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Tips for effective goal-setting, at New Year’s or any time

Note: This post is written by the team of The ONE Group (Oncology – Nutrition – Exercise) at Penn State College of Medicine as part of a first-person blog about their work. Learn more about the group here.

The new year can be an exciting time! When midnight rolls around on Jan. 1, many of us celebrate with family and friends in anticipation for the year to come. Although this year might look a little different, many people will still be giving thought to what changes we can make in the upcoming year.

Whether you like to make resolutions or feel like they’re not really your thing, January can feel like a fresh start, and having the knowledge about skills to make long-lasting changes can benefit anyone’s health, relationships and work life.

Commonly, new year’s resolutios involve goals to make some kind of health-related change, like starting to exercise or eating healthier. This past year has been exceptionally challenging in many ways, but with gyms closing and many working from home, staying active and eating healthy has been even harder than normal. Let’s set ourselves up for success this year by becoming educated about making long-lasting, lifestyle changes to improve our health.

When creating a goal that involves behavior change, certain guidelines should be followed to ensure success. This is known as the SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-anchored) principle.

Let’s break down each component of this important principle, using “I want to be more active” as an example of a starting resolution.


Goals are best when they are specific. “I want to be more active” is vague; it’s difficult to know exactly what someone might mean by this.

It can be helpful to ask ourselves some questions to help make goals more specific. These can be things like:

  • What exactly do I want to achieve?
  • What activities do I like to do?
  • When will I do this?
  • How will I add this into my life?
  • Who is involved in the process?
  • Where will I carry out this goal?

Think about your personality and schedule. If you are an early riser and highly motivated in the morning, that could be the best time for you to exercise. If not, forcing yourself to get up and dreading your morning activity can be a detriment to your long-term success.

If you want to be more active, but dislike running, choose an activity like walking, dancing or biking instead.

Having a firm answer to these questions gives us a more complete understanding of our goals. This is a great first step in moving forward with this behavior change of “becoming more active.” After considering these questions, this goal could now sound like “I will walk around the neighborhood after dinner.”


You can only know if you achieve your goal if you can measure your success! It is helpful to come up with a way of measuring any goal.

How much exercise do we want to perform? We can measure this in several ways – number of minutes minutes, days of the week, number of exercises, etc. This way, at the end of the week, you will know if you are on track to reach your goal, or if you need to rethink some things for the following week to be more successful.

Adding a measurement tool to your goal can sound like “I will walk around the neighborhood after dinner three times a week for 30 minutes.”


Setting goals that you can realistically accomplish is extremely important for success. Coming up with a goal that are unrealistic can set us up for failure and be discouraging when we cannot follow through.

For example, it may not be realistic for a novice exerciser to perform 60 minutes of activity on six days of the week. It is better to ease into becoming more active slowly and increase exercise in increments over time, so that it becomes a part of our lives. The goal of walking around the neighborhood is attainable for a novice exerciser, because the amount of time and numberof days per week chosen can be easily added into a weekly routine without the individual feeling overwhelmed or burnt out.

Also, walking is a low-intensity activity where the individual can manipulate things like speed, arm swing and terrain to progress or regress the difficulty of their movement session.


Why do we set goals? Goals that are important to us are more motivating. A goal of being more active can improve mental and physical health, which ultimately improves quality of life. Specifically, why do you want to become more active? Is it so you can have enough strength and energy to play with your kids? Maybe you want to run your first 5K race in the spring. It could be to feel confident in an outfit you’re planning to wear to an event. Think about what’s important to you, and you can formulate goals around those values.


Setting a timeline for goals helps keep people on track and provides accountability for behavior change. For example, saying you want to “be more active in 2021” does not provide a solid timeline for planning success. Instead, you can plan to increase your physical activity level slowly and maintain a certain amount by the third month of the year. Add a time element to your goal by stating “I will walk around the neighborhood after dinner three times a week for 30 minutes by the end of February.”

Goal breakdown

Here is the above example, broken down via the SMART principle:

  • S: I will walk around the neighborhood after dinner.
  • M: I will walk around the neighborhood after dinner three days a week for 30 minutes.
  • A: This goal is attainable because the number of days, amount of time and activity chosen are all realistic for a novice exerciser.
  • R: This goal is relevant because if achieved, it will have a positive impact on my mental and physical health as well as my self-esteem.
  • T: I will walk around the neighborhood after dinner three days a week for 30 minutes by the end of February. After that, you can extend your goal by adding, “and slowly increase my exercise minutes and/or days per week in the months that follow until I am exercising 150 minutes a week.”

Take your time when creating your goals. It may be helpful to talk through them with a friend or family member who has similar ambitions in the new year. Remember the SMART principle while you are setting your goals, and you will set yourself up for success!

Also, remember to be kind to yourself. It’s OK to have hard days and setbacks, but remember why you want to make the behavior change and keep going. It was been a tough year in many ways, but 2021 holds the promise of good things to come. Focusing on health can help us better handle being a parent, partner, friend, associate and member of society.

Happy New Year!

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