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Setting Goals

To create positive purposeful change in your life the first thing you have to do is dream. As the old song says “You’ve got to have a dream”! Corny as it might sound, having a dream about what you want, about how your life could be, about how you could be – all these can be powerful motivators for change. We’re not talking about unrealistic, highly fanciful, or unachievable dreams – we talking about having specific, realistic, attractive, motivating and timely goals to aim for. What are goals? Technically speaking goals are “internal representations of desired states or outcomes” (Austin & Vancouver, 1996) – they are the mental pictures we hold in our mind about the future, the plans we make – our dreams.

If we want to make real change, purposeful positive change, then we need to set goals – we need things to aim for. This is as true for the small changes in our lives as it is for the big changes. Research has shown that people who want to lose weight are much more successful if they can picture themselves looking as they want to look (Bellanti, 1997). People who want to stop smoking need to see themselves as “non-smokers” (Stanton, 1978).

We need to be able to imagine a future for ourselves. We need meaning in our lives. This gives us the will to live and the strength to deal with the inevitable challenges of life (Frankl, 1959). Being able to imagine and planning for the future is part of what makes us human. But we cannot escape the past, and we cannot avoid the future; instead we must make both future and past work for us. We must learn to tell the story of our lives the way we want it to be told, and this means living our life the way we want to live it.

It’s important to realise that just having a dream, just holding a mental picture of what we want will not magically make it materialise in our lives. There is no magic secret that lets us create the “perfect life” with no effort. Despite what some self-help “gurus” might say, positive thinking alone is not enough. We have to get up off our butts and into action! And that’s the great thing about goals – they can move us from insight into action. And action is the key. Regular action. Small steps. A day at a time!

This is an important point because research has shown that being too positive and using so-called positive thinking unrealistically can actually reduce our happiness levels (Wood, Perunovic, & Lee, 2009). We need to be realistic, not over-optimistic! Most importantly, we need to put the effort in. We shouldn’t wait to feel positive or happy before we start into action. Start off by setting goals, and getting into action. Do it. Put the effort in and the good feelings will follow!

We also need to be flexible in the goals we hold. Trying to set and then hold rigidly on to an idea in our minds about exactly how we want things to be can actually impede our progress (Custers & Aarts, 2010). It’s almost as if the effort we have to put it to keep the image of the goal in our minds saps our mental energy, leaving less for the task of actually working on getting the goal (Baumeister, Vohs, & Tice, 2007). We need to be able to change and adapt our goals as life unfolds. Flexibility is the key to success.

Here are some goal setting ideas that you might find helpful:

  • Try to set SMART goals: Goals that are Specific, Measureable, Realistic, Attractive, and Timeframed. It’s easier to keep track of our progress is our goals are quite specific, and we need to measure our progress in some way.
  • We also need to set realistic goals. Goals that stretch you can be great – but fanciful, highly unrealistic thinking has no place here. Too much stretch leads to stress and stress leads to snapping! This is about a better life, not more stress!
  • Make sure that you really want the goal, that it is attractive and meaningful for you personally. Make sure that the goal reflects your personal values.
  • Set a realistic time frame about achieving the goal. Break it down into small steps. Do something every day, no matter how small. Action, not wishful thinking is the key to success. Keep track of your progress, however small.
  • And take time to celebrate success. Too often in our busy, busy world we rush from dealing with one challenge on to the next without taking time to stop and appreciate what we have achieved. Stop for a moment. Take stock. Pat yourself on the back. Enjoy!


Austin, J. T., & Vancouver, J. B. (1996). Goal constructs in psychology: Structure, process, and content. Psychological Bulletin, 120(3), 338-375.

Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., & Tice, D. M. (2007). The strength model of self-control. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16, 351-355.

Bellanti, A. (1997). Hypnosis for weight loss: A case history. Australian Journal of Clinical Hypnotherapy & Hypnosis, 18(2), 55-59.

Custers, R., & Aarts, H. (2010). The unconscious will: How the pursuit of goals operates outside of conscious awareness. Science, 329(5987), 47.

Frankl, V. E. (1959). Man’s search for meaning. New York: Washingto Square Press.

Stanton, H. E. (1978). A one-session hypnotic approach to modifying smoking behavior. International Journal of Clinical & Experimental Hypnosis, 26(1), 22-29.

Wood, J. V., Perunovic, W. Q. E., & Lee, J. W. (2009). Positive self-statements: Power for some, peril for others. Psychological Science, Published Online: 21 May 2009.

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