Setting goals for your mental health is a common practice in therapy. These goals – about a behavior you want to change or life milestone you hope to reach – guide therapy sessions and give your therapist an idea of why you’re in therapy. They also give you a way of tracking your personal development, in and out of session.
Setting SMART Goals
The SMART method offers a structured way to approach goal-setting. It’s commonly used in business settings to guide the organization towards their desired outcomes. SMART is an acronym that stands for:
- Specific: Make sure that your goal describes something tangible, with as much detail as you can add. Having a specific goal gives you a strong sense of where you’re headed.
- Measurable: When your goal is measurable, you can track your progress. Without a way to measure your progress, you won’t know whether or not you’ve reached your goal.
- Action-oriented: Goals are generally based on actions and behaviors. This gives you a clear to-do list of actions to take to achieve your goal.
- Relevant: If your goal isn’t relevant to your life, it might be extremely difficult to accomplish. Goals are most likely accomplished when they have everyday relevance, which means that you won’t forget about where you’re headed.
- Time-bound: By giving yourself a deadline, you’ll find that you’re more motivated to make change in the present.
Another version of SMART uses the words Significant, Meaningful, Action-oriented, Rewarding and Trackable. Whichever version you use, this methodology for creating goals can help you reach success from the starting line.
SMART Goals & Mental Health
Wondering how to use SMART goals for your mental health? We have eight tips for you on implementing effective, meaningful steps to achieve your desired lifestyle and mindset.
Frame goals positively
When setting goals, it’s important to frame them positively. There are many ways to set goals, but creating goals that have a positive spin on them will help you stay motivated as you take small steps.
Look at the difference between these two goals, which describe the same outcome:
- “Remember to pack my lunch every day for work.”
- “Don’t forget to pack my lunch every day for work.”
While the difference may seem insignificant, the first goal exudes a more positive frame of mind. This makes a big difference in the second example:
- “Practice self-care every day.”
- “Stop being depressed and actually do something every day.”
Positive self-talk takes you miles, which is why using a positive framework in your goals is most effective.
When you’re setting your goals, be precise in what you hope to achieve. There is a difference between a long-term and a short-term vision. When you give yourself an undefined amount of time to complete your goals, you might not feel the same motivation as when you give yourself a matter of weeks or months. Being precise with the time frame ensures that you keep your eye on your goal and hold yourself accountable.
When it comes to your mental health, it might be helpful to break your goals down into tiny pieces. If your goal is to successfully manage your anger, your smaller targets can be to identify your triggers or practice your coping skills. An even smaller step towards this goal could be to track your mood every day, which can help you identify your feelings. Being precise with your intentions for each step can give you an explicit plan for reaching your big picture goal.
Make goals a priority
Your goals will not happen if you don’t make them happen – and make them a priority. Prioritizing your goals means prioritizing your mental health, which is a powerful method of practicing self-care.
Habits are hard to form. When you set your mind to doing something every day, it’s hard to make that activity stick unless you set aside time for it. The same is true of goals – if you don’t set aside time to work towards those goals, you’ll find yourself either too tired or too busy at the end of the day.
Depending on your goal, it might be helpful to set aside time specifically to work towards your goal every day. You could set an alarm on your phone or place a hold on your calendar to remind yourself that it’s time to take your daily baby steps towards reaching your mental health goal.
Write goals down
Writing down your goals is a great way to manifest your desired outcome. Writing down what you want to see for yourself forces you to put your goals into words, which can help you think through what you really want to work towards. Some people find it helpful to keep a journal of their progress, including writing out their goals, noting the smaller steps or daily routines that will get them there, and then detailing how they’re progressing. If you do keep a journal, be sure to refer back to your early pages every once in a while – it’ll give you some perspective on how far you’ve come!
Not sure how to write down your goals? Here are some questions to respond to:
- What is my long term goal for my mental health? What does this look like? What symptoms, behaviors, or patterns am I trying to change?
- What behaviors or actions can get me there? Can I practice these behaviors or actions every day or implant them in my daily life?
- How will I know when I reach my goals?
- Who will support me as I work towards these goals? Have I shared with them my goals yet?
- Is my goal SMART? How can I make it more aligned with the SMART goal concept?
Journaling is a helpful form of self-expression for many. Writing out your goals can also look like putting sticky notes on your mirror, keeping a running log of your progress on your phone, documenting your changes through pictures, or anything else that helps you feel motivated about making change or gives you pride over your progress.
Keep goals simple
If you set a lofty goal, not only might you fall short of reaching that goal but you might also lose motivation along the way. Setting a goal like “Establish healthy relationships by processing through my early attachment and dealing with my trauma” is daunting – it’s three goals in one! Keep your goals simple so that they stay manageable.
To keep your goals simple, using the SMART goals framework might be helpful. This means assigning yourself milestones that have a deadline. You can always work upwards towards big life changes for your mental health, but stay realistic towards your time and energy levels. You can always press on later when you’ve achieved your simple goal!
Identify whether your goal is a personal performance goal or an outcome goal
When constructing your goal, ask yourself whether your goal is based on personal performance or based on an outcome. Personal performance goals are within your control, such as eating healthier, regularly journaling about your feelings, or quitting social media. Outcome goals generally rely on the involvement of other people. They can include resolving conflict in a healthy way, getting a promotion, or receiving praise after hard work.
Differentiating between the two helps you understand your progress towards your goals in an objective way. If you feel like your progress towards your goals is slow, is that because of something that you’re doing (or not doing) or because of other people? When other people are involved in your goals, be sure to let yourself off the hook if you fall behind your timeline! Making goals that are within your control may mean that you avoid this issue.
However, including other people in your goals can also serve as a motivating factor or a support system. By telling your friends and family about your goals, you’re more likely to stay accountable towards them. Those around you can also monitor your progress and cheer you on when you’re close to the finish line.
One of the elements of SMART goals is to be realistic with your goals. If your goal is to never have conflict with a coworker again, you might find yourself unable to reach this goal – conflict is a natural and very common occurrence in the workplace and likely, you’ll never completely avoid it.
By keeping your goals realistic, you’re less likely to feel disappointed in yourself or burn out. But realism doesn’t mean cynicism! Your goals can maintain their positive edge while also being achievable. This might be a useful instance to make sure that your goal is simple, with clear smaller goals to bring into your everyday life.
Lastly, it’s important to celebrate your successes while on your mental health journey! No matter what your goal is, take some time to reflect on and celebrate the success that you’ve made, including the achievement of the smaller goals that accompany your larger picture.
If you’re focusing on working towards your goals a little bit each day, give yourself an affirmation every time you check it off of your to do list. Change is hard, no matter what you’re changing about yourself or your mental health. By celebrating the big (and small!) wins, you’ll maintain motivation and also feel good about what you’ve accomplished.
Goal setting is a huge part of therapy. They guide your sessions and also give you benchmarks against which to compare. To get the most out of your therapy sessions and your goals, make sure that your goals are SMART.