My wife and I became first time parents last year. It feels like a storm swept through our house, leaving behind two tired, busy, and decidedly less healthy (but very happy and fulfilled!) bodies behind. Our son hit the 1-year-old mark and we have vowed to improve our health! Which begs the question, what is the best way to chart a course to healthier living? Should you set goals? And if so, what should those goals be based on? I’m going to walk you through a powerful way to do this informed by the latest research.

Goals are helpful for organizing your behavior. If you have the goal to complete a marathon, you know you have to train regularly to achieve that goal. However some goals are more useful than others.

I’ve become much less active since my son was born (unless you count me chasing him around the house, of course!). So let’s say I set a goal for the new year to “exercise more.” How effective do you think that goal would be? If it sounds a little vague to you, you are correct. The goal to “exercise more” is too unfocused to be helpful. What counts as “more,” and more than what exactly?

Now what if I change my goal to “exercise three days per week for at least 30 minutes each time.” Better? That goal is clear and realistic. I can use it as a guide for my behavior, as I know exactly how many times and for how long I need to exercise to achieve my goal. My likelihood of success is also higher than if I would have set a goal for working out every day. When you are thinking of goals, try to make them specific and attainable, they tend to work much better that way. Come up with a set of 5 goals to start, don’t go too crazy. As you achieve goals, set new ones.

Now what is the best way to motivate yourself to achieve your goals? If you are like most people, you tend to be motivated initially by self-criticism. For example, I noticed my clothes getting a little tighter and my belly a little larger and had thoughts like, “You are lazy and gross!” It’s normal to have reactions like that, but beating yourself up is typically not effective over the long-term. In fact, research has shown it does the opposite. Motivating yourself by criticizing yourself usually leads to more unhealthy behavior, like watching TV and overeating. Why? Watching TV and overeating can provide relief or comfort in the short-term. More importantly, beating yourself up is just not a compassionate way to live and is bound to wear on you over time.

Instead, how about using your values as motivation? Values are a sustainable source of motivation. Take a domain, such as health, and then think about what really matters to you in this domain. For me, I want to have energy to play with my son and operate a high level at work. I also want to be around as long as possible to see my children’s milestones and continue to love, support, and share with my wife. Now these are the kinds of things I want to be thinking of when I get up at 5:30 am and have the choice between another show on my DVR or a quick workout before my son wakes up. When I’m tired, TV sounds great. But if I can remember I’m doing this for my values, I can get that motivation to hop on the treadmill.

How can you keep this motivation in mind? Well, you can start about writing about your values on a regular basis, perhaps once per week to start. Anywhere is fine, a journal or a computer document. This will help keep what’s important in focus. Another great strategy is to keep a values reminder nearby. I’m going to post a picture of my son in the bathroom (so I see it first thing in the morning) and by the TV (my most vulnerable place to bail on my exercise plans) as a reminder of what is important to me in the long-term.

More strategies like this can be found in my book The Diet Trap. Join me and make some healthy changes this year.

About the Author

Jason Lillis Ph.D.

Jason Lillis, Ph.D., is assistant professor of research at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

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