7 Ways to Set Smart Goals with Chronic Illness

smart goals for chronic illness

Setting smart goals vs resolutions with chronic illness is vastly different in mindset and outcome. A resolution is usually a long-term picture of where you want to be. A goal is broken down into steps you need to make to resolve that issue. Goals have a specific purpose while a resolution is a firm decision to do or not do something. In this post, I will define smart goals and smart goal examples that can be applied when living with a chronic illness. It’s not as easy as you think.

This year, I am not making resolutions.  I’m making goals and a commitment to myself. I will not let my pain define me and will aim to take steps towards better health. I will measure my health using my own standards of wellness. Staying positive and open-minded while being gentle to myself is the goal. Realizing that I will have steps backward, I will remind myself that it’s a process and not a concrete resolution.

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Smart Goal Setting

smart goals

The problem I have with resolutions is that expectations for these drastic changes are often set way too high. I know very few people that set resolutions and meet them.  How many people do you know that resolve to lose 10 pounds in the New Year?  The gyms are packed, the motivation is high and by the time March hits, all resolutions are melting away with the winter snow. The whole “all-or-nothing” approach is not realistic for someone with chronic illness. My illness doesn’t fade away with the change of seasons and it’s a year-round rollercoaster of ups and downs.

How can I lose weight with chronic illness? I have medications that factor in, lack of activity and deal with pre and post-migraine cravings that derail resolutions.  Resolutions seem to be an all-in mentality and unfortunately, I can’t count myself all-in for much. My chronic illness takes that away from me.

I once set a resolution that I would spend less money in the new year. The first time I went to the drug store and refilled my prescriptions I burst into tears. I realized that I was spending most of my money on health care and how was I supposed to reduce that? It was unattainable without scarifying my health. I will view my lived experience as expertise and only focus on goals under my control.

Smart Goals

The S.M.A.R.T. acronym for goal-setting is a popular term that refers to goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely.  Smart goals should not be rigid. They should provide a direction to achieve the desired outcome. It takes intention setting, planning, preparing, and taking realistic actions. I want to set goals that aren’t too easy, but aren’t so difficult that I’ll want to give up. I will push myself only when it’s in my best interest to do so.

Specific Goal Setting

Before I set a specific goal, I try to visualize what the end result will feel like. What will my life look like while I am working towards my goal? What will my life look like when the goal has been reached? How will I feel throughout the process?

The problem with smart goal setting is that I always fear failure due to my migraine attacks. I never know when I will be attacked and am forced to my dark room with a migraine attack stopping my day. The frustrating part is that migraine is so unpredictable. How can I stay consistent when my body won’t allow me? When setting goals, I remember that my health dictates my success so making it obtainable can sometimes be difficult.

Measurable Goal Setting

Whether it be a big goal or a small goal, it needs to be measurable. I ask myself how do I get to my goal? What will I do, mentally and physically, to achieve my goal remembering that my health affects both? Does reaching my goal require additional resources like money, time, other people, or physical requirements that may be limited?

This year I’d like to track my migraine more consistently. I have gone through phases throughout the years on track because it is defeating to me.  Seeing migraine and symptoms daily is a reminder to me of where my chronic condition is at. I typically use a bullet journal or Migraine Buddy.

How are Smart Goals Achieved?

Slowly. Take one day at a time.  Setbacks are inevitable so don’t beat yourself up if you take a step or two (or a hundred) back. Think about the little things that can be done each day to get you closer to your desired goal. Not every day will look and feel the same so results won’t either. Keep the steps as simple and practical as possible.  Some days my goal may be to do yoga for an hour while another day my goal may be to get out of bed to brush my teeth.

Both are physical goals; both are attainable but on any given day my results will be different. If movement is my smart goal, success won’t be based on calories or miles run. It will be based on how I felt that day and what I did with that energy. How did I take care of my mind, body, and soul?  I want each day to feel better mentally or physically realizing that not every day I will be a winner. I will celebrate both big and small achievements towards my goal. In the end, I will rest when I need to — without judgment.

Chronic Illness Goals

Applying all of this to chronic illness may feel impossible but it’s not. We are all human, we are not perfect, and that’s ok. Finding a support buddy for accountability and health check-ins is a good idea.  Find someone to lift you up when you are down and push you further when you are able.  I will practice asking for what I need and won’t apologize for being honest about my struggles.

Chronic illness is a fight both physically and mentally and we all need support. It is important to remember that it is not your fault.  Your goals may not be met and will be out of your control.  The only thing you can control is how you react to the year you’ve been dealt. Take each day as an opportunity and accept that not every day will be giant leaps forward. If brushing my teeth is the best I can do, I need to be ok with that. Maybe tomorrow will be yoga.

