[Video] Taking action on your new health goal

a photo of Caroline Wood
Head of Behavioural Insights and Research at Bupa UK
07 January 2022
Next review due January 2025

Working on a new healthy lifestyle goal is a great thing to do for your health and wellbeing. This article is for you if you’ve decided on a health goal you want to work towards. I’ll share some tips and advice from behavioural science that will help set you up for success.

A woman running outside

What’s your goal?

Now that you’ve decided what goal you’d like to work towards, it’s time to take action. But, if you’re still a bit unsure about what you’d like to do, take a bit more time to reflect on your options.

It’s very likely that you’re going to be doing one of two things.

  • You’re changing an existing behaviour because it’s causing you problems.
  • You’re going to add in a whole new behaviour to your life.

What are good goals for the new year?

It’s up to you! The start of a new year is a popular time to set goals because it signifies a ‘fresh start’. Lots of people want to eat healthier or be more active. These are great goals to work towards. A healthier diet and physical activity benefits both your mental and physical health. But it could be anything you choose – big or small.

Some ideas for other healthy goals might include:

  • looking after your sleep routine better
  • reducing how much alcohol you drink
  • looking after your mental wellbeing
  • learning a new skill or hobby

How to write New Year goals

Try to make sure your goal is challenging yet realistic. Setting goals that are too easy or too difficult to achieve can affect your motivation and chances of success.

Your goal also needs to be specific and measurable. Don’t be vague. For example, if you’d like to be more active (which is quite a vague goal), you could say:

  • I’m going to go for a walk on my lunchbreak for half an hour at least three times a week.
  • I’m going to complete a walk-to-run 5km programme in three months.

SMART goals

A good way to make your goal really focused is to create a SMART plan, which stands for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time bound

So, now that you’ve decided on your goal, it’s time to take action.

Why do New Year resolutions fail?

A lot of the time, failing to reach a goal is down to lack of preparation. An important part of meeting a goal is to identify the barriers that might get in the way.

Think about your daily routine and when you’re planning to ‘do’ your new behaviour. Are there times throughout the day or week that might cause a problem or disruption?

Some examples of challenges might include:

  • work
  • bad night’s sleep
  • childcare
  • holidays
  • illness
  • unexpected appointments or events
  • traffic or commute
  • the weather

If you miss a run or don’t have time to prepare a healthy meal, don’t despair. What you need is a back-up plan – a plan B.

Developing coping strategies

Make an ‘If Then’ plan

When it comes to making changes to our behaviour, we all start off with the best intentions.

The problem is, just thinking something is a good idea and promising you’ll do it, has very little relationship with whether you do it.

New Year's resolutions are the perfect example. Studies show that more than 80 per cent of people fail to follow through with their good intentions by the end of January.

A big reason this happens is because, as humans, we're often overly optimistic. We don't like to think about what could go wrong, and this means we fail to plan ahead.

'If Then' planning is a technique to help you keep on track. You think about things that could take you off track and make plans for how you’ll handle them.

If Then plans cue your brain to focus on your goals and how you're going to get yourself there. This means you’re more likely to succeed.

Here's a few more examples of If Then plans in action.

  • Getting active: If I miss my morning walk before work, then I will go for a 30-minute walk at lunch time instead.
  • Healthier food choices: If I'm at a restaurant on a weeknight, then I will order a hot drink instead of a dessert.

Get social support

You don’t have to do it alone. Think about who can provide additional support. You can do this in several ways; for example, if your goal is to train for a walk to 5km, you might:

  • run with someone else
  • join a running group
  • track your runs and share them with others
  • talk to others about your training and how it’s going

These activities help create a sense of accountability. Committing to your goal publicly can help boost your motivation to keep running. You will start to see yourself as someone who runs. And this change in self-identity makes it easier for you to keep up the behaviour.

Prompts, cues and reminders

Set reminders in your calendar or phone. For example, if you want to do five minutes of meditation and calming breathing each morning, set a reminder. Put it as a recurring appointment in your phone or even on a post-it note somewhere visible.

Make it fun

Depending on what your goal is, it may not always feel ‘fun’. But there are things you can do to make your new behaviour more appealing. One idea is to pair a behaviour you feel you ought to be doing with a behaviour you like to do. This is called temptation bundling.

Here are a few examples.

  • Goal: to reduce drinking alcohol during the week.
  • Make it fun: Get creative with making non-alcoholic drinks fun and special.

  • Goal: to increase activity levels by going for a half an hour walk every morning.
  • Make it fun: Listen to your favourite podcast – and only listen to it when you’re on your walk.

What next?

Think about which tools and techniques you’re going to use to help you keep up with your new behaviour.

Look out for our upcoming articles about:

  • what to do if you have a setback
  • how to maintain your new goal for long-term success
a photo of Caroline Wood
Caroline Wood
Head of Behavioural Insights and Research at Bupa UK

    • Healthy living. Oxford Handbook of General Practice. Oxford Medicines Online., published June 2020
    • SMART goals. Mind Tools., accessed 10 December 2021
    • Bieleke M, Keller L, Gollwitzer PM. If-then planning. European Review of Social Psychology 2021; 32(1):88–122. doi:10.1080/10463283.2020.1808936
    • Commitment. Behavioural Economics., accessed 20 December 2021
    • Berkman ET. The Neuroscience of Goals and Behavior Change. Consult Psychol J 2018; 70(1):28–44. doi:10.1037/cpb0000094
    • Milkman KL, Minson JA, Volpp KG. Holding the hunger games hostage at the gym: an evaluation of temptation bundling. Manage Sci 2014; 60(2):283–99. doi:10.1287/mnsc.2013.1784
    • New Year’s resolution project. Quirkology., accessed 4 January 2022
    • Matthews G. Goalsetting research. Proceedings of the 9th Annual International Conference of the Psychology Research Unit of Athens Institute for Education and Research; 25–28 May 2015, Athens, Greece

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