How to Set Goals
When was the last time you took some time to map your goals? How about today?
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.
John Norcross is a researcher who 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.
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 relationship 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, that 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.
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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.
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.
Will Meek Ph.D. is a psychologist in Vancouver, Washington.