How to Set Goals You’ll Actually Achieve

By: Ashley Malooly, Ph.D. | February 23, 2024

If you find yourself losing momentum on your New Year’s resolutions, you’re not alone. This is a common phenomenon; studies estimate that 80-90% of New Year’s resolutions are abandoned before the end of the year, and often by the end of January! This experience can be disheartening, to say the least. As a psychologist who helps clients set goals, I understand that the problem is not with any one person. The problem is how we set goals and respond to setbacks. Over the years I’ve identified common obstacles that interfere with goal setting, and what to do instead. In this article I offer tips to help you set effective goals, and how to get back on track after life gets in the way.

Common obstacles that keep us from reaching our goals:

    1. Not knowing where to start or how to take the first step.
    2. Procrastination and questioning one’s motivation.
    3. Time constraints, low energy, or lack of resources.
    4. Difficulty getting back on track after experiencing setback or failure.
    5. Self-criticism and feeling guilty for not meeting an expectation.

When we take time to understand what interferes with accomplishing our goals, we can determine what needs to change.

Work SMART-er, Not Harder

I personally love the SMART goals format to address the obstacles listed above. SMART is an acronym that identifies characteristics of effective goals. There are many different versions of SMART goals, such as this one from The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris:

Specific: Clearly identify what action is required to meet the goal by answering the “4 W’s:” Who, What, When, and Where. For example, instead of saying “I want to get into shape,” say “My goal is to attend one yoga class per week.”

Meaningful: Reflect on why the goal is personally important to you. Goals that have meaning are more likely to succeed compared to goals that focus on pleasing others or avoiding uncomfortable experiences. For example, instead of saying “I want to avoid an uncomfortable conversation with my doctor about exercise,” try saying “I want to feel healthy.”

Adaptive: Note how meeting your goal will improve your quality of life. For example, will more frequent exercise help you play longer with your kids? Or manage your anxiety? Or live a more active lifestyle?

Realistic: given the other priorities that you have in your life, how likely are you to be successful at reaching your goal? Rate the likelihood on a scale of 0 (impossible) to10 (absolute certainty.) If your rating is below a 7, revise your goal.

Time-bound: set a day and time, or time-limit to your goal to prevent daily tasks from interfering. Put it on your calendar and make it a priority.

An appointment with yourself deserves just as much priority as appointments you make with others.

Challenge All-or-Nothing Thinking

Setting SMART goals doesn’t make you immune from the chaos and unpredictability of life. You can expect – and even predict setbacks. After losing momentum, it’s natural to revert to old patterns, especially if the goal is no longer perfectly achievable. This is related to a concept in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) called all-or-nothing thinking. When under stress, our brains tend to default to seeing things in extremes – either as a “success” or a “failure.”

Having an off day (or week) doesn’t mean that you have failed. Things will settle, and you can get back on track, even if that means revising your goal.

Working with a professional San Diego psychologist will help you cultivate flexibility in your thinking and learn strategies to challenge all-or-nothing thinking patterns. You and your therapist will work together to create a plan using SMART goals to improve your commitment to your goal and increase the likelihood of accomplishing what you set out to do.

Respond With Compassion

“Talk to yourself like you would talk to someone you love.” ~ Brené Brown

If you tend to respond to yourself with criticism when you struggle to meet your goals, offer yourself self-compassion instead. Self-criticism tends to prompt anxiety, shame, and the release of cortisol, which all interfere with continued efforts toward goals. Instead, try to respond to yourself with the same validation and encouragement that you would provide to a good friend. Not only will you feel better, but you will increase the likelihood of continuing to work on what matters to you.

Putting It All Together

I hope these tips help you to feel empowered to set goals and to respond to setbacks with more resilience. One of my New Year goals is to practice playing guitar more frequently. Playing music honors my values (Meaningful), helps me manage stress, and is good role modeling for my son (Adaptive). My SMART goal is to practice 10 minutes per day, 5 days per week (Specific, Time-bound). This may not sound like much, but as a busy working mom, I know that little and often is the way to go (Realistic)! When I get discouraged, I will remind myself that the momentum will build as this new habit becomes established, and I will respond to myself with flexibility and compassion when the inevitable setbacks happen.

Building on small successes will improve your motivation, which leads to more action on your goals.

If this article resonates with you, and you would like more personalized support with goal setting, Contact Us to schedule an appointment with a talented member of our team. Together you will explore patterns in thinking and behaving and create a plan for success!



Photo by NEOM on Unsplash

Get our latest articles sent directly to your inbox!