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Goal-setting

One of the best ways to tackle the difficulty of changing behavior is to engage in  goal-setting. Despite the common sense approach that I will just change" psychologists know that behavior change can be quite difficult. Setting goals can allow us to engage in the process of behavior change that will most likely lead to better behavioral change than to simply use the common sense idea of just deciding to make a change and assuming the goal will be accomplished.

Research has taught us that when people do in fact set goals for themselves, too many do not set reasonable goals. Also, the goals we too often set are only outcome goals (how much I study, drink, smoke, exercise, etc.) rather than process goals (how to study and exercise more, drink and smoke less). In other words, if we concentrate on the thoughts, feelings, beliefs and attitudes that will lead to our outcome goal, we will be more like to achieve the behavior change (outcome) that we desire.

Outcome Goals and Process Goals

"Where do I want to get to and how am I going to get there?"

The distinction between process and outcome goals is not absolute, and sometimes they are actually the same behavior. In general, an outcome goal is the desired eventual goal(s) or behavior(s) we wish to change. The ways in which we are going to achieve a particular goal are process goals.

For instance, an outcome goal might be:

1) increasing study time,

2) decreasing alcohol consumption, 

3) quit smoking,

4) exercise more or

5) have more fun.


The process goals that would help to achieve these outcome goals might be:

1) making a schedule of times to study,

2) determine what  situations make it more likely that you will  drink ("high-risk situations"),

3) determine what  situations make it more likely that you will  smoke and switching to a lower tar and nicotine cigarette, 

4) determining where and when you could exercise and

5) investigating what activities you not have yet discovered.


Outcome goals and process goals can be the same behavior. For instance, drinking less can be an outcome goal you are trying to achieve, but it could also be a process goal toward controlling your alcohol consumption. What is important, is that you focus on how you are going to accomplish a specific goal regardless of whether it is an outcome or a process goal.

Defining Your Goals

How one defines the various outcome goals has important implications. For example, one might have the goal to study every day for 5 hours. However, this is the desired outcome goal and says nothing about how one will go about insuring that this much studying actually occurs. For example, where you will study each day, when you will study each day, how often will you study each day, and how long will your intervals of studying be?

Also, how will you deal with high-risk situations like: when your friends want to do something during your scheduled study time, your parents or friends come down to visit, you are physically ill or emotionally distraught, or you go home for the weekend?

Generally, it is important to focus on the process goals more than the outcome goals. For instance, increased studying, drinking and smoking less, having more fun and exercising more are all outcome goals. However, you can not simply accomplish these goals without a plan. You must exhibit certain attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that will lead to these outcomes. In other words, "the process is the outcome."

"To Reach the Outcome, Focus on the Process"

Addressing the specific thoughts, attitudes, emotions and behaviors that will effect your decisions are perhaps the most important aspect of goal-setting.

The thoughts ("I can do this"), behaviors (scheduling study times), and attitudes ("I am glad I am taking responsibility to control my drinking") are the types of thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors that will lead you towards your goals.

Writing down your goals and record (self-monitor) important process measures: how often you study (time and frequency), your alcohol intake (amount, location, time, friends), where, when and with whom smoke, where and what type of exercise you engage in, and what fun experiences you have had  (what, where, when, with whom) will help you to stay more focused on the behaviors that will lead to your outcome goals.

Also, it will give you the opportunity to see what you are doing well, as well as determining what needs to be improved. Additionally, self-monitoring will give you a better tool to assess if you are meeting your process goals! Remember that you want to focus on the process goals: "The process is the Outcome."

"A Good Goal Without a Plan, is Likely to Fail!"

Weighing the Benefits of the Goal-Setting

Some process goals like: increased studying, decreased alcoholand nicotine consumption, exercising more, and having more fun can be directly measured and therefore easily reinforced. Ideally, behavior changes should be intrinsically reinforcing in and of themselves, but often are not strong enough to keep a person on the path towards their outcome goal. Nonetheless, it is important to think of process goals as: observable and measurable changes in 1)thoughts, 2attitudes, 3)beliefs, and 4)behavior.

It is essential to engage in the thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, and behavior that lead to the desired outcome(s). Individuals engaging in behavior change should measure their ongoing success by paying attention to the thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, and behavior  that lead to the desired outcome. Reinforce these changes when you achieve a process goal with some type of reward, as long as it is not a reward that will interfere with other outcome goals you have set for yourself. We are all too familiar with individuals who are trying to increase their studying and then go out and reinforce studying with going out to drink!

Goals are generally defined in two basic categories: 1)short-term, intermediate, and long-term goals and 2)process versus outcome goals.

Short-Term, Intermediate, and Long-Term Goals

Researchers use various definitions and criteria to describe the length of time that differentiates short-term, intermediate, and long-term goals. However, the time element is not as important as understanding the underlying rationale and importance of the various descriptions.

