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Making the decision to enter treatment for a drug or alcohol addiction opens up great new possibilities, and the importance of setting goals in treatment and beyond can’t be underestimated. But it can be intimidating to choose and set recovery goals for yourself. Learning how to identify what you want and translate that desire into realistic, measurable, and actionable goals is a talent that will serve you well far into the future.

Why Set Recovery Goals?

Harvard University cites a number of studies that have found that setting goals increases motivation and achievement, even in people who have low motivation. The studies show that those who are committed to successfully reaching a goal will typically find their behaviors naturally consistent with the goal, and they usually demonstrate greater creativity and persistence in attaining it.

In most cases, though, simply thinking about a goal isn’t enough to ensure you’ll reach it successfully. In a study on goal-setting by Dr. Gail Matthews, a psychology professor at Dominican University in California, participants were divided into five groups:

  • Group 1 was asked to simply think about the goals they wanted to achieve.
  • Group 2 was asked to write down their goals.
  • Group 3 was asked to write down their goals and attach actions to each goal.
  • Group 4 was asked to do the same as Group 3 and send their goals and action plan to a supportive friend.
  • Group 5 was asked to do the same as Group 4 and send a weekly progress report to a supportive friend.

The results weren’t all that surprising. Group 1 received a mean achievement score of 4.28, while Group 2’s score was 6.08. Group 3’s score was a bit lower, at 5.08, but Group 4’s score was 6.41. Group 5, the group that sent their actionable recovery goals and a weekly progress report to a friend, earned a mean achievement score of 7.6. When comparing the first group, who only thought about their goals, to the other four groups, Group 1’s score was 4.28 compared to the other groups’ combined score of 6.44.

These results illustrate that goals become far more reachable just by virtue of writing them down. When you go a step further and break them into smaller goals, attach actions to them, share them with a friend or mentor, and create regular progress reports, you have a surefire recipe for the best possible chances of reaching them.

Long-Term Recovery Goals vs. Short-Term Recovery Goals

When developing your goals, thinking both long-term and short-term is important. Short-term recovery goals, according to an article in Hazleden Foundation’s Behavioral Health Evolution, are stepping stones that effectively lead to the achievement of a long-term goal.

Long-term recovery goals can loom too large to really wrap your brain around, but breaking down a long-term goal into smaller, short-term goals makes it much easier to track your progress and stay focused on actively achieving the greater goal.

For example, if your long-term goal is to maintain successful recovery for the next year, your short-term goals may be to finish treatment, join a peer support group, find a vocation that will give your life purpose, and begin an exercise regimen that will help keep you in optimum physical and mental health. These shorter-term goals are easier to visualize and act upon, and each is realistic, actionable, and measurable. Combined, they will naturally help lead you to the achievement of your long-term goal.

How to Decide on What Your Recovery Goals Should Be

Part of what makes goal setting so intimidating is trying to decide what your recovery goals should be, for both addiction recovery and your life. The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance recommends asking yourself the following questions:

  • What do I want?
  • What did I care about before my addiction took over my life?
  • What do I care about now?
  • What interests me?
  • What motivates me?
  • Where do I want to be in a year? Two years? Five years?
  • What makes me happy?
  • What would I do if I could do anything I wanted?

Think about the answers to these questions and see if they help you identify a goal you’d like to accomplish. The most important thing is that the goal you choose is one that you want to accomplish. Setting goals that other people – your spouse, your sponsor, your boss – want for you may not inspire the motivation necessary to achieve them.

Setting Realistic Recovery Goals

Goals must be realistic in order to be achievable. Setting unrealistic goals inevitably leads to failure, which is frustrating and can deal a blow to your self-confidence.

Realistic recovery goals are those that you’re pretty certain you can actually achieve in the time frame you want to achieve them. If the goal isn’t realistic, you may be able to make it so by extending the time frame.

For example, if you haven’t exercised regularly for several years, setting the goal of completing a marathon in three months is unrealistic. A more appropriate long-term goal would be to run a marathon in one year. Then, when you decide on your short-term goals, three of them might be to run a 5k in three months, a 10k in six months, and a half-marathon in nine months.

Setting Measurable Recovery Goals

Once you decide on a realistic goal, you’ll need to make sure it’s measurable. Measurable goals are those whose progress you can effectively track.

