Hem » Articles » Health » Taking the First Steps: An Introduction to Goal Setting and Action Planning

There’s something special about the New Year – it brings a sense of hope for a better year ahead, filled with opportunities we missed in the current one. When people want to make changes in their lives, they often do it at certain times, like the start of a new week, a semester, or a birthday. This is known as the “fresh start effect” (1). The New Year is the most significant of these times, with 44% of people in the U.S. expressing intentions to make resolutions (2). In Sweden, people were more skeptical regarding New Year resolutions, with 12 – 18 % of participants reporting they have made resolutions for the coming year. Interestingly, most of these resolutions focus on health improvement – over 70% are about physical health, weight loss, nutrition, mental health, and sleep, according to a study done in Sweden (2). Since we’re all about improving health, in this series of 3 articles, we’ll explore the science of goal setting. We’ll talk about setting health goals and what makes a good health goal. A goal by itself is nothing without action planning- how you are going to achieve your goal. So, we will also discuss action planning and its key features. We will also mention how to overcome challenges that prevent us from reaching our goals in coping planning.

In this introductory post, we will discuss goals and the phases of goal setting. 

Why Do We Need Goals?

Setting health goals is essential to help us improve our well-being. These goals act as motivation for adopting healthy habits like regular exercise and balanced eating. They show our progress and keep us committed to positive changes. Working towards health goals helps us grow personally by learning new things, forming good habits, and overcoming challenges. It also helps us manage our time well, making sure we focus on activities that contribute to our overall health and lead to a better lifestyle in the long run.

Setting a goal for health behavior change, however, is seldom sufficient for behavior change to actually occur (3).  There is a lot of work that is involved in changing behavior, with goal setting being the first step. 

Phases of Goal Setting

Goal setting and action planning is a process that consists of several stages (4). At the center of that process is what you believe and value. This process is personal, meaning it’s about what matters to you. Your motivation, coming from your beliefs, is key to sticking to your goals.

Behaviour research indicates that there are different frameworks on goal setting and action planning, typically identifying 5 main stages (4):

  1. Preparation
  2. Formulation of goals
  3. Formulation of action plan
  4. Coping planning
  5. Follow-up

These steps aren’t strict and can be flexible. The goal setting usually starts with you thinking about and realizing that you need to make a change. Making your goals clear and writing them down is important for effective goal setting. If figuring out your goals is tough, it can help to talk to a close family member or friend. Once you know your goals, you create a plan on how to achieve them, and it’s good to write that plan down, too. After that, you think about how to deal with any barriers that might come up in carrying out your plan. As you work on your goals, you can change your plan if needed.

This is just a quick introduction to goal setting and planning. There’s more to it; we’ll discuss it in the following few articles.

How do we work with goal setting and action planning at NEM?

Helping clients optimize their health starts by understanding what they believe and value and looking at their health data. Based on what matters most to them, in combination with medical needs, we can set goals and plan what actions to take. That process is known as “collaborative goal setting” which means that the client and physician agree on health-related goals together (4). Action planning, another important term, involves deciding on the steps for the client to take, including what, when, where, and how often. These goal-setting and action-planning processes are known to boost our clients’ confidence, help them change their habits, and improve their health. There’s also a growing focus on coping planning, which involves making plans to overcome possible challenges in carrying out the action plan.

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Silviya Demerzhan, Ph.D.

Chief Scientific Officer, Nordic Executive Medicine
Medical review by: Dr. Mahir Vazda MD

  1. Dai H, Milkman KL, Riis J. The fresh start effect: Temporal landmarks motivate aspirational behavior. Manag Sci. 2014;60(10):2563–82. 
  2. Oscarsson M, Carlbring P, Andersson G, Rozental A. A large-scale experiment on New Year’s resolutions: Approach-oriented goals are more successful than avoidance-oriented goals. PLoS ONE. 2020 Dec 9;15(12):e0234097. 
  3. Bailey RR. Goal Setting and Action Planning for Health Behavior Change. Am J Lifestyle Med. 2017 Sep 13;13(6):615–8. 
  4. Lenzen SA, Daniëls R, van Bokhoven MA, van der Weijden T, Beurskens A. Disentangling self-management goal setting and action planning: A scoping review. PLoS ONE. 2017 Nov 27;12(11):e0188822.