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 health issues.

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.

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. 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).

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. 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.