Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

beginning of content

Goal setting

5-minute read

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.

Setting goals

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.

SMART goals

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.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: November 2018

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Goal Setting

When setting a goal for yourself it is always a good idea to make it a SMART one!

Read more on Black Dog Institute website

How to set goals | Setting goals | ReachOut Australia

Learn how to define your goals and to put together a plan for how you'll achieve them.

Read more on website

Pacing and Goal Setting - Pain Management - painHEALTH

Advice and tips on how you can approach musculoskeletal pain and form a co-management plan through settings goals and applying pacing to your movements.

Read more on painHEALTH website

Kids' Health - Topics - Goal setting for children

Have you ever had dreams about what you would like to be when you grow up, how you will play in your next game, how you will go in your test, or how you could learn to play a guitar? You may not have those particular dreams, but I bet you do dream about something in your life

Read more on Women's and Children's Health Network website

Low-fi life goals | Setting goals | ReachOut Australia

Not everyone can be an Olympic athlete or a Nobel prize winner, but Angie argues that personal achievement is all relative.

Read more on website

Goals - Musculoskeletal Australia (MSK)

Setting goals is a useful strategy for managing your health and your musculoskeletal condition. Find out more about goal setting and how MSK can help.

Read more on Musculoskeletal Australia website


Palliative care patients experience high levels of functional disability related to their disease and the impact of its treatments. Impairment of physical function and loss of independence significantly contribute to a decreased quality of life. Goals for physiotherapists working in palliative care should be no different to those working in any field: assessment, goal-setting, choice from a range of treatment modalities, education, establishment of self-run exercise and mobility routines, re-ass

Read more on CareSearch website

Setting goals | ReachOut Australia

Learning how to set goals will help you to plan your future, and clarify what's important to you. The first step in achieving them is deciding what they are!

Read more on website

Setting goals and solving problems

Effective problem solving is one of lifes most useful skills we use it every day to deal with challenges at school, work, home, and in our relationships. The ability to break issues down is also good for our mental health, helping to reduce our risk of developing anxiety or depression.

Read more on beyondblue website

Physical Activity: Getting Started and Setting Your Goals | Nutrition Australia

So why should physical activity be part of your daily routine?

Read more on Nutrition Australia website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo