As a registered nurse and certified health coach, designing goals to maximize health, wellness, and prevention is a year-round endeavor for me, not just reserved for the January holiday hangover. One thing that I’ve discovered over the last few years is that meaningful lifestyle changes are nearly always sabotaged by our ‘bigger is better’ mentality. The truth is, when it comes to your health, small, sustainable changes carry the highest value. Here, I will share five steps to keep this year’s health goals attainable and grounded in reality.

Before we delve these steps in detail, a public service announcement: your 2018 health goals don’t have to have anything to do with the physical space that your body inhabits. Whether your body composition is ideal, suboptimal, or barely a blip on your mental radar, there is nearly always a number of smaller, better goals to be targeted for such a profound undertaking as transforming your physical self.

So if ‘lose sixty pounds’ is your New Year’s resolution, I am here to tell you: go small or go home. What’s more effective: a broad, sweeping resolution that you cast aside in six weeks (or less) or a habit of walking off of your train one stop early that you sustain for the remainder of the year?

So, how do we swap out the People magazine cover transformation goals for the goals that leave you basking in the warm glow of your accomplishments next December? Here I proffer a step by step guide to actually getting to where you want to be and making it last:

  1. Set a date with purpose.

The first day of the year feels, to borrow from OutKast, so fresh and so clean.for many, though, it’s just another day on the calendar. If the first of January doesnt resonate with you, then pick a date that does.

Maybe your journey begins on the first Monday that you are back to work and will relish the return of more structure to your day. Or perhaps some symbolism motivates you—start on the birthday of the person who inspires you to make a change. I have started new journeys the day after Christmas. By New Year’s Day, it felt like I had a leg up on everybody—sort of like waking up extra early when everyone else is still sleeping.

Take a look at your calendar and select a day on which, after an honest self-evaluation, you will feel the most momentum urging you forward.

  1. Know your ‘big why.’

Extrinsic motivation— doing something because someone else wants you to—wears thin pretty fast. It was true when you were a kid being forced to play a sport or an instrument that you weren’t passionate about and refused to practice, and it remains true now. You might have to dig around for this one, but ask yourself why you really want and need to shift your behaviors in a way that changes your overall lifestyle. It’s okay for your end goal to change at this point; it means you’ve thought it through.

Perhaps your ‘big why’ is because you want to keep up with your toddler; someone else’s might be because their 10-year-old self always wanted to ride a bicycle through Paris. There are as many big why’s as there are people, many more in fact, because of our multitude of dreams, ambitions, and desires.

Whatever your big why is, make it tangible.

  1. Surround yourself with affirming reminders. Cue yourself visually at every turn to remember what your goal is and why. Carry the ticket stub from the amusement park where you were left in the dust while your toddler sped from ride to ride with glee. Frame a print of bicycles in France and hang it in your kitchen where you prep your pre-ride snacks. Visual reminders of what we value and why we want to change keep us inspired when our enthusiasm starts to wane.
  1. Calm your inner critic. It seems silly, right? Some of us feel that if that critic was a little more aggressive, we wouldn’t need a lifestyle change to begin with. With that mindset, I advise clients to view their relationship with their inner critic as they would with any partner: an ongoing dialogue is necessary, but allowing abuse in the form of belittling, silencing or isolation is not—it’s unhealthy. If you are particularly ambitious, starting small with your goals can elicit a nasty response from your inner critic. In fact, what we know about the psychology of health coaching is that goals that seems almost trivial—simply digging out your exercise shoes, or reducing the packets of sugar in your coffee from three to two— are actually crucial for stabilizing a foundation of success. Once you have amassed a couple of wins with small goals, the endurance needed to undertake bigger, long-term challenges will start to emerge, and your inner critic might start to see it this way as well.
  2. Be mindful of your experience. It won’t always be comfortable to honestly assess your progress, but it will always be necessary. If you feel like you’re running uphill in sand and haven’t made any progress for two weeks, reevaluate your last goal, and take it down a notch to put it within reach. If you’re finding success at every turn, challenge yourself more and raise the bar a little higher. After a few weeks, two things might happen: the enthusiasm for your new goal might dwindle and your attention will naturally return to before you decided to make a change. That’s to be expected, but go back to your big why. Mindfully recall a moment in time before you started your journey. Are you comfortable going back there? If your answer gives you pause, freshen up that visual reminder, get out your calendar, and try, try again.

    Every New Year’s Day that we mark is a reminder that we’ve been gifted an entire year to live with purpose. Go live your gift.