Set Goals for the Changes You Want to Make

If your approach to life is mainly one of “going with the flow,” you’re likely to find yourself being washed down the stream, backward.

To have any real sense of getting somewhere, it’s helpful to know where you’re starting from and where you want to go. Goal setting is a dynamic tool for getting things done, and helps you clarify what is important in your life, what your priorities are. And it aids self-esteem. By setting goals you are resisting the mentality that says you are a victim in life. Instead, you affirm your choice for self-responsibility: “I am responsible for my life and health” and “I am a worthwhile person.”

Goals are like maps-they keep you on course. More than that, goals are like magnets-they tend to attract things that help get them accomplished. It’s almost magical at times, the way this works. When you put down in words what you want to achieve, you immediately start to see or remember the resources that are all around you.


Many people make lists of the things they have to do that day or that week. When they cross some items off, they have a feeling of accomplishment. Even if they only get through half the list, they still feel good knowing that they’ve moved forward.

There is power in setting goals, so tap into that power now.

Small Changes-An Exercise in Setting Goals
People often overwhelm themselves by tackling a goal that they think they “should” achieve. They set their sights too high and then quit completely when they don’t make the grade. It helps to make a distinction between the goals you think you want and the goals to which you will really commit.

1. Read back over the letters and lists you generated in Discover What You Already Know. Star any items that you really want to change or work on in some way. Add any new ones that occur to you. Call this selection of starred items and additions your “Want List.”

If you didn’t do the exercises offered in that section, draw up a Want List now, noting aspects of your life that you know are affecting your overall health. For example: the people, behaviors, circumstances, and environments that encourage or discourage your wellness.

2. Now look over your Want List and put a double star next to any items that you are ready to change or work on in some way right now. Write down those items in complete sentences that express your willingness to act. For example:

I am ready and willing to commit to making a change
in my habit of driving over the speed limit.

I am ready and willing to…

3. Prioritize your commitment statements.

4. Starting with your top priority item, brainstorm for a moment or two about any preliminary steps you will need to take before you can start working directly on your goal. For example, will you need to purchase some special equipment, shop at a different food store, start reading a book on nutrition, get some instruction in weight-bearing exercise, or have a consultation with your doctor? Write these steps down.

Now set up a schedule for accomplishing these preliminaries. Assigning specific dates, times, places, or methods to these items will maximize the likelihood of your follow-through.

5. Next, make a Resource List of the people, places, and things that are available to help you in fulfilling your commitment. For example:

My children, I can ask them to remind me of my commitment when they see I am breaking it.

6. Determine the length of time that you will work on this goal. An hour? A day? Two weeks? And decide how often you will check your progress and when you will reevaluate your goal. For example:

For the next three days I will get up a half-hour earlier each morning and take a vigorous twenty-minute walk before having breakfast. I will evaluate my progress (how I felt during the walk; how that exercise affected my overall energy throughout the day) on the evening of the third day and decide then whether I will continue the walks.

7. Keep encouraged by always congratulating yourself for any advances you?ve made, no matter how small. Remember, the bigger your goals, the bigger the challenge and the greater the likelihood that you will have setbacks. That’s a normal part of growing and changing. Maintain a nonjudgmental attitude toward yourself for what you have not yet accomplished and honor yourself for what you have done.

8. Work on only one or, at most, two goals at a time. When you have established them as natural parts of your lifestyle, then move on to other goals.

Setting Goals for Life
At the same time that you are building your self-mastery by working on short-term goals, it is very helpful to map out a bigger picture for yourself?a plan for your life and health for years into the future. The following exercise will guide you in this process.

1. Take four blank sheets of paper. Head them as follows: 1) Where/how I want my life and health to be five years from today; 2) Where/how I want my life and health to be two years from today; 3) Where/how I want my life and health to be six months from today; and 4) How I would spend the next six months if I knew for sure they would be my last.

As you work on these lists, be creative. Ask yourself: “What would I have/do/be if I had no limitation (like time, money, or job responsibilities)?” Work on each sheet as quickly as possible, taking no more than fifteen minutes for each.

2. Read over all you have written and look for goals that are repeated or strongly expressed. These will be your priorities.

3. Put the exercise aside for a few days and then repeat Step 1. Compare the results, looking for the goals that were clearly priorities in both writings. This exercise helps you ascertain your values and plan the next steps in your life journey.

4. Focus on one or more of your strongest goals and
create a Road Map-a series of action steps that will bring your dream into form within the desired time frame. For example: If your goal is to have a significantly stronger body in two years, write down the preliminary steps you will need to take to gather the necessary resources and information to start this. Taking a trip to the library to get a book on nutrition or making a phone call to a local gym might be a good beginning here.

If you already know how to go about getting what you want, simply list the action steps and a schedule. For example, write down what type of exercise program you will use and when you will start it; what modification you will make to your diet and when and how you will do this; and so on.

5. Plan for frequent reviews and reevaluations to ensure that your steps are realistic and to keep yourself encouraged along the way.

6. Share your goals with friends and invite their support in helping you stay on task, or join a support group that has similar goals. Creating a support network is invaluable to your journey. In fact, it may be essential.


For anything to make a
difference in a person’s life,
an insight must be followed up by action.

Jim Zarvos

Traps to Avoid
Hundreds of different mental messages, including doubts and fears, will arise to discourage you from designing any goals and from sticking with them when
you hit your first temporary setback. Some of these messages might include:

* “I already tried this once, and it didn’t work.”
* “People are always trying to get me to set goals. I’ll show them who’s boss!”
* “What if I set a goal and then don’t make it? I’ll feel worse.”
* “What if I do make it? Will people expect me to do it all the time?”
* “It’s a waste of time to make plans. Nobody can predict the future. Just take whatever comes.”

These messages are dangerous because each of them is partially true. Of course you can’t predict the future. And people probably will expect more of you if they see you are a person who can achieve a goal. These messages can become self-defeating if you give them energy, but remember that they are only thoughts. Don’t let them stop you. Keep moving ahead. The difference between a life of greatness and a life of mediocrity is that great people move beyond their limitations, while the mediocre sit around talking about them.


Approach those “impossible” goals by breaking them down into workable daily actions. Or, think of it this way: How do you create a garden where there wasn’t one before? You start today by removing one rock at a time.


Reprinted with permission, from Simply Well by John W. Travis, MD, & Regina Sara Ryan. Copyright 2001. Celestial Arts, Berkeley, CA.


The online version of Dr. Travis’ Wellness Inventory may be accessed at (http://www.WellPeople.com). The Wellness Inventory may also be licensed by coaches, health and wellness professionals, and organizations.

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John W Travis MD MPH Written by John W Travis MD MPH

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