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  • Writer's pictureDr. Samantha Brustad

Setting Goals: Science-Based Methods to Set and Achieve Your Objectives

Goal setting is a fundamental process that serves as a roadmap for individuals and organizations to determine their desired outcomes and how to achieve them. It involves carefully selecting targets to strive for, often while working with specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) criteria. 

Setting goals is not only about choosing what you want to accomplish but also aligning your focus and channeling your efforts effectively to reach these milestones. Empirical research has proven that setting and pursuing well-defined goals can significantly impact personal and professional success, enhancing motivation and commitment to long-term growth.

Beyond merely listing aspirations, goal-setting requires developing a robust action plan that outlines the steps necessary to achieve each goal. Tailoring strategies and resources to individual strengths and weaknesses is crucial, as is ongoing evaluation of progress. Practical goal setting often includes milestones and deadlines, which provide opportunities for reflection and course correction. 

Seeking feedback from mentors, peers, or, when relevant, professionals such as therapists can provide valuable insights. This feedback can lead to adjustments in your goals and strategies. Engaging in therapy, for example, can be beneficial in navigating personal challenges that hinder goal attainment, assisting with clarifying goals, and developing a supportive framework for achievement.

We will be exploring everything you need to know about the science of goal-setting, from how to plan to tracking your progress. If you seek assistance with a major life goal or any of life’s challenges, consider working with a mental health professional!  Our Tampa Bay-based team at Balanced Minds can provide the support and encouragement you need to accomplish your goals.

Understanding Goal Setting

Setting goals is integral to success. Planning out your goals provides clarity, direction, and motivation. It involves establishing specific, achievable targets that guide actions and focus without overwhelming you.

The Science of Goal-Setting

Goal-setting is rooted in empirical research and psychological theory. One of the crowning works in this field of psychology was explored by Locke and Latham (2002), who culminated over 35 years of research into an overarching theory that still guides mental health professionals today.

Researchers have examined the process's effect on performance, finding a solid link between setting goals and increased success. One key aspect identified is that clear and specific goals significantly boost engagement and accomplishment.

SMART Criteria for Goals

The SMART criteria are a widely used framework for setting practical goals in psychology and self-improvement. According to the SMART criteria, the goals should be:

  • Specific: Goals should clearly define what you want to accomplish, not just state a vague desire. Being specific helps focus your efforts and clearly defines what you must do to achieve the goal (Doran, 1981).

  • Measurable: Goals should be quantifiable to simplify progress tracking, including clear indications of when you have achieved the goal. Measurable goals help you stay motivated as you monitor progress. (Locke & Latham, 2002).

  • Achievable: Goals should be challenging but realistic, given your current abilities and circumstances. Overly ambitious goals can seem daunting, while overly easy goals do not provide motivation to improve (Locke & Latham, 2002).

  • Relevant: Goals should align with your values, interests, and larger objectives. Relevant goals intrinsically motivate you and encourage greater commitment and effort than arbitrary goals (Levontin & Bardi, 2019).

  • Time-bound: Goals should have a clearly defined time frame, including a target date. A deadline builds a sense of urgency and prompts action (Etkin, 2019).

Goal-Setting Theory

Initially proposed by Dr. Edwin Locke in the 1960s, the goal-setting theory suggests that intentional goals affect action. The theory outlines key principles, such as the necessity for challenging yet attainable goals and the importance of feedback in maintaining motivation and direction. Integrating these principles can be further supported by therapy, which aids individuals in overcoming obstacles and sustaining the effort required to achieve their goals.

Setting Personal and Professional Goals

Setting personal and professional goals is integral in crafting a balanced and fulfilling life. Well-planned goals can drive an individual's progress, enhance mental health, and foster career development.

Personal Goals and Mental Health

Personal goals can help improve quality of life and overall well-being. Mental health is critical in this process as it influences one's capacity to pursue and attain these objectives. 

For instance, goals aimed at physical fitness can mediate symptoms of depression and anxiety, enhancing self-efficacy. When personal aspirations align with one’s values and abilities, they are a steady source of motivation and satisfaction.

Research suggests that therapy can benefit individuals striving to achieve their personal goals. A therapist can help clarify goals, provide accountability, identify potential obstacles, and provide strategies for overcoming them. Furthermore, therapy can address underlying mental health issues that may be hindering goal attainment.

Professional Goals and Career Development

Professional goals, on the other hand, are typically centered around advancing one's career. Setting achievable goals within a professional context can lead to enhanced job performance, opportunities for promotion, and increased job satisfaction. Key to this is the development of skills and competencies valued in one's field, which boosts confidence and enhances self-efficacy in professional capacities.

