Goal setting is something that we hear about throughout our lives, but I have found that very few people actually sit down and articulate the things they want. I have routinely yawned at the mention of goals mostly because the whole idea has been co-opted by self-help gurus and ultra-achievers. But what about just making some realistic goals for living better? The following is a brief overview of the importance of goal setting, and the questions that you should answer to put your life in a new focus.


Goal Basics

John Norcross is a researcher that has been studying goals and change for many years, and defines a goal as "a mental representation of a desired outcome that a person is committed to". In regular language, a goal is a) identifying something that you want and b) are willing to stick with a course of action to achieve. This is different from a "value," because a value is something we find important, but does not have a specific course that we are committed to. For example, you can value being healthy and make some choices that are in line with that, but a goal related to health would be to "lose 10 pounds by December 31st."

Psychologists have been excited about goals since the beginning of the profession. Research shows that actually setting a specific goal makes us more likely to achieve the things we want, and is important especially when we want to make a change. The best news is that setting and striving for a goal, even if you don't make it, will make you happier (read more on Increasing Happiness).


Goal Setting

Research shows that most people usually set goals for self-improvement (changing bad habits, being healthier, etc), improving relationships, and to achieve something in the bigger picture of life. For the rest of this article, I encourage you to move through the following questions to dial in a goal for yourself.

Before we go any further, take a few moments and think deeply about your life. In the big picture, what do you hope to experience and accomplish? In what ways do you want to improve your mental and physical health? What bad habits do you want to change? What relationships patterns do you want to improve? What skills do you want to learn? What other things have you been thinking about changing?

Once you have a few things in mind, pick one that you are either the most motivated for, you are the closest to reaching, or that really needs to happen. Use the questions below to fine tune whatever came to mind. It may help to take out a pen and paper for the rest of this post.

  1. First, write what came to mind for you. Don't worry about the format at this point, just go with whatever came to you.
  2. Now for this step, take what you wrote above, and make sure it is realistic, achievable, and about you. If it isn't, rewrite it here in a way that it is.
  3. Now take the statement above and make sure it is worded positively. Meaning, it should be something you want more of or are striving toward, rather than something you want less of or are trying to remove from your life. For example, instead of wanting to be less anxious, you could say that you want to be more relaxed. Instead of watching less TV, you could spend more time outside.
  4. Next, think about how you can make the statement above as specific as possible. Use detailed language and avoid generalities or things that are really difficult to define. For example, general interests like wanting to be "happier" or "a better person" are noble things to strive for, but really challenging to define. If you have something larger like that, try identifying specific behaviors you will do more of. It can help to use specific numbers too. (What you write here is your official goal statement).

Action Plan
For this section, you are going to take your goal statement and create a detailed action plan. Basically answering these questions should give you more information about what you have already accomplished toward this goal and what the next steps are.

  1. For this step, think about how you can measure progress toward you goal. Do you need to create a spreadsheet, start a journal, or find something else to track it? Again, be as specific as possible.
  2. What is the time-frame for you to achieve this goal? For things that need to happen soon, or are more in reach, I'd suggest no more than 90 days for this. For larger life goals, you can project out in years, but you may want to develop a variety of sub-goals to meet along the way, by going back through these steps.
  3. Take your goal statement from above (point 4), and list the specific things are you already actively doing, or have you already achieved, to help to reach your goal. Be specific and thorough since this should represent your progress so far, and the things that you will likely need to keep doing.
  4. What are the next logical steps you need to take to achieve your goal? If the steps are larger, you may want to break them into small sub-steps.
  5. Based on your time-frame for the overall goal, what is the specific time frame for each of these steps?
  6. If there are things above that seem too far out of reach yet, what do you need to develop, learn, or prepare for to be able to take the steps?
  7. What can you do today that are part of the steps you wrote about above?
  8. Who and what are the supports that will help you along the way?

Follow Up
Now that you have a specific goal and action plan, I would encourage you to get started on the process. Counseling can be a helpful place to help make changes and work toward goals, and sharing these things with your therapist can ensure that you both stay on the same page. Counseling can also be helpful if you struggled to answer some of the questions above. Additionally, for more information on making positive changes in your life, check out my article on The Secrets of Changing, and Mastering Motivation.

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Will Meek PhD is a psychologist in Vancouver, Washington. Get notifications of all his new posts through Facebook and Twitter.

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