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Leaving addiction behind leaves many people with a feeling of emptiness. Where they were once driven by their drug use, they may now have nothing they’re seeking or working toward. This can put a serious wrench in recovery, which is why working to find fulfillment in life is a big part of treatment.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration cites purpose as one of the four dimensions of recovery.1 Purpose means having meaningful daily activities in the process of working toward something better. Setting goals helps give you purpose in life, and goal-setting is an essential component of a high-quality treatment program.

It’s important to have goals in recovery for several reasons:

  • Setting a goal means that you’re accepting accountability for achieving it.
  • Working toward something you want can be fun, and it can distract you from negative thoughts and behaviors that could impede your recovery progress.
  • Working toward a goal helps to alleviate boredom and offers a sense of purpose in life.
  • Setting goals helps you prioritize the things that are important to you.
  • Setting goals gives you focus and direction.
  • Achieving milestones that get you closer to your goal increases motivation, self-esteem, and self-efficacy in recovery and in life.
  • Achieving a goal increases your confidence and promotes personal fulfillment.

Setting goals is a valuable skill that can serve you well in many ways, but it requires more than simply thinking about what you want to achieve. There’s a bit of science behind the process of goal-setting, and using research-based methods for choosing, setting and working toward your goals will help ensure you achieve them.

Setting Goals Helps You Achieve Your Dreams and Aspirations

You may have an idea of where you want to be in, say, six months or a year or even five years. Maybe you hope to have a career you love, start a family or simply maintain your sobriety. Setting specific goals—and putting them in writing—increases the chances of achieving them. Harvard University cites a number of studies that show that goal-setting increases motivation and fosters a feeling of personal investment in attaining the goal.2

A clever study by Dominican University in California confirms that setting goals are a surefire pathway to achieving your dreams, both big and small. In the study, five groups of participants were asked to set goals.3 The first group only thought about their goals. The second group wrote them down. The third group wrote down their goals and attached actions to each one, and the fourth group did the same but also sent their goals and action plan to a supportive friend or family member. The fifth group did the same thing as the fourth group but also sent a weekly progress report to their supportive friend or family member.

The results are stark, if not unsurprising. The first group scored a 4.28 on goal achievement, compared to the fifth group’s score of 7.6 and the combined score of 6.44 for the second, third and fourth groups. This shows that the more you nurture a goal by giving it attention, the better the odds are that you’ll succeed with it.

First Things First: What Do You Want to Achieve?

Identifying personal goals for recovery and for your life can be intimidating. Maybe you don’t know exactly what it is that you want to achieve, or maybe you have a long list of things you want to do but don’t know where to begin. Ask yourself these questions to help you choose some goals:

  • What do I care about?
  • What did I want before addiction took over my life?
  • What do I want now?
  • What are my interests?
  • What motivates me?
  • Where would I like to be at this time next year? In two years? In five years?
  • What gives me happiness?
  • What are some things I need to work on to make my recovery successful?

According to the University of Utah, goals should be challenging rather than easy.4 Challenging goals elicit higher rewards, and they increase your motivation level. But the most important consideration is that the goal should be something you want, rather than something others want for you or something that you think you should want. If the goal isn’t something you truly desire, it will be difficult to find the motivation to achieve it.

Setting Goals the SMART Way

The goals you choose should be SMART: specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic and time-bound.

Specific Goals

Setting specific goals gives you more leverage for achieving them. A specific goal will be well-defined and clear instead of generalized or vague. Precise goals set you up for success by giving you something clear and concrete to work toward. Make more money is a vague goal while finding a better-paying job is more specific.

Measurable Goals

Monitoring your progress is a major motivator when it comes to achieving your set goals. Measurable goals lend themselves to measuring progress, and they give you the opportunity to celebrate milestones. Save more money isn’t a measurable goal, but save a hundred dollars a month is easily measured and celebrated.

Action-Oriented Goals

If a goal isn’t actionable, how exactly will you achieve it? Action-oriented goals let you plan precisely what you need to do to achieve them. Find happiness isn’t an action-oriented goal. Find and engage in a hobby I enjoy, on the other hand, is an actionable goal.

