Pens and notebook with Goals written at the top, with text overlay: How to Set Goals That Actually Help You Succeed

How to Set Goals that Actually Help You Succeed

I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions. Why? Because I don’t think they’re all that helpful. They can give us a rush of motivation initially, but that motivation doesn’t last long. That doesn’t mean I don’t set goals though. At the end of every year, I sit down and take stock of the previous year and set my goals for the upcoming one.

Goals, rather than resolutions, are what move us forward and help us make lasting changes. They are what give us the ‘roadmap’ to get us where we want to be. Not only that, they help us keep going when that initial emotional rush of motivation subsides.

Map and a compass with Steve Maraboli quote: "If you don't know exactly where you're going, how will you know when you get there?"

So how do we set goals that are going to help us succeed?

Make your goals S.M.A.R.T.

Maybe you’re familiar with the acronym S.M.A.R.T. when it comes to setting goals – Specific, Measurable, Action-Oriented, Realistic, and Timed. This is a great little tool to help us make sure we set ourselves up for success when it comes to our goals.


What exactly, do you want to attain with this goal? It’s important to be clear on exactly what we hope to achieve by meeting our goal. As the quote above says, if we don’t know where we’re going, how will we know when we get there?


We have to be able to measure how well we’re doing toward our goals. It’s really hard to determine whether we’re making progress toward our goals if we don’t have some way to measure it.


Setting what we call behavioral goals is much more effective than setting more outcome-based goals. Why? Because behavioral goals are the type of goals that are based on what we need to do to move towards an end result. Outcome goals are what we want to happen, such as losing x-number of pounds.

Setting behavioral goals is important because our behaviors are what we actually have control over. We can’t always control the end result, but we can control the things we do. As we talked about in When Motivation Isn’t Enough, when we concentrate on completing the new, positive behaviors instead of outcomes, we can see immediate success.


When we’re setting goals we can be tempted to set some big ones. While it can be helpful to set goals that stretch us a little, making them too much of a stretch can actually set us back. We need to be realistic about what we can actually achieve. If we set our goals at an impossibly high level and then don’t meet them, we can end up feeling like we’ve failed.

As we talked about in Managing Expectations When It Comes to Wellness Changes, there’s plenty of middle ground between “extremely unwell” and “perfectly healthy.” For most of us, especially those of us who live with a chronic illness, being “perfectly healthy” is an unrealistic expectation. When we’re setting our goals, we need to make sure they’re something we can realistically achieve.


We have to have some sort of timeline or we may be tempted to just keep pushing them down the road. Time can also refer to the sequence of our actions. What do we need to do first to move down the road? Second? Third? As John Berardi says in his book Change Maker, “Do the right things in the right order and success is a reliable outcome.”

As we set our goals, if we run them through this process, we’ll be much more likely to set goals that we can actually be successful with.

Make sure you’re clear on your ‘why’ for any of your goals.

Your ‘why’ is your ultimate reason for wanting to accomplish whatever it is you want to accomplish. This has to be powerful enough to keep you moving toward the goal even when you don’t feel like it. As we talked about in Discovering Our ‘Why’ for Wellness Changes, making lasting changes is tough. It requires hard work, perseverance, and sometimes sweat and tears. If we don’t have a good reason for making the change, it’s easy to just give up.

Start from a positive.

People who start any kind of health-improvement efforts with a negative mindset (for example, I’ve got to stop eating so much junk food) are rarely successful. Because of the way we humans are wired, these ‘avoid goals’ are psychologically unproductive and often cause us to do the exact thing we want to avoid.

Rather than concentrating on what we don’t want to do, let’s concentrate more on those things we do want to do. There’s something about framing things positively (for example, I want to eat well so that I’m fueling my body to be the best it can be) that makes us want to succeed.

Instead of using those ‘avoid goals’ let’s make sure we use what Dr. Berardi calls ‘approach goals’ instead. These ‘approach goals’ are the things that we want rather than the things we don’t want. When we set these new ‘approach goals’ we give ourselves something new to do rather than reverting to our old, unhealthy habits.

Identify potential roadblocks and build in some ‘wiggle room’.

As we all know, life doesn’t always go perfectly. Stuff happens. And sometimes that ‘stuff’ may be the things we have to deal with on a daily basis, such as health issues, financial issues, etc. If we can identify the things that have the potential to act as roadblocks for us, we can also identify some ways to deal with them.

We also have to give ourselves some ‘wiggle room’. If our plan is too rigid, we may not be able to stick to it. Building in some flexibility can help us get right back on track if we do run into those roadblocks.

Leave the ‘all or nothing’ mindset behind.

This goes hand-in-hand with building in some flexibility. The “all or nothing” mindset is what trips people up on their way to their goals more than anything else. Too often, people start out well but when they can’t keep up with the pace they’ve set, they give up. Remember, something is better than nothing. As long as we’re taking even one step forward, we’re making progress.

Setting goals is what gives us our roadmap to move us toward where we want to be. They help us get and stay focused in order to be successful.

Build your support system.

Your support system is what (and who) is going to support you toward fulfilling your goals. In the next few weeks we’re going to be talking about setting up our environment to support our healthy behaviors. In addition to these environmental supports, though, it’s helpful to have people in our corner who can support us.

Having someone who can encourage us and provide some accountability can often make all the difference with whether we’re able to succeed.

When we set S.M.A.R.T. goals, make sure we’re clear on our why, and take the steps we need to in order to ensure we can stick to our goals, we’re much more likely to have success. We don’t have to depend on how we feel from day-to-day to be successful because we have a clear plan.

How do you approach the new year? Do you make resolutions or set goals each year? If so, what do you find most helpful with this process?



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  1. Behavioural goals is a really good point. Sometimes we can get caught up in the outcome, which doesn’t allow us to focus on the doable, action-based steps that get us there. And I 100% agree on doing away with the black and white thinking. That can trip us up over and over again if we still rigidly to it because any perceived failure, even the tiniest slip, lets us feel as though we might as well not bother, then we’re back to square one. Knowing that it’s okay to not have a perfect trajectory is so important in getting us to those goals. Fab post as always, Terri!

    I hope you & yours enjoyed Christmas. I think it disappeared far too quickly myself! Sending love xxxxx

    1. Thank you so much Caz! You make such a great point about the black and white thinking tripping us up over and over again. It has completely derailed so many people, and it’s so important for us to avoid that trap.

      We did enjoy our Christmas celebration, thanks. I hope you enjoyed yours too. It does seem to go by too quickly, doesn’t it? Sending lots of love and hugs your way sweet friend!

  2. I love this! I never make resolutions anymore because I never follow through and that’s depressing. I’m taking your advice for 2021. Pinned and shared!

    1. Thanks so much Michelle! I’m so glad you found it helpful. I did the same thing with New Year’s Resolutions – I’d start off great but then lose focus just a month or two in. Setting goals and reviewing them each month helps me stay on track and make adjustments as needed. I hope this last week of 2020 is kind to you sweet friend. Hugs!

  3. Alot of sound and wise advice in this post, Terri. I don’t make resolutions either. As my mother used to say, “Yikes! Take bite sized pieces only!” 🙂 You see that with many sedentary people who suddenly decide to get in shape . . . “No, you shouldn’t do a two hour workout . . . it’s called ‘training’ for a reason.” All the best in 2021.

    1. Thanks so much Mark! I agree with your Mother – bite-sized is definitely the way to go. It’s hard for people to want to take small steps because they want quick results. I think part of it is changing our mindset from ‘quick’ to ‘lasting’ results. I hope 2021 is your best year yet!

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