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Goal setting

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 enable people to create the changes they desire. 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. People tend to increase the amount of time and effort spent on an activity, and develop effective strategies when they have a goal to achieve.

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: ie weight loss, running a marathon, learning a new sport, quitting smoking or reducing alcohol.
  • career and business: improving work performance, gaining promotion or changing careers.
  • education: completing a diploma or degree, 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, reducing debt or investment goals.
  • collective goals: for example, the Millennium Development Goals.

Goals and values

People often confuse goals and values, but in reality 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 constant, they cannot be completed or finished. Goals are successful when they are based on our values. For example if family relationships are an important value, some related goals could be to spend regular evenings out with a partner and read with the children each night.

Goal setting and mental health

Some common mistakes that cause people to fall short of their goals include:

  • Setting goals too high - unrealistic goals can lead to stress, or becoming demoralised and giving up altogether.
  • Too many goals - goals that conflict with each other, such as ‘increase my business income’ and ‘spend more time with the family’ may be set up to fail. It’s important to adjust goals to fit in with all aspects of life.
  • Goals are not specific enough.

There can be a downside to goal setting. Some researchers have found that when people focused too hard on personal goal pursuits, they tended to ignore or neglect other areas of life, particularly their relationships. Some authors have also noted that excessively focusing on certain types of business goals can lead to competitive or unethical behaviour, or conflict in the workplace.

Struggling to reach ordinary goals that someone would usually be capable of can be a sign that something is wrong. 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.

Last reviewed: November 2016

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