Goal Setting Handout

For Stage 1

I am going to ask you to write about several topics for a specified period of time.  Please try to write for at least the minimum amount of time that I specify (so if I say write for 1-2 minutes, then try to write for at least 1 minute).  Why? Because they found that people who wrote more found greater benefit from this intervention.

In Stage 1 you are encourage to brainstorm and write whatever comes to mind.  Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, etc.  There will be time to do that later.  Also try to avoid criticizing what you write.

1. If you could choose one thing that you could do better, what would it be?

Think and write about that for at least two minutes.

2. What would you like to learn more about in the next six months?  Two years?  Five years?

Think and write about that for at least two minutes.

3. What habits would you like to improve?

–    At school?

–     At work?

–    With friends and family?

–    For your health?

–    With regards to smoking/alcohol/drug use?

Think and write about that for at least two minutes.

4. Friends and family are an important part of a meaningful, productive life. Take a moment to consider your social network.  Think about the friends you might want to have, and the connections you might want to make.  It is perfectly reasonable to choose friends who are good for you.  Now describe your ideal social life.

Think and write about that for at least two minutes.

5. Take a moment to consider the activities you would like to pursue outside of school, work, and family obligations.  The activities you choose should be fun and enjoyable, worthwhile and personally meaningful.

Without a plan for free time, people often default to what is easiest, such as watching television, surfing the internet and waste their personal time.  If you waste 4 hours a day (which is not uncommon) then you are wasting 1400 hours a year.  That is equivalent to 35 40-hour work weeks which is almost as much as the average person spends at his or her job every year.

If your time is worth $25 per hour then you are wasting time worth $35,000 per year and over a 50 year period wasting $1.8 million of your time.

Describe what you would most like to be doing with your free time.

Think and write about that for at least two minutes.

6. Take a moment to consider your home and family life.  A good family life provides people with a sense of belonging, support for their ambitions, and purpose.  Describe what your ideal family life would be like.  You can write about your parents and siblings, or about your plans for your own partner, or about your children, or about all of these.  What kind of partner would be good for you?  How could you improve your relationship with your parents or siblings?

Think and write about that for at least two minutes.

7. A good career provides security, status, interest, and the possibility of contributing to the community. Take a moment to consider your school or work career, or both. Where do you want to be in six months? Two years? Five years?

Think and write about that for at least two minutes.

8. Take a moment to think about two or three people you most admire.  Who are they? Which qualities do they possess that you wish you had?

Think and write about that for at least two minutes.

Close your eyes. Daydream, if you can, and imagine your ideal future.

*    What do you want to be?

*     What do you want to do?

*    Where do you want to end up?

*    Why do you want these things?

*    How do you plan to achieve these goals?

*    When will you put your plans into action?

Write about the ideal future you have just imagined for 15-20 minutes.  Write continuously and try not to stop.  Don’t worry about spelling and grammar and don’t criticize yourself.

You are encouraged to dream.  Be ambitious.  Imagine a life that you would regard as honourable, exciting, productive, creative, and decent.

Remember, you are only writing for yourself.  Choose goals that you want to pursue for you own personal reasons, not because someone else thinks that those goals are important.

A Future To Avoid

You have now written about the future you would like to have.  Clearly defining the future can help reduce the uncertainty in your life, and reduce the amount of negative emotions that you experience right now and in the future.  This is good for your confidence, health, and many other things.

Having well-defined goals also increases your chances of experiencing positive emotions, as people experience most of their hope and joy and curiosity and engagement as a consequence of pursuing valued goals (and you don’t have to necessarily attain your goals to experience all these positive outcomes from goal-setting).

It can also be very useful to deeply imagine a future you would like to avoid.  You probably know people  who have made bad decisions, and how end up with a life that nobody would want.  You also likely have weaknesses yourself.  If you let these weaknesses get out of control, then you might end up with a miserable and painful life.

Spend some time now thinking about what your life would be if you failed to define or pursue your goals, if you let your bad habits get out of control, and if you ended up miserable, resentful, and bitter.  Imagine your life three to five years down the road if you failed to stay on the path you know you should be on.  Use your imagination.  Draw on your knowledge of anxiety and pain you have experienced in the past.

Think about people you know who have made bad decisions or remained indecisive, or who chronically deceive themselves or other people, or who let cynicism and anger dominate their lives.  Where do you not want to be?

Dream while you write and don’t stop until I tell you.  Let yourself form a very clear picture of the undesirable future.  Write about the future you want to avoid for 15-20 minutes.

Complete Stage 2 of this exercise tomorrow or as soon after that as you can.



I.    Break down your ideal future into 8 goals.  You can re-word, re-write, and organize the relevant material from Stage 1 for your goal summaries or you can rely on your memory if you wish.  Please specify a minimum of 6 goals, people who identify 8 goals have better results with this exercise.  For example, if your ideal future involves becoming the Director of the counselling service at university you could start breaking this down into goals like: getting A’s in all four psych course I am taking this year, become a member of the undergraduate psychology society, etc.

These specific goals can be from a number of different domains:

·    A personal goal might be “I wish I could be healthier.”

·    A school goal might be “I would like to make Dean’s List this year.”

·    A career goal might be “I want to get a summer job related to my field of study.”

·    A social goal might be “I would like to meet more people.”

For each of your 8 goals write a goal title and a brief description of the goal containing only the most important information about it.  Take no more than 20 minutes to complete all 8 goals and their descriptions.

II.    Rank your goals from 1 to 8 in terms of importance.  Your most important goal should receive the rank of 1, your next most important goal should get a rank of 2, and so on.

