The most common mistake we make when goal-setting is having a highly general end goal without a flexible, customizable framework (that becomes a blueprint for your “game plan”). Many people will say things like, “This is the year I take control of my health!” but if you don’t have a picture of what that looks like — of how you’ll actually execute small actions within your everyday life as a “healthier person,” how do you really know where to start and what to start with?! 

Plus, a bigger problem that comes up in my line of work time and again is that the universe of diet culture and pseudoscientific information about health is so deafening (and that particular breed of disinformation is everywhere) that it tricks us into believing that in order to reach any health related goal we have to somehow become someone other than who we are right now — living a lifestyle that’s wholly different from the one in which we currently exist. We’re told to cut out, eliminate, restrict, and cut back — without realizing that these elimination-focused interventions come at the cost of living our lives! In order for anything to truly stick long-term, it has to work for your lifestyle — not in opposition to it. 

Think, “Small, simple, specific.” 

Any health plan that’s sustainable for you that will ultimately get you to reaching your goal (and maintaining that goal) has to consist of mostly small actions that feel attainable for you right now, actionable in a few hours from now (this sounds obvious, but in the world of keto and fasting, you never know) and just a little bit outside of your comfort zone to feel challenging enough for you (in my book  Dressing on the Side, I talk about this using a Pareto — 80/20 — rule.) 

If you want to lose weight and are committed to making healthier choices without uprooting your whole lifestyle, think about tangible things you can do every day that are equal parts hyper-specific, simple, and actually enjoyable (or at least sound like they might be!). For example: Adding more veggies to every lunch meal, committing to prepping breakfast every night before you go to bed, or setting a night-time “alarm clock” to get you into bed earlier than usual. And since all of us are different humans with different needs and lifestyles, staying accountable to yourself — making your personal health a top priority and making plans to achieve goals that help you consistently do this over time — is going to require you to set some boundaries (which is an ongoing challenge for everyone). If you need a place to start, I’d suggest taking a look at page 92 of Dressing on the Side (which walks you through boundary-setting as it relates to health related goals). To start you off, use these three boundary-setting tips: 

Step 1: Prioritize personal health by assessing your daily/weekly/monthly routine 

Considering where you are when you’re eating throughout the day is crucial, often because your environment is likely to determine what types of foods and snacks are actually available to you. Ask yourself, Where do I spend most of my time? Where do I “lose” time that I’d otherwise use for physical activity of any kind? Where am I when I typically say, “Whatever, I’m getting cheese fries!” How many days do I eat at home per week? Plan ahead by first determining where your schedule leaves you in terms of environment — if you work from home but want to make exercise a priority, then you’ll have to schedule that in either at home, or make plans to leave your home. The same is true of the foods you eat. Assess your schedule, determine where you are and when, and use this framework as your guideline for how to put a healthier habit into action. For example: Let’s say you’d like to make more nutritious food choices, but you’ve been struggling because your current job requires dining out at lunches every week, at least four times per week. Your first step can be to decide a realistic number of eating occasions, or number of meals that you’re committed to making more veggie-heavy, and develop a plan that meets the demands of your current routine. Let’s say your first healthier eating habit to prioritize is adding more vegetables to your meals. After assessing your calendar, you settle on lunchtime as your target, and:

  • Make a plan to add more vegetables at this specific meal, three days per week.  
  • Check your calendar to see where you’re due to eat lunch, or suggest to your lunchmates where you’d like to go. 
  • Wherever you are, you add a veggie-based salad, soup, side, or sauté that you’ll include at each lunch. If that sounds too hard, scale back: Make it once per week, or decide not to make that change at lunch (and make your goal to add more to your dinner instead). If that sounds too simple, decide that you’re going to add more produce at all meals this week, and plan from there.

Step 2: Set boundaries that will help you stick with a schedule

If you only like the pancakes at your local diner, but your priority is to form healthier habits, then is having breakfast at said diner every single day of the week really your best bet? Establish a boundary with yourself or with others in your environment to put this into action, like going to this diner on Saturday and Sunday, and committing to making more breakfast meals at home during the week. If you always eat too-many-muffins at your monthly status meeting, then put a boundary into place that keeps you from eating muffins at this meeting, only. In other words, just because you say no to “meeting muffins” doesn’t mean you never eat muffins. It means you’re not going to eat them during this meeting time, but make a plan for when you’ll eat them this month so you don’t have to live the rest of your life without baked goods! Entering that new date into your calendar and stick to that plan = boundary-setting success. Honoring what’s important to you for the sake of your mental, physical, and emotional health does not require restriction of a specific food or nutrient for life, but it may mean leaving it off the table in a scenario that you find triggering for you. So put those muffins where they belong: into a free time slot on your calendar, with people you enjoy spending time with, sourced from the bakery that you love.

Step 3: Identify your boundary bullies (BBs)

Boundary bullies are the people, places, and other work or personal activities that pop out of nowhere and suck the time and energy out of your day. Figure out where they are, who they are, where they’re “hiding,” and what it is that makes you the victim of said “bullying.” Is it a post-work happy hour at the local bar where the Buffalo wings become dinner? (If that’s the case, then pack a snack before you go). Is it a colleague who is always getting coffee at the same time you are, and always talks you into donuts? (If that’s the case, then eat a snack before, or make this mid-morning run a part of your breakfast by eating half of your breakfast sandwich before the break, and the other half during coffee.) Is it friends who order items “for the table” when you’re at a restaurant, only to leave you grazing on a bucket of fried dumplings you didn’t even want in the first place, but don’t want to waste them? (If that’s the case, tell your friend, “I’m having the shrimp and broccoli! But I’ll split the string beans instead.”)  

Real, genuine, and lasting self-care requires developing clearly defined personal health goals that will inform the food and exercise choices you make, and the boundaries you create to keep these routines in place. Over time, you’ll get new habits that set you up for better health and well-being for life. 

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  • Jaclyn London, MS, RD, CDN

    Registered Dietitian & Author of, "Dressing on the Side (and Other Diet Myths Debunked): 11 Science Based Ways to Eat More, Stress Less, and Feel Great About Your Body"

    Head of Nutrition & Wellness @ WW; Thrive Global Thought Leader

    Jackie is a Registered Dietitian (RD) and New York State Certified Dietitian-Nutritionist (CDN). She is the head of nutrition and wellness for WW (formerly Weight Watchers). Previously as Good Housekeeping’s nutrition director, she was responsible for the creation, execution, and oversight of all of the magazine’s nutrition-related content across media platforms, including diet and meal planning content; nutrition and health news; product reviews, and Good Housekeeping Seal applications in the food space. She also responsible for the inception and strategic development of the Good Housekeeping Food and Nutrition Brand Lab and Good Housekeeping Nutritionist Approved Emblem and incubator program that she continues to oversee and expand. Jackie appears regularly on national TV segments on behalf of the brand, including TODAY, Good Morning America, The Rachael Ray Show, The Dr. Oz Show, Inside Edition, and CBSN. Jackie earned her Bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University, and her Master’s degree in Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics from NYU. Before transitioning into journalism in 2014, she served as senior clinical dietitian at The Mount Sinai Hospital, private practice dietitian at Nutrition Energy in Manhattan. Jackie’s first book, Dressing on the Side (and Other Diet Myths Debunked): 11 Science-Based Ways to Eat More, Stress Less, and Feel Great About Your Body,” was published in January, 2019.