Timely Results

Keep going. Don’t set a rigid timeline for accomplishing what you want to accomplish. As long as you keep going with an open and honest mindset, you are making progress in the right direction. Change takes time. Chronic illness doesn’t allow life to go as planned and being gentle with yourself and understanding your disease is important. This year is a marathon, not a sprint and I look forward to the small and large changes that I can and will make. I hope our journeys lead us to better health and happiness.

Evaluate How you are Doing

This one is hard for me. It’s hard to look at my goals and feel like I’m not accomplishing them or taking longer than I would like. Chronic illness is not linear so expecting my smart goals to be is unrealistic. Sometimes I see growth and something I seem to slip. Tracking may reveal that you are making bigger steps toward success than you realize or reveal a reason why you aren’t meeting your goals.  Evaluating can be motivating but also defeating so I try not to focus on the timeline and remind myself that it’s a lifelong journey.

Reward yourself for Achieving or Improving

I used to reward myself with food when I had been “good” about my diet.  That doesn’t make sense! I avoided chocolate all week and then rewarded myself by triggering my migraine. It took me a long time to realize this is not the best route. Now, I reward myself with things that still align with my health goals but encourage me to continue. I’ve set the attainable and measurable goal of walking for 30 days and I’ll reward myself with new socks. It may take me a month and it may take me 6 months to attain this goal. And when I do it, my socks will motivate me to continue.

Smart Goal Examples

smart goals for chronic illness

Instead of S.M.A.R.T.E.R goals, I have created my own S.M.A.R.T.E.R chronic illness goals for My Migraine Life to provide you with smart goal examples.


I will keep a consistent sleep schedule. Same bedtimes and wake-ups allow my body the rest it needs to fight my migraine attacks.


I will move my body to the best of its ability every day.  Some days I will walk, some days I will stretch in bed. A body in motion stays in motion and I will do my best to get my body in the movement for at least 10 minutes a day.


This is part of my treatment plan. By staying active in the migraine community, I will remain knowledgeable and connected. Working for the migraine community, makes me feel less alone and know that I’m helping others. By helping others, I help myself. If I want to change my migraine care and stigma I will stay engaged with those working to make it better.

If you are interested in advocacy, check out this opportunity: ACT Now Advocacy Program

Reboot and Self Care

Self-care sometimes feels lazy or a bit too self-involved. But that’s the point! By being self-involved, I can listen to my body better and allow myself the rest it needs. Sometimes I lay in bed and feel like I should be doing more, but I am reminded that resting, icing, sleeping all are taking care of myself. I can’t be the best mom if I’m not my best version. I often feel guilty for taking time for myself, but the reality is, I am my best when I’m taking time for self-care.

Here are some of my favorite migraine distractions and self-care acts:


gardening distraction

Epsom salt bath


Treatment can come in a variety of forms. Medication, alternative therapies, mental health, physical health, and beyond.

Eating and Hydration

I mostly eat mindfully to avoid triggers. Msg, red wine, fermented foods, etc. But I don’t believe in “diets.” I make life changes according to my migraine sensitivity foods by following the Dizzy Cookbook. Hydration is always important and on my list to get better about every year. Regardless of chronic illness, hydration is always a key to better health.


Relationships are hard to maintain when living with a chronic illness. It is hard for me to talk on the phone, stay up with texts, and socialize. Nowadays, in-person socializing is even harder to do. In-person, I still need to set boundaries and explanations of my condition. I either receive support or have lost many in my life. I value those who have stuck around and let less important relationships use less of my energy. The people I spend time with, in person, are truly people I wish to be with and make memories with.

I mostly rely on my migraine family online for support. I socialize on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Join me there!


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Sarah Rathsack

I tell stories of My Migraine Life. Living life through Migraine consists of advocacy, treatment, prevention, and searching for health and happiness in a positive honest way. My kids, husband, dog, family and friends motivate me to make a difference in the Migraine World.
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  1. Shirley on January 10, 2022 at 2:45 pm

    I love acronyms to help me remember things. Especially with Migraine brain it can sometimes be tricky. This is an excellent tool to manifest better wellness for ourselves!

  2. Sarah Rathsack on January 10, 2022 at 3:32 pm

    Thank you!! I think it’s more applicable for those of us that don’t run on a linear path to wellness.

  3. Sandy on January 11, 2022 at 7:02 pm

    I love that you’ve reimagined SMART goals. I also appreciate that you included advocacy – I’ve found that staying connected to others with my condition helps me remain informed, and also gives me the opportunity to support others and share my experience.

  4. Sarah Rathsack on January 11, 2022 at 7:04 pm

    Exactly! I think advocacy should be part of everyone’s treatment plan. It’s SO beneficially in SO many ways. Thanks for reading!

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