2017;13(6):615-618. doi:10.1177/1559827617729634

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