Setting goals is a positive intervention that’s used by almost anyone trying to achieve a task. In therapy, we use goals to help challenge depression, gauge progress, reduce anxiety, and build self-esteem. It is a tool with multiple facets, but setting goals can also work against us if we don’t do it right.
Consider the infamous New Year’s Eve resolutions: we set lofty goals, fail to meet them, and end up beating ourselves up about it months down the road. Failing to meet a goal that we set ourselves can lead to feelings of depression and lowered self-esteem and can discourage us from striving to meet goals in the future. This does not have to be the case! In this blog, we’re going to explore how to create goals that make them easier to achieve and explore an exercise that can be used to do so. By following these ideas, you can make goals a positive intervention skill for your toolbox.
First off, we must examine the goals that we set for how realistic they are. The first mistake that we commonly make is assuming that we can change our behavior completely overnight. We wake up in the morning and discover that we’ve gained a few pounds. In response, we proclaim that we’re setting a new goal: “I’m never eating junk food again!” A few days go by and our cravings have gotten the better of us. We hit the nearest fast food stand and feel disappointment for our perceived failure. In reality, our goal was unrealistic from the start and doomed us from the onset. Our goals need to be something that we can achieve. By identifying something that we can achieve (in the example above, maybe starting by limiting junk food intake to 3 times a week), we not only give ourselves the opportunity to achieve success, but we also help to build our confidence at achieving success in the future.
The next step is to make sure your goal can be measured. Being able to identify when we’ve made progress on our goal is crucial to identifying success. “I resolve this year to feel better about myself”- this is a great idea, but how will you know when you feel better about yourself. Will you worry less? Call in sick to work less often? It is important to know exactly what changes you want to see. When you’re dealing with resolutions surrounding feelings, ask yourself this question: “how will I know when my feelings have changed?” If you want to be happier, what will happier look like to you? These questions will help you identify exactly what you will look like when you achieve your goals.
Another important step in goal setting is identifying how you will achieve this goal. If I set a goal to run a marathon in 2015, but make no effort to train or plan then there is almost no chance I will reach my goal. The best course of action is to identify small, incremental steps that you can achieve to work toward your goals. The same rules on being realistic and measurable apply to these steps as they do to the main goal. To reach my goal of running a marathon, I would start off by running a mile every week, then every day, then a 5K a week, and so on. Eventually these small steps build us toward our goal.
Here is a fantastic activity that you can use to create realistic and measurable goals and the steps to achieve them. Take a piece of paper and turn it sideways. On the far right side identify the goal you want to achieve. On the far left side identify where you are now. Once that is done, identify four steps in between the two that help you get from where you are to where you want to be. These stepping stones act as your incremental steps to help you achieve the ultimate goal. Create one of these charts and use it to help remind and encourage you. Hang it in the office, on the refrigerator, or anywhere else that you’ll see it and be reminded of the small steps you’re taking to reach the thing you want most.
The use of these simple skills will help you to set and achieve goals for yourself. By making our goals realistic, measurable, and creating incremental steps to work towards them, we increase the chance of success. The achievement of goals helps us to build confidence and self-esteem, and we can achieve the goals we set with a little help and preparation. Good luck!
Bill Knor, LCPC
Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor