Mission: possible!

Want to drop a few pounds, ditch a bad habit or enjoy a deeper night's sleep? Here's your seven-step plan to making it happen

Christine Gullage took small steps to tackle a big challenge. Last February, on the cusp of turning 30, the general manager of a Toronto-based online charity joined a weight-loss program. Gullage was horrified when she weighed in at 205 pounds—the heaviest she had ever been. But the thought of dropping 55 pounds to reach the recommended weight for her five-foot-six frame was too much to wrap her head around. So, she chose a smaller goal: 25 pounds. Gullage also decided—based on weight that she had lost and regained in the past—to focus on having sustainable strategies rather than ditching the Starbucks sweets and takeout lunches overnight. Week 1: She worked on sipping eight glasses of water a day. Week 2: She concentrated on moving around more often. Week 3: She ate breakfast before leaving home. “If I didn’t meet my goal, I’d just set it again for the next week,” says Gullage. Ten goals, 36 weeks and 43 dropped pounds later, she’s still going strong.

Gullage was onto something with her week-by-week strategy. “It’s important to take small steps toward a goal because if you can see that you’re making progress, you’re more encouraged to continue,” says Dr. Catherine Phillips, a psychiatrist based in Edmonton.

Research supports the smaller-is-better model, too. Health Canada, for example, promotes a step-by-step plan to help people quit smoking for good—complete with motivational e-mails—available by clicking Healthy Living at And U.S. Federal Obesity Clinical Guidelines suggest that overweight patients first focus on losing only 10 per cent of their body weight, a move that could immediately cut back on obesity-related risks such as heart disease and high blood pressure.

Your seven-step plan

Maybe, like Christine Gullage, you’re carrying extra pounds that you would love to lose. Or perhaps you wish that you could get more sleep, eat extra vegetables or tackle a bad habit. You’ll need a well-defined goal to get you there. “Goals provide you with a measuring stick and a clear sense of direction,” says Dr. Phillips. To set yours, follow this expert-approved plan—step by step, of course—and turn those dreams into health goals that happen.

Take stock
You can’t boost your health until you know where you’re at now (take our How healthy are you? quiz). Have you visited your physician in the past year for a checkup? If not, set up an appointment to chat about the health changes you would like to make. The following tests will help give you the big picture, says Dr. Karen Tu, a family physician at Toronto Western Hospital:

Blood pressure check Get one at every physical.

Clinical breast exam An annual breast exam and mammogram aren’t mandatory until you hit age 50, but you can ask for them anyway.

Pap smear Your doctor should take one at age 18 or when you become sexually active and continue every one to three years thereafter to check for cervical cancer.

Height and weight check A change in height may be one of the first signs of osteoporosis. Your height and weight combined are used to calculate your body mass index (BMI) and determine how far you are from your healthiest body weight.

Over 50 years old or post-menopausal? You’ll need some additional tests to screen for high cholesterol, colon cancer, diabetes and osteoporosis. Mammograms are also recommended every one to two years for women aged 50 to 69.

Give yourself a pat on the back when you get the results. Congratulate yourself on what you’re doing right, whether it’s eating balanced meals or nodding off for eight hours a night. Then note what requires work. Do you need to shrink portion sizes to reach your BMI? Will adding weight training to your workout build your bones and offset osteoporosis?

Examine your motives
Ask yourself what’s pushing you to make a change, besides your test results. Is it a goal you’ve assigned yourself, or are you stubbing out cigarettes because your partner won’t stop harping? “Goals that are personally rewarding tend to be better,” says John Norcross, a psychology professor at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania who studies New Year’s resolution-making. “Make sure you’re not just responding to other people’s desires.”

Also, think about what’s keeping you from changing. Dr. Phillips suggests that when you’re about to raid the cookie jar or pour yourself another drink, stop and think:

Are you feeling empty? Anxious? Lonely? Agitated? “Ponder where these feelings are coming from and why they’re arising,” says Dr. Phillips. Gaining insight into your indulgent behaviours will keep you on track and tell you whether you need professional help to reach your goals. If you suspect that binge eating is connected to low self-esteem, for example, it might be time for therapy.

Look to the past
If you’ve tried and failed before—and who hasn’t?—a rear-view look can help you sort out a winning strategy this time. “Where were you in your life when you set that goal for Run for the Cure, for instance, and how realistic was it?” asks Cheryl Smith, a Vancouver-based leadership coach. “Maybe you realized that 5:30 a.m. runs weren’t good last time and that’s why you didn’t make it. Pick a better time that works for you.”

