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NHS HIGHLAND: Be SMART when setting new health goals

By Dr Tim Allison

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More walking could be an objective worth thinking about.
More walking could be an objective worth thinking about.

I try to avoid using the type of phrases that some people call management speak.

When I hear someone say “low-hanging fruit” I want to think about picking apples rather than business targets that are most easily reached. Perhaps “core competencies” could be used for apples too.

I am also not a great fan of acronyms – the collections of initial letters that are used as abbreviations for words. Last week I spent ages trying to work one out and still had to guess.

Some acronyms like NHS are well known, but for others we can be uncertain, and the same acronym can mean more than one thing. In medicine, PID can mean two completely different things that both cause back pain.

However, there is something that is both management speak and an acronym, that I do find helpful. That is the acronym SMART. It is used in setting objectives.

The letters can be used to represent various words, but I like to refer to them as: specific; measurable; achievable; realistic; timely. I find that using this list when considering how I set objectives for work both concentrates the mind and results in more effective work.

But SMART can be useful outside work too. At this time of year, we may think about how we plan to do things differently over the forthcoming 12 months and perhaps set a New Year’s resolution. In February, some people may choose to give something up for Lent.

What should we choose to do and if we want to make a change to improve our health, how do we choose? It could be giving up alcohol as part of dry January, quitting smoking or starting regular exercise.

Using the letters of SMART, it can be helpful if we are specific about what we want and can measure it so that we can see what we have done. Setting a specific goal of walking every day for example is better than simply saying that we will exercise more. Measuring could simply be about counting the days when we have reached our goal. Having an achievable aim and being realistic are particularly important.

We can still be optimistic about what we will achieve but need to avoid the disappointment that can come if we try to do something that is too demanding. Lastly there is the T for timely. This can be about ensuring that we know how long we will be working for our goal and also setting aside time for it.

The good news is that even small changes can significantly improve our health. For example, there has been a focus on taking 10,000 steps a day to improve health, but this is no magic number. Even ensuring that we take 3000 steps each day will give us useful benefits to our health.

We can be SMART for our resolutions and perhaps that will help us keep them up for the rest of the year.

Dr Tim Allison is NHS Highland’s director of public health and policy.

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