Healthy Choices with Liza Baker: Goal Tending!

New Year’s resolutions.

How are yours coming along? (How much do you hate me for asking you that?)

Love them? Hate them? Make them only to break them? Make them and succeed? Outright refuse to make even one? Prefer to choose a “word for the year” or set goals that aren’t tied to a specific day?

Making New Year’s Resolutions, particularly about our health, is a ritual many of us practice. And it seems that forgetting about them by mid-February or so is practiced just as frequently.

Why do we have such a hard time with these resolutions—or with any goals for that matter?

In the glow of champagne and a feeling that we’ve been granted a do-over with the flip of a calendar page, most of us tend to bite off way more than we can chew and set “all or nothing” sort of health goals: give up junk food, quit caffeine, detox from sugar, lose 30 pounds in a month….

In the light (or dark) of cold mid-February days, these enormous commitments suddenly appear exactly as they are—unreachable—and with an all-or-nothing attitude, we toss them aside because why even bother?

Secondly, putting an arbitrary date to our resolution can be problematic. I’ll start over on Monday. I’ll start exercising on the first of the month. I’ll give up coffee on January 1st. If you’re not taking steps to reach your goal right now, how will a different day or time change that? Someday is not a day of the week after all.

So don’t worry—we can start TODAY!

How is a health goal like a grant proposal?

It’s not the first line of a bad joke, I promise.

Want to be more successful at setting and reaching goals—health and otherwise? Let’s take a page from the nonprofit world.

Part of the reason I have a soft spot for working with clients in the nonprofit sector is that most of them are familiar with writing a grant proposal and, when successful in their application, with doing the work they’ve been funded to do.

What does that have to do with goal setting?

Funders want to understand what it is they are putting their money into: what will this proposed project accomplish, whom will it benefit, how long will it take, how will its success be measured, etc.

In addition to asking about the highest-level outcome of the project, they usually ask for goals that are SMART—and acronym for:

  • Specific: the more specific we can be, the clearer we are about the desired result.
  • Measurable: there needs to be a way to measure whether or not the goal has been reached.
  • Achievable: can the goal be reached with the resources we have access to?
  • Relevant: are the resources being applied to goals that are related to our desired outcome.
  • Time-bound: the goal has a specific deadline by which it will be reached (or not).

And the funders further ask what smaller objectives serve as benchmarks for the larger goals, and what the timeline and activities are that get the project to these objectives.

How does this “grant proposal” format map onto goal setting?


Think about the outcome as the very high-level results we can achieve: getting healthy can mean losing weight, achieving new levels of physical fitness, getting off medication, improving our bloodwork numbers….

SMART goals

Let’s take what is likely the most common health goal: weight loss. The way we make a New Year’s resolution often sounds like this: In 2020, I’m going to get healthy. The SMART version sounds like this: In 6 months (T), I will lose 30 lbs (S,M,A) so that I can easily play with my kids (R) without becoming short of breath (M).

We’ve gotten very specific (this goal is about weight loss), set a deadline (6 months), set some measurables (30 lbs, better stamina), taken into account the relevance to our own life (we’re doing it because we want to play with our kids, not because we’re trying to make our doctor happy), and recognize that sustainable weight loss is considered to be approximately 1–2 pounds per week—so 30 lbs in 26 weeks is realistic.

Another example is physical activity. “I’m going to start working out in 2020” is pretty vague. The SMART version could be: By the end of 6 months (T), I will be spending 1 hour a day, 5 days a week (M,A) being physically active—either walking, swimming, lifting weights, or doing stretching or balance exercises (S)—so that I can easily keep up with my grandchildren on vacation (R).


I’ve intentionally made the SMART goals above easy to break into objectives, which for the weight loss goal could look like this:

  • In 3 months, I will lose 15 pounds.
  • In 2 months, I will lose 10 pounds.
  • In 1 month, I will lose 5 pounds.
  • In 1 week, I will lose 1–2 pounds.

And for the physical activity goal might look like this:

  • By the end of 3 months, I will spend 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week being active.
  • By the end of 2 months, I will spend 30 minutes a day, 3 days a week being active.
  • By the end of 1 month, I will spend 15 minutes a day, 3 days a week being active.
  • By the end of 1 week, I will spend 10 minutes a day, 2 days a week being active.

Do you see how those big, scary goals suddenly don’t seem quite so out of reach?

Let’s take it a (baby) step further!

Timeline of activities

This is where the rubber meets the road. I like to tell my clients to “think small” at this point: I want them to figure out the tiniest step they can take toward their goal in a day. It should be so small that it feels like a pinprick, not a blow from a sledgehammer because tiny steps that don’t stress our resources (time, money, physical/emotional energy) are much easier to incorporate intoour daily lives.

The assignment is to come up with one tiny step to take for a week. The next week, keep that tiny step in the mix and add one more. The next week, keep the first two and add one more, etc. until you have stacked up a bunch of new microhabits—none of which is particularly painful and all of which move you toward your objectives, your goals, and your ultimate outcome.

For someone trying to lose weight through food and exercise, a timeline could look something like this:

  • Week 1, add a glass of water before every meal.
  • Week 2, add a small green salad to every meal in addition to the glass of water before it.
  • Week 3, walk for 10 minutes every day in addition to adding water and greens.
  • Week 4, walk for 20 minutes every day in addition to adding water and greens.
  • Week 5, additionally track portions.
  • Week 6, additionally stop eating within 3 hours before going to sleep.
  • Week 7, additionally turn off all screens at least 1 hour before going to sleep.
  • Week 8, additionally walk for 30 minutes every day.
  • Week 9, additionally make 1 snack something that has no added, refined sugar.
  • Week 10, additionally workin 10 minutes of strength training.
  • Week 11,additionally make both of daily snacks something that has no added, refined sugar.
  • Week 12, additionally work in 10 more minutes of strength training.
  • Week 13, ….


Besides not setting SMART goals and breaking them down into smaller objectives and even tinier activities, a major reason we fail to reach our goals is a lack of accountability.

Successful grant proposals almost always involve a grant agreement: you get the money to do the work you proposed, and you will usually be required to prove that the money went where you said it would go and that you accomplished what you proposed. The fine print says that you will submit reports to this effect and that if you used the money otherwise, you’ll be returning the sum to the funder—that’s accountability!

It’s all well and good to know your desired outcome, set your SMART goals, break down the objectives and activities—and you’re going to need to consider who or what will hold you accountable for executing against the plan, which is what we’ll take a look at next month.

Ann Arbor’s Liza Baker, a WLAA health columnist, is a health coach, cookbook author, nonprofit consultant, and woefully underpaid COO of a busy family of four spread across the globe. Liza lives in a half-empty nest in Ann Arbor and is passionate about health and happiness, education and empowerment, SOLE/SOUL food and social justice. You can get a taste of her work on her website and join her in person or in her virtual community.