If you’ve never tried to achieve a health goal before, reflect on a time when you pulled off another amazing feat. Perhaps you went back to school while raising two small children—how did you pull that off? Drum up that same determination for your new goal. Also, consider finding a health mentor—someone who has aimed for the same goals, suggests Colleen Parsons-Olsson, an associate director of campus recreation at the University of Calgary who helps novice runners train for marathons. “Tag along with her, ask questions and use her energy to help you,” she says.

Get real
Do your homework so you know how long it might take to find a less stressful job, lose 20 pounds or work up to 60 minutes of physical activity a day. This will help you avoid what Dr. Janet Polivy, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, calls the “false hope syndrome.” This happens when you unrealistically think, I’ll start exercising and, within days, have more energy, loose-fitting clothes, a new boyfriend and a new job. The problem? “If the rewards you expect are not forthcoming, your motivation will start to slip,” she says.

Building your goals on dreams rather than on reality could set them up for a fall. In one study by Norcross, 25 per cent of the 213 participants who had resolved to make a change dropped it after the first week. Forty per cent stuck to their goals for the next six months. Their secret? They used less wishful thinking and self-blame than those who were unsuccessful.

To stay grounded, list the positive and negative aspects of your proposed goal to, say, start running. “If it’s to feel better, sleep soundly, have more energy and improve your health, that’s great,” says Parsons-Olsson. “But for every change, there are going to be negative elements.” For instance, maybe your running plans mean you won’t be home to watch Friends. Create a strategy to downplay each negative and, as Bing Crosby used to sing, accentuate the positive.

Think smart
Now that you’ve examined your health, motives, track record and expectations, you’re ready to set specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely (SMART) goals. Why timely? Establishing deadlines offers a focus and avoids the I’ll-start-tomorrow dance. Just make your deadlines achievable—think about your goals and the time you have to dedicate to them. For example, is going from zero to 10 portions of fruit and vegetables a day by next week really going to happen?

Make it happen
Develop an action plan to put your goals in motion. Build in a support team of friends and family, as well as a professional if you’ve never tried to make a health change before. Want to design a more effective workout, for example? Think about hiring a personal trainer who can map out a detailed plan. One study from Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., concluded that participants supervised by personal trainers had better strength-training results than those without help. Also, remember to break down your goals into bite-size pieces and decide what your 10 per cent target is. Need more sleep? Start by tucking into bed 20 minutes earlier on three nights of your first week.

Put your plans on paper, too. Writing a contract with yourself makes your goals more concrete, says Elaine Craig, program co-ordinator of Humber College’s fitness and health promotion program in Toronto. Outline your goals, what you’re willing to do to make them happen and timelines and then sign the document. For additional motivation, get a friend or family member to sign it.

Stay on track
If you achieve some of your initial goals, it’s easy to become complacent. Not Gullage: her week-by-week approach means she’s still bringing brown-bag lunches and hitting the gym three times a week. Eventually, she hopes to settle in at 145 pounds. One key to long-term goals is to keep monitoring your progress, says Norcross. Consider printing our Quiz: How healthy are you? and completing it every few months. If you’ve made SMART goals, you’ll see improvements that will motivate you further. As for Gullage, she’s keeping it real. “If I’m not quite there yet, I’m not going to beat myself up over it. I’ve come so far!”

Don’t get derailed!!

Try these strategies when you come face-to-face with a situation that threatens to sidetrack you from your goal.

Your mom keeps dropping not-so-helpful hints that your new weight-loss plan will fail, just like last time.
Try this: Don’t tell her. Sure, going public with your goals rallies support, but only if you tell the right people. “Notice how you feel when you talk about your goals with certain people,” says Marian Slaman, a Toronto life coach. “If you don’t feel encouraged or supported, then don’t discuss your goals with them. You don’t need somebody negating what you’re pursuing.”

You’re trying to quit smoking but your puff buddies are giving you a hard time. Try this: Practice those assertion skills and keep saying no whenever they encourage you to join them in lighting up. If the pressure continues, avoid them…for now. “We control most of our environment,” says John Norcross, a psychology professor in Scranton, PA. “Be up front with friends and say, this is what I need from you,” adds Cheryl Smith, a leadership coach in Vancouver. If they’re good friends, they’ll understand.

You were eating healthy for four days and then binged on a bag of Doritos.
Try this: Develop a re-entry strategy into your goal plan. “Anticipate slips—they’re practically inevitable,” says Norcross, who notes that when it comes to resolutions, 80 to 90 per cent of people slip within the first month. How fast you bounce back determines your long-term success, so get back to your new eating habits as soon as possible. Norcross also suggests thinking about what caused you to derail—did you eat the bag because you skipped your afternoon snack and were ravenous? Plan ahead to avoid similar Doritos run-ins in the future.