III.    Now you will be asked to perform 5 different analyses of each of your 8 goals.  The analyses are:

A.    Evaluating your motives

B.    Considering the broad personal and social impact of the goal

C.    Considering  detailed strategies for goal attainment

D.    Identifying personal obstacles to goals and potential solutions

E.    Monitoring progress towards desired goals

What follows is a detailed description of how you should analyze each goal according to the categories (A-E) above.  For each goal you should ask yourself the detailed questions from each of the 5 categories listed below.  So for your top-ranked goal you should spend a minute or two evaluating your motives for pursuing the goal, a minute or two considering the broad personal and social impact of the goal, a minute or two considering detailed strategies for attaining the goal, a minute or two identifying personal obstacles to achieving the goal and potential solutions, and a minute or two on how you can monitor progress towards your goal.  If you have 8 goals and you run each goal through these 5 categories and it takes a minute of two for you to complete each category then this exercise should take anywhere from 40 to 80 minutes.  That isn’t much time to invest considering the potential payoff in increased productivity and happiness down the line.  You probably spend much more time than that each day surfing the internet and responding to pointless text messages, I know I do.

1.    Evaluating your motives – Consider the following issues and write about your motives for a minute or two:

a.    Do you truly believe that pursuing this goal is important?

b.    Would you feel ashamed, guilty, or anxious if you didn’t pursue this goal?

c.    Do you want to achieve this goal personally or are you doing it to please someone else?

d.    Are you pursuing this goal because the situation you are in seems to demand it?

e.    Is the pursuit of this goal enjoyable, stimulating, or satisfying?

f.    Is this goal part of a deeply felt personal dream?

2.    Considering the broad personal and social impact of your goals – Goals can have an impact beyond the obvious.  Our specific personal goals are connected to larger, more important life goals.  These higher-order goals reflect our most important ideals.  For example, the specific goal of spending more time studying or reading is a specific element of the more important goal of being a well-educated person.  Achieving other specific goals, such as becoming more assertive, helps us to move closer to becoming our ideal self.  Now take a minute or two to write about what more globally important things might be affected by your attainment of the goal you are focusing on.  Consider the following issues:

a.    How would success in achieving your goal change the way that you see yourself?

b.    How would other parts of your personal life change as a result of achieving this goal?

c.    How would achieving this goal affect the way other people see you?

d.    How would achieving this goal affect the lives of other people around you (family, friends, etc.)?

e.    What broader social benefit (if any) would achieving your goal have?

3.    Considering detailed strategies for goal attainment – Goals are also related to lesser, smaller sub-goals (in addition to more important life goals).  Sub-goals are easier to achieve but are fundamental to reaching our greater aspirations.  Sub-goals can be thought of as strategies for larger goal achievement.  Thinking about the specific things that need to be done in order to achieve your goals allows you to create practical strategies for realizing your dreams.  Please take a minute or two to write about the concrete daily or weekly things you might do to move towards attaining the goal you are focusing on.  Consider what particular behaviours this goal is built upon.  Make sure to think about the following issues:

a.    Should you spend more time planning at school?

b.    Do you need to spend more time with your friends, family, or others?

c.    Do you need to discuss certain issues with your roommates, partner, or family?

d.    Do you need to be spending more time at the library, at the gym, or elsewhere?

Specify when you are going to work on your goal.  Specify how often.  Specify where.  Think hard about how you are going to implement your plans.  Make your plans concrete.

4.    Identifying potential obstacles and solutions to these obstacles – Thinking about achieving a goal is obviously easier than going out and getting it done.  Many things related to the natural environment, your social group, and your self can stand in the way.  It is useful to anticipate these difficulties so that you can plan to overcome them.

How might you interfere with your own plans (for example, procrastination)?  How can you ensure this won’t happen?  Can the people you know help you with achieving your goal or are they likely to interfere with goal attainment?  How can you communicate with people around you so they will support you in your goal?  Think of realistic best and worst case scenarios.  Think of potential alternative plans.

Considering the one goal you are focusing on, take a minute or two to write down the potential obstacles to achieving this goal and also write down ways you can overcome these obstacles.

5.    Monitoring progress towards desired goals – We need to know whether or not we are making progress towards attaining our important goals.  This is not always an easy task, especially when our goals are longer-term in nature.  However it is easier to monitor performance on smaller sub-goals and tasks that make up our larger goals.

Take a few minutes to identify benchmarks that will allow you to monitor progress towards the goal you are focusing on.  These benchmarks should be personal indicators of success.  You might want to consider the following issues:

a.    When would you like to achieve this goal?  Be specific, even if you have to revise the deadline later it is still better to set one.

b.    What sorts of things will you accept as evidence that you are progressing towards your stated goal?

c.    How often are you going to monitor your behaviour?  Daily?  Weekly?  Monthly?

d.    How will things have to change (measurably) in your life for you to feel satisfied with your progress?

e.    How can you ensure that you are neither pushing yourself too hard or not working hard enough?

IV.    Future Steps

People often worry themselves by constantly revisiting and revising their goals instead of concentrating on attaining the goals.  It is easy to undermine yourself by always asking questions like: Am I doing the right thing?  Have I chosen the correct goals?  This may lead to chronic worry and unproductive behaviour.

Now that you have set goals it is best to concentrate on a daily or weekly basis on implementing the strategies you have developed to attain them, instead of worrying about the goals themselves.

If you implement your goals (even if they are not perfect goals) you will learn enough during the process to make better goals next time.  As you continue to repeat the goal-setting process (you will need new goals once you attain these) you will get better and better at it.

Set aside some time every week or two, no more than 10-20 minutes, to mentally review your performance towards achieving your goals.

Researchers have found that if someone performs goal-setting tasks multiple times over a long period of time there is a greater chance for health and productivity improvements.  As a result you may want to engage in this kind of exercise on a regular basis, every four, six, or twelve months as your situation changes.


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