For example, “I want to be happy” is a nice goal, but it isn’t measurable, because you can’t definitively track your progress toward happiness. Happiness can mean a lot of different things to an individual, and your level of happiness can change week to week. Instead, ask yourself what–specifically–would make you happy. A job you love? That’s measurable, because you’ll know when you’ve accomplished it. In general, the more specific your recovery goals, the more measurable they will be.

Breaking Down Long-Term Recovery Goals into Short-Term Recovery Goals

Now that you have a realistic and measurable long-term goal in mind, it’s time to break it down into smaller, short-term goals.

If your long-term goal is to write a book, your short-term goals may be to write for two hours every day, have an outline finished in one month, and send out one proposal each week to a publisher.

If you’re having trouble figuring out appropriate short-term goals, working backwards can help. For example, if your goal is to visit Rome next summer, what is the last thing you’ll need to do before you go to Rome? Buy a ticket. What do you need to do to buy a ticket? Save money. What do you need to do to save money? Get a job. What do you need to do to get a job? Send out resumes. So your short-term goal to start might be to send out two resumes each week. Once you have a job, your short-term goal will be to put a certain amount of money in a savings account each month.

Adding Actions to Your Short-Term Recovery Goals

Making your short-term recovery goals actionable is critical for successfully achieving them. If you can’t act on a goal, how will you reach it, and how will you know when you’ve reached it? Putting actions to your goals is essentially the same thing as breaking down your short-term goals into even shorter-term ones, and doing so is a matter of answering the question, “What do I need to do to…?”

If your long-term goal is to lose 50 pounds in a year, your short term goals may be to cut most of the sugar out of your diet and exercise at least three times each week in order to lose one pound a week.

Ask yourself what you need to do to cut most of the sugar out of your diet. The resulting actions might be to:

  • Eat meals you prepare at home at least five nights a week.
  • Have dessert no more than two nights a week.
  • Replace your daily breakfast of Cocoa Pebbles with an egg and toast.

Each action should be something you can cross off your list at a given time: at the end of the day, at the end of the week, at the end of the month. If it’s not something you can cross off a list, it isn’t actionable.

Staying Motivated

Staying motivated to reach your goals is far more difficult if you don’t check in with them on a regular basis and measure your success. This is where working with someone else can help, and you can make this a two-way street by inviting a friend or family member to develop their own goals and share a weekly check-in session over coffee or email.

Once you’ve got your long-term recovery goals, short-term recovery goals, and actions written down, decide how often you will revisit your written list and make notes of your progress. Set an alert on your phone or computer to help remind you. When it’s time, pull out your list, evaluate how it’s going, and send a progress report to your friend to let him or her know where you excelled, where you stumbled, and why you think some things worked and others didn’t.

Doing so will help you keep your goal fresh in your mind over the following week, and you’ll be mindful of any pitfalls you discovered during your evaluation.

Here are some other ways to help you stay motivated to reach your goals:

Savor your successes. Reward yourself when you successfully complete the actions you need to take to reach your short-term recovery goals. If you hit the gym three days that week, give yourself a big pat on the back. If you succeed in that particular goal for an entire month, get yourself a new pair of running shoes or invite your goal-setting partner over for a celebratory dinner.

Don’t beat yourself up. If you didn’t reach your goal, don’t give yourself a hard time. It takes time and regular practice to make an action a habit. Slipping up can be a valuable lesson for the following week, and it can help you refine your goals to make them easier to achieve. Instead of feeling discouraged, look at the situation objectively and ask yourself what prevented you from reaching your goal.

Maybe one of your goals was to hit the gym each morning before work, but you had trouble getting out of bed that early, and so you failed to meet your weekly goal. This is an opportunity to add “go to bed by 10:00 each night” to your actions or to change your gym schedule from before work to after work.

Visualize the long-term goal. When you feel your motivation waning, close your eyes and think hard about your long-term goal. See yourself achieving that goal, and savor how you will feel when you’ve lost 50 pounds or realize that you’ve been in successful recovery for an entire year.

Remember: You Can Do It

Don’t give up. It’s not always easy to reach your goals. There will be setbacks, and there will be days when you wonder if it’s worth it. During these times, talking to your goal-setting partner can help rekindle your motivation to keep trying.

Remember that you didn’t carve your goals – or their time frames – in stone. If you realize that you may not be able to reach your goal by your specified date, move the date back a bit and revisit your short-term goals to make changes as necessary. Circumstances and priorities change, and these may lead to changes to your goals.

Above all, staying flexible is essential for maintaining the motivation you need to keep working toward the achievement of your goals.

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How to Choose and Achieve Your Recovery Goals
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