Succeed at Behavior Change

How to Actually Succeed at Behavior Change

Here’s a harsh bit of reality for you: there is no magical method to making healthy lifestyle changes. Fad diets and exercise crazes might make it seem like there is, but they’re wrong. Sad news for the members of your community who want to change thier behavior.

The truth is that the secret to meeting overall health recommendations, from quitting smoking to getting more exercise, is to put one foot in front of the other--and keep doing it. Changing the way you live is simply hard. It just is.

However, there is one technique that actually can make that tough transition easier: setting SMART goals.

SMART Goals

SMART goals break down any task that seems too big to meet by breaking it down into what’s Specific (S) about the goal, how you can Measure (M) it, making it Achievable (A), and also Realistic (R) or Relevant, and setting up a Timeline (T) to complete it.

We talk about SMART goals all the time in our health education materials because they are so effective.  They make big lifestyle changes more manageable.

For example, think about someone who feels overwhelmed by a new diagnosis of hypertension. Their doctor tells them they need to exercise more and lose weight. They might start thinking “I have to run a marathon!” even though they’ve never walked further than the mailbox, or “I need to lose 20 pounds this month!” without considering what needs to change in their diet. Those goals are discouraging and impossible to achieve--a real setback for successful self-management.

Now, when you put a goal like “exercise more” into a SMART format, it changes from “run a marathon” to “walk around the block twice this week.” The difference is huge and makes behavior change something that most people can actually do.

SMART Goals and Behavior Change

Here are some examples of how SMART goals work with different health motivations. To take a SMART approach, they answer these questions (copy them down so you can use them with yourself or a client today):

  • What is Specific about the goal?
  • How will you Measure the goal to know it’s been achieved?
  • Is it Achievable?
  • Is the goal Realistic?
  • Is the goal on a Timeline?

Hypertension

Unspecific goal: “Follow the DASH diet.” The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) is a diet that many health providers recommend to patients.

SMART approach: “This week I will eat two cups of fruits and vegetables with dinner and lunch.”

Exercise

Unspecific goal: “Get healthy.” This very fuzzy goal is all too common among people who are trying to build more physical activity into their lives.

SMART approach: “I will meet with a mall walking group on Saturday morning.”

Dieting

Unspecific goal: “Lose 40 pounds.” Many people know they need to lose weight, and even how much, but that’s difficult without a path.

SMART approach: “This month I will lose 5 percent of my current weight. This will allow me to meet my goal by the end of the year.”

Smoking

Unspecific goal: “Stop smoking.” This is a common and clear directive. People need to stop but don’t know how.

SMART approach: “Tomorrow I will replace all the ashtrays in the house with a pack of Nicorette gum.”

Drinking Alcohol

Unspecific goal: “I shouldn’t drink so much.” Breaking through the habit of drinking is hard without a plan.

SMART approach: “I will pick two days this week when I won’t drink.”

Do you see how these short goals seem like something you can do? Meeting one goal makes it easier to move on to a new one. And that is the secret to better health: one step at a time.

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