Realistic Goals

If a goal isn’t realistic, you’re setting yourself up for failure at the get-go. Unrealistic goals can leave you feeling overwhelmed, and the result is often frustration and disengagement. Run a marathon in three months isn’t a realistic goal if you haven’t put on a pair of running shoes in several years. A more realistic goal might be to run a 5K instead.

While you want your goal to be achievable, it’s important to choose a goal that will be challenging. Goals that are too easy to achieve are a detriment to motivation and energy, while bigger goals that require peak performance tend to foster long-range enthusiasm and a greater level of focus.

Time-Bound Goals

Having a deadline for achieving your goals helps you stay motivated to work toward them. It gives you a greater sense of urgency and helps keep you on track. But don’t worry: As often happens in goal-setting, once you get started on working toward your goal, you may find that your deadline is unrealistic. You can always change it, and in fact, a little flexibility is a good trait to have when it comes to goal setting.

Framing Goals Positively

The psychology department at New York University stresses that framing a goal in a way that promotes a positive outcome rather than preventing a negative outcome maximizes its attainment.5 For example, the goal “don’t use drugs” is framed to prevent a negative outcome, while the goal “stay in recovery” is framed to promote a positive outcome. Try to frame your goals positively.

Long-Term vs. Short-Term Goals

It’s important to break larger goals down into smaller ones. The smaller goals serve as stepping stones to achieving the larger goal. Think of these as long-term and short-term goals. Long-term goals are those that you’ll achieve in six months or longer, while short-term goals are those you’ll achieve in the next few weeks or months to move you closer to attaining the long-term goal.

If your long-term goal is to publish your memoir, your short-term goals will help you get there. These may include:

  • Writing every day for two hours.
  • Finishing a proposal in one month.
  • Sending one proposal a week to publishers.

Working backward from a long-term goal can help you identify possible short-term goals. For example, if your long-term goal is to get a high-paying job, what’s the last thing that will happen before you get it? You’ll get an interview. How do you get an interview? Send out resumes. But first, you have to write the resume. So your short-term goals might be to write and print your resume and compile a list of potential employers by the end of the month and then send out three resumes each week.

These short-term goals are specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic and time-bound, and they’re easy to visualize to keep you motivated.

Creating an Action Plan

We’ve seen that writing down your goals is an important part of the goal-setting process, and we know that making goals actionable is critical for successful achievement. Creating an action plan for each of your long-term goals involves devising short-term goals and then breaking these down into even shorter-term goals that specify exactly what you need to do in order to reach your overarching goal.

For example, if one of your long-term goals is to lose 25 pounds, one of your short-term goals might be to improve your diet. To create the action plan, ask yourself, “What do I need to do to improve my diet?” The action plan might look like this:

  • Eat toast and fruit instead of donuts for breakfast every morning.
  • Cut fast food meals down to one a week.
  • Prepare meals at home at least five nights a week.
  • Take a sandwich or salad to work four days a week.

Each component of your action plan should be something you can cross off a list after a certain period of time—at the end of the day, week or month.

Staying Motivated to Achieve Your Goals

While setting goals will help you stay motivated to work toward them, you’ll likely have periods where you just don’t feel like working out or meditating or going to class. Once you begin to see results, you’ll enjoy a boost in confidence that will help you stay focused on the end goal, but maintaining the motivation you need can take a little work, especially at first. These tips can help boost your motivation when you’re feeling tired or discouraged.

Monitor your progress. Monitoring the progress you’ve made toward your goals is one of the best ways to stay motivated to reach them. Reviewing your goals each week will help them stay fresh and clear in your mind and will help guide your actions to achieve them. Sharing your goals with a supportive friend or family member and checking in on a regular basis is a good way to monitor your progress, and having a partner who is also working toward certain goals can be beneficial for both of you as you offer one another support and celebrate milestones together.

