Why do people set goals?
Most people want to see some kind of change or improvement in their lives from time to time. Setting goals is an effective way to increase motivation and to help you to create the changes you want. It can be used to improve health and relationships, or improve productivity at work.
Setting goals can also be an important step in the recovery from mental illness. Common disorders like depression or anxiety can make it hard to function at work or home, or relate to others. Setting goals can be used as part of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) to start the process of getting well and rebuilding a meaningful life.
How do goals work?
Having goals is a good way to focus attention on the things that are important. It allows us to create a vision of how we would like our life to be. When we have a goal, we tend to increase the amount of time and effort we spend on an activity, and develop effective strategies to achieve that goal.
Types of goals
There are as many different goals as there are human activities. Goals can be short, long or medium-term and can be individual or collective:
- health: i.e. weight loss, training for and completing an endurance event, learning a new sport, quitting smoking or reducing alcohol
- career and business: improving work performance, gaining a promotion or changing careers
- education: completing a diploma or degree, learning a new language, achieving certain results in school
- relationships and family: spending time with children or partner, reducing conflict or making friends
- creative/artistic: learning a musical instrument, cooking, starting a photo album or blog, writing a novel
- community or volunteer work: coaching a sporting team, starting a charity project or spiritual practice
- financial: saving money, reducing debt or achieving investment goals
- collective goals: working on a community project
Goals and values
People often confuse goals and values, but they are quite different. Goals tend to be specific and achievable, and they can be ticked off and completed. Values represent what is important in life and tend to be ongoing — they don't have an end point.
Goals are successful when they are based on our values. For example, if family relationships are an important value, related goals could be to spend regular evenings out with a partner and read with the children each night.
Goal setting and mental health
There can be a downside to goal setting. Some researchers have found that when people focus too hard on personal goal pursuits, they tend to ignore or neglect other areas of life, particularly their relationships. Some authors have also noted that focusing too much on certain types of business goals can lead to competitive or unethical behaviour, or conflict in the workplace. Therefore make your goals realistic, achievable and in balance with the rest of your life (see SMART goals below).
A reduced ability to achieve everyday tasks can be an indication of stress, depression or mental illness. Visiting a doctor or mental health professional can help to rule out underlying problems.
Whether your goals are big or small, the first step to achieve them is to decide what they are. Start with the things you enjoy. We are happiest when we use our strengths. Identify any goals associated with your strengths.
Once you've decided your goals, the SMART theory of goal setting might help you to achieve them. The theory is based on years of academic research and became popular in the 1980s. Below are the five criteria of SMART goals that should give you the best chance of success.
- Specific. Be clear about what you are aiming for — your goals should include specifics such as ‘who, where, when, why and what’. For example, rather than ‘do more exercise’, your goal could be to ‘walk for 30 minutes five days a week’.
- Measurable. Set goals that you can measure. Your goals should include a quantity of ‘how much’ or ‘how many’: for example drinking 2 litres of water per day.
- Achievable. Set goals that you are able to do. Setting a harder goal might lead to a better outcome, but only as long as you can achieve it. Goals that are too difficult can be discouraging and could lead to you giving up.
- Realistic. Set goals that are practical for you and your circumstances. Walking an hour a day might be difficult if you don’t get home from work until 8pm every day.
- Time-related. Set a timeframe and have an endpoint. Deadlines can motivate your efforts and prioritise the task above other distractions.
More tips for goal setting
Support and feedback
Having support from others and making goals public can improve the chances of achieving goals by enhancing commitment to the goal. Receiving regular feedback is also important, as it allows you to know when you are moving in the right direction, and change tactics if necessary. This can be done by receiving feedback from others (such as a teacher or work supervisor) or by tracking measurable items (such as food or alcohol intake).
Breaking down goals
It is useful to break down large goals into smaller steps that can be achieved relatively quickly. This can lead to a sense of achievement and help to keep you focused, as well as prevent you from becoming overwhelmed by large goals. For example, if your long-term goal is to find a new job, some smaller, more achievable steps may be to update your CV, check advertisements on the internet or to call work contacts.
Last reviewed: November 2018