Setting Goals and Sticking to Them

woman on the treadmillThe early Romans revered Janus, the god with two faces—one facing forward, the other gazing behind. At the beginning of January, the month named to honor the Roman god, that image fits how most of us feel. Like Janus, we look back at the year gone by, while anticipating the 12 months ahead.

We express our hopes for the new year with grand resolutions, such as losing 40 pounds before bathing-suit season or spending 90 minutes a day sweating at the gym. Yet, after a month or two, those big dreams prove to be impossible to carry out.

Life intrudes, as work and family demand our time. Or, we find that walking on a treadmill is just, well, boring. Discouragement sets in, followed by inaction, guilt, avoiding thinking about our goal, and eating lots of chocolate (or chips) for consolation.

This cycle isn't inevitable. You can set realistic, achievable goals for a more healthful life in the new year. What's more, those targets—whether for weight loss, exercise or both—will produce results that help you look and feel better.

Get going the right way

Goal-setting is more than making a wish and hoping it will come true. It's proven to be effective for making real changes in your physical activity level and diet.

To set and achieve your goal, research shows it helps to follow this process.

  • Recognize what you need to change.
  • Establish a goal.
  • Begin a goal-directed activity.
  • Track your progress
  • Reward yourself.

Sounds simple, right? So why do January's good intentions often end up discarded by March? "Many goals start out being too difficult and too general. That's a set up for failure," says Mical Kay Shilts, Ph.D., assistant professor, Family and Consumer Sciences Department, California State University, Sacramento.

Before deciding on your goal, she advises, keep a food or exercise diary for a week to get a clear view of your current lifestyle. Every day, write down what you eat and your physical activity.

Then use that snapshot of your life to choose an area to focus on. You may see that you're spending hours on the living room couch at night or having fast-food lunches most days of the week. By looking at what you're currently doing "you can set a goal and know where you started," Shilts says.

Be specific

Choose a precise, positive goal for a short period of time. Make it challenging enough to motivate you, without being beyond your capabilities.

If you haven't exercised in years, don't plan on running 20 miles a week—it'll never happen. Instead, think of your goal as, "I'll take a walk with the dog three times this week."

Pick a goal-directed activity that's fun and enticing enough that you'll keep doing it. Social support helps you stay motivated, says Shilts, so try to exercise with a friend, spouse or child.