Keep a progress journal. Review your goals each week, and record your thoughts in a journal. Make a note of where you excelled, where you stumbled, what was easy and what you found difficult. Brainstorm ways to improve your progress over the next week. If one of your actions is to work out at the gym every morning, but you’re having trouble meeting that goal because you haven’t been getting up early enough, maybe you can change it so that you’re working out in the afternoon or splitting your workout time between the morning and the evening.

Keeping a journal helps you stay mindful of the goal and what you need to do to achieve it. It keeps you motivated to improve your performance toward making the goal a reality.

Celebrate your successes. Decide how you’ll measure your successes, and choose rewards for when you reach certain milestones. For example, decide that if you make it to the gym three days a week for a month, you’ll celebrate with a new workout outfit or a celebratory dinner with your goal partner. Celebrating your successes helps keep you motivated by offering a tangible reward to work for.

Stay flexible. Sometimes, life gets in the way of progress toward meeting goals. Maybe you had the flu and couldn’t make it to the gym, or maybe you were going through a hard time and didn’t make as much progress as you’d hoped you would. Don’t beat yourself up over it. It takes time and practice to develop a new habit, and it may not happen as quickly as you want. That’s okay.

Make notes in your progress journal to help you work through and resolve any problems. Re-vamp the timeline if you need to, keeping in mind from the beginning that nothing is set in stone, life happens and there may be unexpected challenges that need to be overcome. Staying flexible will help you successfully work through challenges and problems while remaining rigid could lead you to giving up when things don’t go the way you planned.

Keep your eye on the ball. Sometimes you may get so caught up in the minutia of working toward your goal that you lose sight of the bigger picture. By posting your goal where you’ll see it every day and writing in a progress journal each week, you can maintain sight of the overarching goal while you take action to achieve it.

Handling Setbacks

Setting goals and working toward them can make an enormous difference in your recovery. But it’s important to maintain some perspective and remember that there will be setbacks, and how you approach these can make a big difference in how quickly you get back on track.

A setback in recovery is any behavior that moves you closer to a relapse.6 Such behaviors may include not practicing self-care, putting yourself in high-risk situations and not asking for help when you need it. In terms of achieving your life goals, a setback would be any behavior that puts a wrench in reaching your goals.

A setback shouldn’t mark the end of working toward your goal. Viewing a setback as a personal failure and coming down hard on yourself can lead to a sense of failure and feeling overwhelmed by the future. On the other hand, those who view a setback as a normal part of recovery and goal-attainment are more likely to get back on track by developing the skills they need to succeed, and they often come back stronger and more motivated than ever.

Start Setting Goals Today

While there’s definitely a science to setting goals, it’s not rocket science. It’s a simple matter of choosing meaningful, realistic goals that are clear, precise and measurable. Writing down your goals and attaching actions to them helps you know exactly what you need to do to achieve them. Monitoring your progress and celebrating milestones help you maintain the motivation you need to keep moving forward.

If you or someone you love is living with an addiction, a high-quality treatment program can help you identify and set goals that will lead to a higher sense of purpose and meaning in life.

Give us a call or come visit our California Outpatient Treatment Center


  1. Recovery and Recovery Support. (October, 2015). Retrieved from https://www.samhsa.gov/recovery
  2. Turkay, S. (2014). Setting Goals: Who, Why, How? Retrieved from http://hilt.harvard.edu/files/hilt/files/settinggoals.pdf
  3. Goals Research Summary. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.dominican.edu/academics/ahss/undergraduate-programs/psych/faculty/fulltime/gailmatthews/researchsummary2.pdf
  4. Locke’s Goal Setting Theory. (n.d.). Retrieved from web.utah.edu/basford/familyfinance/documents/LockesGoalSettingTheory.docx
  5. Oettingen, G., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2010). Strategies of Setting and Implementing Goals. Retrieved from http://www.psych.nyu.edu/gollwitzer/OettingenGollwitzer.pdf
  6. Melemis, S. M. (2015, September). Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery. Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 88(3), 325-332. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4553654/
Setting Goals in Sober Living
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