When it comes to jump-starting a fitness routine, setting healthy goals can be harder than it seems. And actually sticking with your healthy habits amid the temptations and distractions of everyday life — that’s another challenge entirely.
By this point, we’ve all heard of setting SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound) goals. But while smart in theory, this approach isn’t always the most realistic for getting in shape or losing weight — especially when many of us can be prone to self-sabotage.
Luckily, there are a few practical (and simple) ways to make sure you form healthy habits that actually work in the real world. And how you start can make all the difference, says Jonathan Fader, Ph.D., sports psychologist and author of “Life as Sport.” Here are his top five tips for forming a healthy habit and sticking to it:
1. Figure out your motivation.
“Before you set a goal — which is the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of working out — you’ll be much better off if you start with the ‘why,’ ” says Fader. “The more that you know the ‘why’ for working out, the easier the actual goal setting becomes. People don’t pay enough attention to the motivation piece.”
Rather than think about the surface-level outcome of your new healthy habit, think about the deeper motivation — less “I want to look good in a bathing suit” and more “I want to feel confident when I’m at the beach.” When you have a deeper reason for sticking to your habit, it will inoculate you to the inevitable loss of motivation down the road.
2. Set “mindset goals.”
Once you’ve figured out the motivation behind your lifestyle change, adjust your goals to be more process-oriented rather than outcome-oriented, or what Fader calls “mindset goals.” Each time you make a healthy choice at mealtime, focus on how much you enjoy the healthy food or how you’re starting to experience fewer unhealthy cravings rather than just how many calories you saved.
3. Remove temptation.
Of course, forming a healthy habit is only half the battle. When possible, take the temptations out of your path. When you’re in control of the situation, you can avoid bringing distractions into your everyday environment. For example, if you’re at the grocery store and you know you can’t resist the fresh-baked croissants in the bakery aisle, avoid that area of the store — just don’t go there.
When you aren’t in control, ask someone to help you stay accountable. For example, if you’re at a party, ask a friend to steer you clear of the cookie platter if you have the urge to binge.
4. Have a relapse prevention plan.
Planning for expected barriers is one thing, but what about those unexpected moments of self-sabotage? “Don’t wait until there’s a lapse to know how you’re going to handle it,” advises Fader. Instead, have a plan in place for how you’ll keep your healthy habits alive and well when you go on vacation, if you get sick and on those stressful days that trigger your urge to binge.
5. Make avoidance irrelevant.
“The most common barrier to sticking with a goal is avoidance,” says Fader. “I call it ‘the messy desk syndrome.’ Each day that you don’t go to the gym is a day that the desk gets messier, and it gets easier to avoid things.”
To keep yourself out of that psychological rut, make your habit part of your routine right away. Build in your gym time as a regular part of your schedule so it becomes as second nature as taking the kids to school or cleaning the house on Sundays. When you establish your habits as routine, you eliminate the opportunity to neglect your goals.