How to Change Habits and Meet Your Goals
A clinical psychologist shares the secrets to behavior change, and how to make progress on your goals.
If you started January with a list of New Year’s resolutions, there’s a good chance you might be wondering where those well-intentioned goals went. Only about 22% of people stuck with their resolutions at the beginning of 2022, according to a Statista survey. And 63% said they never made any.
But it’s not too late to set realistic goals and embrace behavior changes you’ve been wishing to see in yourself, according to Dr. Jennifer E. Cruz, a clinical psychologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. Health Matters recently spoke to Dr. Cruz about fresh starts, the benefits of small goals, and the key to making progress.
“One of the things we always say is that goals should be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound,” says Dr. Cruz. “Most people end up putting goals that are way too big on themselves.”
Set Yourself Up for Success with SMART Goals
“It’s important to think about what specifically you want to change,” says Dr. Cruz. Goals should be focused, clear, and well-defined with an action plan, according to a paper published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. If your goal is a broader, longterm one, then your plan would consist of short-term goals, with detailed steps.
Define your goals in a way that allows you to measure success. For example, if you want to exercise more, choose how many days in the week you want to work out, and for how long. For example, if you commit to taking a 30-minute walk three times a week for the next month, that is a measurable goal that you will clearly “know whether you accomplished it or not,” says Dr. Cruz.
Dr. Cruz advises to “start small, which lets you have the opportunity to test things out and get a sense on whether the plan is working for you. You should be able to carry out the goals.” Action plans can help you understand if and how your goals can be achieved and can be modified to help you attain them.
It’s important for your goal to be within reach, realistic, and aligned with your life purpose. “They should be relevant to you,” says Dr. Cruz. “That’s the motivation piece.”
This could be a clearly defined timeline, including a starting date and a target date. The purpose is to create urgency. “You should be able to have something set up, so that you know you are changing or have changed and to feel reinforced,” says Dr. Cruz.
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Progress can also mean trying again. If you haven’t made it to the gym as often as you’d like or slipped back into habits you hoped to leave behind, there’s value in the fact that you made the resolution in the first place.
“You had an intention to change,” says Dr. Cruz. “You learned a lot about what helps you change and what doesn’t help you change, and maybe what some barriers were that you hadn’t expected…Even if you’re sitting here and saying, ‘I already slipped off the wagon’, it’s okay because you have every day looking forward that you can make the changes.”
Jennifer Cruz, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist providing psychotherapy and evaluation to individuals, families, and groups of all ages. Dr. Cruz’s practice focuses on providing evidence-based psychological treatment to children and families affected by chronic illness. Dr. Cruz is the manager for psychology systems and program clinical director for the Integrated Services in Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. She provides clinical leadership for programs integrating tiered mental health into medical and school-settings. She is also an associate clinical professor of medical psychology (in psychiatry).
Learn more about psychiatry and behavioral health at NewYork-Presbyterian.