None of these goals are more important than the others. Ideally, short-term and intermediate goals will logically flow into long-term changes or a "lifestyle change." The saying that you have to walk before you run describes the relationship between these goals.

Short-term goals are the initial goals that one needs to be able to achieve intermediate and long-term goals. For instance, occasionally studying 2 hours a day in a quieter environment (short-term) before proceeding to studying 3 hours a day (intermediate) and eventually studying 4 or 5 hours a day (long-term) is an example this process. Another example might include first decreasing consumption or the number of occasions you drink alcohol (short-term), increasing fun non-alcohol activities (intermediate), and finally reducing consumption of alcohol to the predetermined goal (long-term). Ideally, short-term and intermediate goals will continue all along the way until the long-term goal has been achieved and maintained.

It is helpful to imagine all of the changes that need to eventually take place and set goals to accomplish them a few steps at a time. Too many people start off by thinking that all of the changes need to be made "right now" which may lead to "all or none thinking", "magnification" or "jumping to conclusions." For example, "I am totally working on my goals", "I have been PERFECT so far" or "I didn't meet my goal, it was too damn hard." Focus on small, moderate process goals!

It is very important to not think about the process goals as "black and white." Moderation is the best guide. Of course, the moderation must be moderate enough to help you reach your goals, but thoughts like "I have blown it now, so I might as well drink as much as I want", "I haven't studied for 3 days so the hell with it" and "I am never going to try something new, it is too anxiety provoking" even if that competes against your other goals). This kind of dichotomous thinking can only lead to trouble. In fact, psychologists call this the "Abstinence Violation Effect" which is the direct result of this kind of "black and white" or rigid thinking which results in feeling like you have broken your abstinence - that you are a failure, which leads to discouragement and probably quitting.

"Moderation is the Key"

Characteristics of Good Goals

Although setting goals may seem like an easy endeavor, it can be more difficult than it appears at first blush. There are several characteristics that will make the goals more useful. The characteristics of good goals can be defined as being: 1)specific, 2)reasonable and attainable, and 3)measurable. There is a great deal of overlap with each of these characteristics and good goals will contain each characteristic. Setting goals with these characteristics will allow you to measure progress.

Setting Specific Goals

Goals should identify the behavior as specifically as possible and define the parameters of the behavior. For instance, a goal of "I will study more this week" is not very specific. It does not specify the frequency, duration, when or where the studying will take place. A more specific and useful goal would be "I will study for 1 hour at least 5 times this week during my lunch break, right after dinner, or between my classes."

Setting Reasonable and Attainable Goals

Goals should be reasonable with respect to what you should expect from yourself. The goal "I study every day this week for 5 hours" (especially if you have not been studying anywhere near this amount) or "I will only do fun things this week" are probably not very reasonable, realistic or attainable. Although these goals are "theoretically possible" they may not be very practical. Goals that would be more reasonable would be: "I will study 2-5 times this week for between 30 minutes and 1 hour" and "I will do something fun at least 3 times this week." Making the goals reasonable and attainable is very helpful. Also, goals should be flexible. Setting a range of "acceptable accomplishment" can be very helpful and help reduce the risk of feeling like a failure. For example, rather than setting the goal that "I will study for 5 hours this week" would be "I will study between 2 and 7 hours this week" In this way, you will have a range to fall in rather than achieving or not achieving a dichotomous goal. This will prevent feeling like you either accomplished the goal or did not accomplish the goal. It will greatly reduce your possibly feeling like a failure which can lead to giving up.

Making the Goals Measurable

It is important to know if the goal was achieved. This can be accomplished in part by setting goals that are specific and reasonable, but it is best if one can measure the accomplishment of the goal in some way. Vague goals such as "I will do my best at studying this week" while well intentioned are not very useful. What are the process goals and how will you evaluate your success? Similarly, the goal "I will study this week" does not address the likely impediments that interfere with studying, such as feeling tired, being too busy, and struggling to find the desire to study.

Monitor Progress

Monitoring the achievement of process goals is extremely important, and is especially helpful in goal-setting. It is important that one is able to monitor progress along the way. This can be accomplished by setting short-term goals. Remember, it is important to give yourself positive feedback along the way and focus on what is going right. Remember the sayings "Wherever You Are, Be There!" and "The Journey is The Outcome." It will take time to get the new behaviors in order and you may not be successful at first, but keep trying. Research indicates that it takes most people several attempts when trying to change a behavior or engage in a new on!

"Anything Worth Doing Perfectly, Is Worth Doing Imperfectly"
Poorly Formulated Goal Better Goal
"I will study 5 hours this week" "I make a schedule and study 1 hour each day"
"I will study every day this week" "I will study for one hour 4-6 days this week"
"I will have fun every day this week" "I will try something new for fun at least 2 times this week"
"I will not drink at all for the next month" "I will monitor my drinking this week and will then set goals for reducing my drinking each week"
"I will not smoke at all this week"
"I will allow myself only 80% of the amount I normally smoke each day"
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