Goal setting: Tips and techniques for improvement
Reviewed by therapist.com team
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 01/19/2024
Goal setting is the process of creating a step-by-step plan to achieve a certain desired outcome. Different from dreams, wishes, or ideas, goals must be accompanied by action within a certain time frame, regardless of success or failure.
Goal setting is important because it provides focus and sets direction. Instead of being reactive to whatever external circumstances you encounter, goal setting allows you to proactively choose behaviors that are in line with your internal desires and values.
Setting goals is a great way to experience a sense of agency in your life and increase your self-esteem. Achieving small goals can help you feel more confident in setting and achieving larger goals. By setting personal goals, you’ll feel more capable of accomplishing goals in other areas of life, such as work or school.
Goal setting can also provide an opportunity to reflect on what’s truly important to you. External forces, such as your family, community, or culture, may attempt to set goals for you. For example, these could include goals related to marriage, homeownership, parenthood, or achieving a certain income level. Striving for goals that are not in line with your desires or values can negatively affect your mental health. By personally engaging in the goal-setting process, you can avoid performing and achieving for others and instead set goals for your own happiness and fulfillment.
The types of goals you set are determined by three factors:
- Areas of life affected by the goal
- Timeline for achieving the goal
- Definition of success for the goal
You can set goals in many areas of your life. Some goals may cross over into multiple areas. For example, a personal goal to get up earlier may allow you to eat breakfast at home instead of on the way to work, allowing you to meet your financial goal of saving money.
Generally speaking, most goals fall into one or more of the following categories:
- Personal goals: Most goals that you set for yourself fall into multiple categories in addition to personal goals. However, there are also goals that you may set that are specifically tied to your perceived betterment as an individual person. For example, many people try to read a certain number of books in a year or learn a new language, not for academic or professional purposes, but instead for their own personal improvement.
- Academic goals: School is often the first place we learn how to set and achieve goals. Whether it’s finishing your homework on time or achieving a certain GPA, school teaches you both short-term and long-term goal-setting skills.
- Professional goals: Work environments thrive on both short-term and long-term goal setting. There are simple, everyday work goals such as arriving at work on time, finishing a project before its deadline, or responding to all of your emails before the end of the day. Then there are long-term goals, such as meeting quarterly sales objectives and annual revenue goals. No matter where you work, goal setting will likely be a necessary skill.
- Financial goals: It’s important to set financial goals so you intentionally use the money you have in ways that are in line with your values. Setting financial goals can help you avoid overspending, mismanaging debt, and missing out on lucrative opportunities.
- Relationship goals: Marriage and parenthood require a mix of chance and opportunity, as well as the commitment of another person—all characteristics that tend to be better suited to dreams, not goals. However, there are other goals you can set for your relational health and happiness. Whether it’s learning how to be a better friend, socializing with new people, or improving your communication skills with your partner or family, there are certain relationship goals you can pursue and achieve that may make your relational hopes and dreams more likely.
- Spiritual goals: Our spiritual beliefs can determine what kinds of goals we set. Common spiritual goals include reading a sacred text, praying, singing, making art, or being in nature more regularly.
- Physical health goals: Goal setting is a key component in maintaining and improving your physical health. However, it’s important to choose the right metrics. Size and weight are not always indicative of your health, and focusing too much on them may actually harm your health both physically and mentally.
- Mental health goals: Setting goals is often important for your mental health because it allows you to visualize and plan for a healthier future. You can set mental health goals on your own or with the help of a therapist.
Your goals will also be affected by the timelines you set for them. How long it takes to achieve a goal can indicate both its complexity and its importance to you. Common timelines include:
- Lifetime goals
- Five-year goals
- Annual goals
- Monthly goals
- Weekly goals
- Daily goals
Remember to look at how your goals may affect one another, even if they exist on different timelines. For example, a monthly savings goal of $500 may be at odds with a daily goal of getting coffee with friends every morning. Similarly, a five-year goal of buying a house may make an annual goal of taking an international vacation every year impossible.
How you set your goals will also depend on how you define success. For example, let’s say you want to learn Italian before going on vacation to Rome. Does success look like memorizing common phrases or being conversationally fluent?
In general, there are three different types of success for achieving goals:
- Mastery: Becoming completely proficient in a skill
- Performance: Showcasing a specific ability or completing a specific task
- Process: Focusing on the act of learning as its own goal
Before you can pick an area of life to focus on, determine a timeline, or settle on your definition of success, you’ll need to decide what your goal is. There are three common goal-setting strategies to help you choose goals that you have the best chance of achieving: Locke and Latham’s five principles, SMART goals, and SMARTER goals.
Drs. Edwin Locke and Gary Latham began researching effective goal-setting strategies in the late 1960s. By the 1990s, they had developed their five principles of successful goal setting:
- Clarity: Clearly specify what you want to achieve.
- Challenge: Choose a goal that challenges you but is still achievable.
- Commitment: Honestly determine how committed you are to achieving your goal.
- Task Complexity: Structure the goal so you are not overwhelmed by rigid standards or unrealistic expectations.
- Feedback: Create a system in which you review your progress and make changes if necessary.
Perhaps the most widely taught goal-setting strategy in schools, SMART goals rely on simple criteria that are easily remembered as an acronym:
- S – Specific: You make sure your goal is clear and well-defined.
- M – Measurable: You use tangible metrics to track your progress.
- A – Achievable: You set a goal that you can realistically achieve.
- R – Relevant: The goal is in line with your desires and values.
- T – Time-based: You set a deadline for achieving the goal.
New methods of goal setting have updated the SMART acronym to SMARTER by adding an “E” word and an “R” word. These “E” and “R” words vary depending on who is teaching the strategy. However, the most common additions are:
- E – Ethical: Your goal is moral.
- E – Exciting: You are already internally motivated to achieve your goal.
- R – Rewarding: Accomplishing the goal gives you a sense of happiness or fulfillment.
- R – Readjusting: You build in opportunities to adjust the goal as needed.
- R – Recorded: You write down the goal or tell it to someone who will hold you accountable for achieving it.
Setting goals makes use of our executive function skills, such as:
- Initiating and following through on tasks
- Managing time effectively
- Adapting to new information
- Resisting temptations or impulsive behavior
People who experience executive dysfunction may struggle with goal setting. Certain mental health disorders and other conditions can result in executive dysfunction, such as:
Goal setting relies on internal motivation to affect and change your external reality. However, certain societal factors may limit your ability to change your external circumstances. Discrimination in particular makes it more difficult to affect change, regardless of how strong your internal motivation is. Common societal factors that limit the power of individual agency include:
- Income and class discrimination
- Sexism and transphobia
Goal setting is a key component to protecting and prioritizing your mental health. Consider setting the following goals for your mental health:
- Find a therapist: If you’re struggling with your mental health, you’re not alone. Click here to find a therapist near you.
- Prioritize self-care: Learn how to set boundaries and invest in a strong foundation for your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health.
- Practice stress management: Take specific actions to respond to stressors in ways that better align with your goals and values.
About the author
The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.
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