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Goal Setting for Success

You probably have big goals you want to achieve. “I want to lose weight.” “I want to stop drinking.” “I want a better job.” “I want to save money.”  All these goals are realistic but require you to do things differently than you have been doing them. Achieving your major goals requires you to build new habits and get rid of some old ones. We all know changing habitual behaviors is challenging. Setting behavior goals and tracking progress toward those goals makes success much more likely. If you succeed at changing your behavior, you will succeed at losing weight, getting sober, saving money, or finding a better job. It is impossible to achieve these goals without changing your behavior.


A useful technique for goal setting was developed over 40 years ago by George T. Doran (1981). Doran used the acronym SMART to outline the qualities that made goals more achievable. According to Doran, goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time Bound are more likely to lead to success.


What exactly do I want to do?

How, where, and when will I do it?

What do I need before I can do it?

What are the barriers?

Instead of saying: “I’ll drink less.”

Think: “I will stop keeping alcohol in the house. I will shop for groceries at a store that doesn’t sell alcohol (pick a specific store). I will only go out to restaurants or bars once a week, and I’ll order no more than two drinks. I will leave my credit card at home and take just enough cash to buy 2 drinks.”  

The more specific goal anticipates challenges and provides additional strategies to make success more likely.


How much?

How many?

How often?

How will I know I’ve been successful?

Instead of: “I’ll save more money.”

Say: “I will deposit $300 in my savings account every payday.”

Instead of: “I’m going to exercise.”

Think, “I’m going to walk 2 miles,” or “I’ll dance for 30 minutes a day.”

Having a measurable goal makes it clear whether you’ve succeeded. But it also allows you to see if you had some partial success vs. complete failure. If you plan to walk 2 miles, walking 1.5 miles is better than not walking at all.

Achievable (but Ambitious)

Is it possible?

Can I make this happen through my behavior?

Is it challenging enough to be meaningful?

If you set goals that aren’t realistic for you, you can almost guarantee you won’t succeed. Why set yourself up for failure? On the other hand, if your behavior goals are too easy, they may not bring you closer to your bigger goals. If you typically walk about a mile a day, setting a goal to run 10 miles this weekend is unwise. It could even be dangerous. But push yourself a little. Maybe you can walk 2 miles a day, or maybe you could jog part of the mile instead of walking.


Why is this goal important?

Is this goal consistent with my values and lifestyle?

Is this the right time?

Do I have the resources to achieve it (money, support, time)?

For instance, joining the most expensive gym is not necessary for weight loss. If you can’t afford to join an expensive gym or health club, don’t. You can find a less expensive way to exercise.

It’s not necessary to cut out whole categories of foods to lose weight. If cutting out carbs helps you stick to a healthy, low-calorie diet, do it, but if it makes you frustrated and more likely to go on a carb binge, don’t do it.

Time Bound

When do I want or need to have this goal accomplished?

What can I expect to achieve in 6 months? 6 weeks? 1 week? 1 day?

What can I do right now to start working toward the goal?

Having a deadline for completing your goal seems to be crucial. Why do teachers and professors usually give students due dates? If they didn’t, many of the assignments might never be completed.

Say you decide to get a project completed by June 1, and today is April 5. You can look at what the project requires, break it down into smaller components and schedule time to work on it to make sure you get it done by June 1. Without that deadline, you can be tempted to put off starting or just work on it when the mood strikes you.

Outcome vs. Process Goals

Outcome Goals are your desired result. Examples of outcome goals include:

  • Lose 25 lbs by this time next year
  • Cut back on my alcohol intake before school starts in the fall
  • Save enough money to go on a cruise next summer
  • Complete a management training class by this time next year

Process Goals are the voluntary behaviors, skills, and strategies needed to achieve the outcome goal. Examples of process goals include:

  • Keep food diaries and limit my caloric intake to 1800 calories per day
  • Stop keeping alcohol in the house
  • Put 10% of my paycheck in a savings account every payday
  • Choose and register for a course, attend the classes, and complete the assignments.

Outcome goals keep you motivated, but you can’t always control them 100%. Don’t worry about that. The process goals are the ones you have the most power to control. If you complete your process goals, the outcomes will follow. Without the process, the outcome goals are just dreams or fantasies.

More Tips for Achieving Your Goals

  • Write them down. Writing your goals helps you remember them and reinforces your commitment to them.
  • Check in regularly. Did you do what you needed to do today? How close did you get to succeeding? Were there any barriers or factors that helped you succeed today?
  • Celebrate small successes along the way. Don’t wait until you’ve lost 20 lbs or passed all your exams to do something nice for yourself.
  • Remember your “Why?”  Why are you doing this?  
  • Consider what you want now vs. what you want most

Goal Setting

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