Continuous professional development and goal refinement are essential to ensure that career objectives remain relevant and challenging. Additionally, setting professional goals directs one's career path and can significantly improve job performance and satisfaction.

Creating an Action Plan

While you may have many long-term goals, you want to take the time to create a plan that allows you to reasonably tackle each goal without overwhelming yourself.

Breaking Down Long-Term Goals

Long-term goals require breaking down into smaller, manageable objectives. You should:

  • Identify the desired outcome.

  • Create a list of short-term goals that act as milestones towards the long-term target.

  • These short-term objectives should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART).

Time Management Strategies

Successful time management pivots on a few key behaviors:

  • Prioritize tasks by urgency and importance through a table or list.

  • Allocate realistic time blocks for each short-term goal, promoting focus on current tasks.

  • Limit distractions to maintain a commitment to these time allocations.

Overcoming Fears and Obstacles

To overcome fears and control obstacles:

  • You must first acknowledge the fear and understand it as a natural part of the process.

  • Implement if-then planning, which involves imagining possible challenges and developing pre-emptive responses.

  • Consistent reflection on progress aids in recognizing and revisiting persistent hurdles.

You can gain actionable insights into your thoughts and behaviors impacting goal attainment through therapy. It helps in building resilience and the art of pivoting strategies when facing challenges.

Measuring Success and Gathering Feedback

Quantitative and qualitative assessments are crucial to ensuring progress is on track and aligns with an individual's aspirations. Tracking your progress and seeing improvements can significantly boost your satisfaction with your achievements, encouraging further growth.

Setting Measurable and Attainable Goals

Goals must be quantifiable and within reach to serve as practical performance markers. Success with measurable targets means having a distinct outcome in sight, making it easier to monitor progress. 

A professional setting often involves financial metrics or productivity benchmarks, whereas personal improvements might rely on the frequency or intensity of desired behaviors. Achieving these goals is closely tied to the satisfaction and fulfillment one experiences, providing a motivational feedback loop to set further goals.

The Role of Feedback in Achieving Goals

Feedback plays an invaluable part in reaching attainable goals. It is a navigational tool that helps align efforts with the desired outcome. Constructive feedback, whether from peers, mentors, mental health professionals, or through self-reflection, can shed light on where adjustments are required, reinforcing the path to goal achievement. 

Regular assessment and appraisal ensure that performance goals are met and resonate with your own definition of success.

By understanding the symbiotic relationship between a transparent metric of success and the role feedback plays within it, you can streamline your endeavors towards a pronounced sense of accomplishment.

Sustaining Goal Commitment and Growth

Maintaining your goals after achieving them is essential for personal and professional growth. It enables you to leverage successes into new ventures and improve relationships through the benefits of fostering new behaviors and habits.

Cultivating Self-Discipline and Ownership

Self-discipline is the backbone of goal commitment. It empowers individuals by giving them control over their actions and decisions. Ownership of one's goals reinforces this commitment, transforming objectives into personal endeavors. 

Therapy can serve as a tool to develop these traits, helping you understand the underlying triggers that impede your progress and learning strategies to remain focused on your goals.

Adjusting Goals to Reflect Growth

Your goals should evolve as you grow to reflect new capacities and knowledge. Recognizing growth and revising goals accordingly ensures that your targets remain challenging yet achievable. 

Dynamic goal setting keeps you engaged and less likely to plateau, thus continually triggering new behaviors that support further advancement.

Leveraging Success into New Opportunities

Achieving a goal often opens doors to new opportunities. Utilizing the momentum of success can help one progress into more complex projects or higher careers. 

By utilizing the benefits of goal setting, individuals can create a positive feedback loop of commitment and growth, thus laying the groundwork for future accomplishments.


Overall, goal setting is a crucial activity that helps you plan and strategize your efforts, increasing the odds you hit your desired outcomes. Detailed action plans, along with regular assessments and modifications along the way, are vital aspects that can make or break your progress.

Be sure that your goals follow the SMART criteria, in that they are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. These criteria are the best evidence-based way to encourage you to reach your goals with enough motivation without overwhelming yourself.

Working with a mental health professional can be extremely beneficial if you have goals you are aiming for. A friendly and knowledgeable therapist can collaborate with you to develop goals, helping you break down complex goals into manageable steps.

If you are in the Tampa Bay area and want someone by your side as you navigate life’s challenges, consider Balanced Minds! Our team of mental health professionals has helped hundreds of people navigate life’s challenges and transitions.

We specialize in working with youth, adolescents, and young adults. If you have a goal in mind, we’ll help you monitor your progress, provide supportive accountability, and help you identify values you can tie to your goals for greater motivation.

If you are interested, reach out to our team to schedule a consultation to get started on your goals!


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