Achievement Unlocked: How to Create Goals That Fortify Your Mental Health

For the past few weeks, my Facebook feed has been full of posts about New Year’s resolutions and goals for the coming year. One of my friends wants to read 100 books, get a new job, and start trying to have a baby. One wants to run the New York City Marathon and travel to at least five countries. Another wants to make it through 2016 with her sobriety intact, become more assertive, eat better, and start volunteering. Some of the goals are concrete, such as placing in the top 3 in a particular show jumping competition, while others are more vague and unquantifiable, like falling in love. I love reading these posts; they speak to our uniquely human drive to expand ourselves and our experiences, to our sense of possibility and adventure, and to our commitment to growth and discovery. Goal setting creates a blueprint for what you want your life to look like. It gives us destinations that we can move towards, motivates us to achieve our potential, and can enhance our ability to focus and function in healthy, positive ways.

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Goal Setting and Mental Health Disorders

When you have a mental health disorder, goal setting can at once be more difficult and more necessary than ever. In the midst of psychological distress, it is often extremely difficult to see yourself outside of your present state, limiting your ability to create a vision for your future. It is common to feel a sense of powerlessness and see yourself as living at the mercy of your illness, unable to make plans or changes at your own volition. In other cases, your psychiatric state may make you believe that are you intrinsically incapable of attaining your innermost desires, and you avoid creating goals for fear of failure. This disruption of the goal-setting process can leave you adrift, moving from moment to moment without a clear path to personal growth and fulfillment. However, while mental health disorders may interfere with your natural propensity for creating goals, research has found that goal setting can be a vital part of both the treatment process and ongoing emotional wellness. But simply having goals isn’t enough; in order to truly strengthen your recovery and psychological health, it is important to know how to engage in a positive goal setting process and create the right kind of goals.

Creating SMART Goals

Goal setting is a self-reflective process in which you allow yourself to explore your hopes and dreams and begin acknowledging your true desires. What do you want to do? What do you care about? What motivates you? Where do you want your life to go? What is joyful to you? For many, this can be an intimidating prospect, particularly if you have been unable to achieve your goals in the past. However, by learning how to use your ambitions to create concrete, useful goals, you can begin to enhance your confidence, sense of control, and ability to create a richer life.

In the 1980s, the concept of SMART—Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Related—goals was introduced to create and fulfill management objectives in the corporate world. The idea gained extraordinary popularity within the business community and quickly became adapted for personal development purposes. Today, it remains one of the most useful tools for learning how to generate useful goals that enhance your psychological health and overall quality of life. The SMART model is based on the following:


The best goals are specific, unambiguous, and concrete, allowing you to pinpoint exactly what it is that you want and create a precise destination for you to arrive, rather than leaving you with a vague and nebulous sense of your future. For example, “I want to take my medication on time every day and attend all of my therapy appointments” is a more useful goal than “I want to be happy.” Researchers at the University of Liverpool have found that specific goals are linked to better mental health while people with depression tend to have more generalized goals, suggesting that “having very broad and abstract goals may maintain and exacerbate depression. If goals are hard to visualize it may result in reduced expectation of realizing them which in turn results in lower motivation to try and achieve them.”


Being able to measure your goal is a critical part of evaluating whether or not it was achieved, or to monitor your progress towards the goal. Some goals are inherently quantifiable; if you want to read more, you simply count the number of books you read. Other goals, however, particularly generalized goals, are harder to measure. Designing your ambitions around measurable criteria can help you increase the specificity of your goal while also giving you an objective way of determining your success. For example, “I want to be more social” may evolve to “I want to participate in a social activity at least once a week.” “I want to be more successful professionally” can transform into “I want to get a tenure-track position” or “I want to be hired in a management role.”


Having big dreams and extraordinary ambitions can be wonderful; many people can use those as fuel to improve themselves and their lives or to momentarily escape in pleasurable daydreaming. However, when setting goals, it is important to consider whether or not they are realistic and attainable. Creating goals you have no possibility of achieving sets you up for failure and can profoundly damage your self-confidence; deciding that you’re going to run a marathon in 3 months when you haven’t run since your 8th grade gym class is a sure way to either create great injury or leave you falling short of your ambition. However, deciding that you’re going to complete a Couch to 5K program and be able to run 10K by next summer can be a great way of improving your health and giving yourself the opportunity to achieve. It is also important to remember that if a goal is not immediately attainable doesn’t mean it won’t be in the future; as your skills build and life circumstances change, you may find that things that were previously out of reach have become attainable, and you can formulate new goals around your newfound abilities. At the same time, you do not have to limit yourself to goals you definitely know you can achieve; taking risks and trying to accomplish difficult things can be vital to self-growth as long as you remember to honor your efforts and the experience rather than seeing yourself as a failure if you do not reach your goal.


While working towards a goal can be valuable in and of itself, creating goals that are relevant to your needs and circumstances is critical to ensuring that you focus your efforts on things that will nurture you and enhance your life in the best possible way. For example, if you are a single parent with small children, now might not be the best time to devote your energy to your dream of climbing Mt. Everest, because reaching that goal would likely interfere with your day-to-day responsibilities. To create relevant goals, ask yourself what the priorities and resources are at this point in your life. What do you need right now and do you means do you have to fulfill those needs? What will make your life more joyful in this moment? What will help you live more fully in the immediate future? For someone struggling with depression, relevant goals might include taking a daily hike to clear your mind and receive the benefits of exercise or developing a closer relationship with your family by talking to your sister twice a week, helping you combat isolation. If you are in the early stages of addiction recovery, practicing yoga daily and attending two weekly AA meetings are highly relevant goals created to meet your immediate needs.


Creating timelines for your goals is often a crucial part of achieving them. Having open-ended “one day I want to write a book” type goals often leads to no book every being written, as everyday life gets in the way and consumes your energy. By establishing specific, realistic deadlines for achieving your goals and developing a variety of short, medium, and long-term goals, you can increase your motivation and maximize your chances of accomplishing what you want. For many people who are suffering from mental health disorders, these timelines may be day-by-day at first; tomorrow you will get out of bed before 9 A.M., today you will take a shower, tonight you will complete your Cognitive Behavioral Therapy worksheets. As you move from acute stages of psychological distress, you can begin to think longer-term: in six months you will have a new job, by the end of the year you will have gone back to school, by June you will have given a presentation without having to rely on Xanax. If your goals are long-term, breaking them into smaller stages with discrete deadlines can help you stay on track to attaining them.

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The Goals and Milestones Group at Bridges to Recovery

At Bridges to Recovery, we recognize the critical role goals can have in both mental health treatment and in creating continuous opportunities for growth, confidence, and wellness. As such, our comprehensive curriculum includes a specialized Goals and Milestones therapy group to help our clients form meaningful goals, explore their hopes and dreams, and examine the obstacles standing in the way of achievement, and developing strategies to move past them. Within a safe and supportive environment, you can deepen your self-awareness to discover and acknowledge what you truly want and create a path to fulfilling your needs and desires in a way that is meaningful and relevant to you. We have found that this group helps our clients find a sense of accomplishment, mastery, purpose, and trust in their own gifts and abilities that they can carry with them beyond their time in treatment and incorporate in their daily lives to enhance ongoing personal development.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive mental health treatment for people living with a range of mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance addictions. Contact us for more information about our innovative program and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey towards healing.