The American Psychological Association (APA) "Dictionary of Psychology" describes goals as "specific, time-based behaviour targets that are measurable, achievable, and realistic." According to the APA, goals are effective "only if individuals concerned are aware of what is to be accomplished and accept the goals for themselves, believing in their attainability."
Counselling goals, also called "therapeutic objectives," form the basis for the work a counsellor or therapist and her client will do together. Using the SMART technique, counsellors can help a client identify which goals are important and support the client's work toward achieving them. SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-limited.
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Ask the client what he wants to change or accomplish, and have the client write each goal down. Although it's OK to remind the client of something he has expressed a desire for, these should be the client's goals, not the therapist's, and should be relevant to what the client wants for his own life.
Add details to each goal to make it specific and time focused. For a goal to "lose weight," help the client identify a target weight she wants to reach, how much weight loss that entails and by what time she wants to accomplish that. A revised goal might be, "Lose 34 Kilogram in the next 12 months."
Break large or complex goals down into smaller, more attainable sub-goals. Rather than, "Get clean and sober," a client might want to start with, "Attend three Narcotics Anonymous meetings each week," and, "Use a different route to work to avoid passing my regular dealer."
Encourage the client to imagine how life will be different once he reaches each goal, and have him write down the benefits. For instance, a client who wants to lose a large amount of weight may write, "More energy, get out of the house more, joints won't ache, feel better about myself, feel more confident."
Help the client differentiate between long-term goals (something to work toward in the future) and short-term goals (things she could accomplish soon), and organise the goals in priority order.
Make two copies of the client's goals and vision for how his life will change by reaching the goals. Have the client take home the original, and keep the copy in his file.
Revisit the goals regularly to celebrate successes, evaluate roadblocks and set new goals.
Tips and warnings
- Not every goal the client sets has to be related directly to counselling or to her reason for seeking treatment. Research, including that reported in "Addressing suicidal ideations through the realisation of meaningful personal goals" in a 2007 issue of "Crisis," shows that clients who create and work toward personal goals have significantly better outcomes, compared with those who don't set goals.
- Clients are more likely to achieve recovery when they play an active role in treatment, collaborate with their provider and develop a strong sense of personal identity. Setting and achieving meaningful, personally relevant goals is frequently part of that process.
- Accountability is critical to success in reaching goals. Reviewing the client's goals with him on a regular basis keeps the goals fresh in the client's mind and creates the opportunity to make changes as the goals evolve.
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- American Psychological Association: APA Dictionary of Psychology
- SMART Goal Setting Tips: SMART Goals--Secrets of Successful Goal Setting
- APA PsycNet: Building a practically useful theory of goal setting and task motivation--A 35-year odyssey.
- PubMed: Addressing suicidal ideations through the realisation of meaningful personal goals
- American Psychiatric Publishing: Illness Management and Recovery: A Review of the Research