How to Set Therapy Goals: A Step-by-Step Guide (With Examples)
Good therapy can seem like magic. You sit in your therapist’s office and talk and things in your life start to get better. You don’t get as upset during conversations with your partner and don’t get as stressed out at work. You finally start dealing with that bad habit that’s been holding you back and are feeling creative again.
How can therapy do this? While there’s an art to therapy, there’s a science to it, too, and specific things you can do to increase your chances of success. In this article, we explore an often-overlooked way to improve your outcomes in therapy: setting tangible and measurable goals.
It’s possible to take even the vaguest or most poetic motivations for therapy and set goals based on them that you can use to track your progress. This can prevent you from getting blocked or stuck in therapy or having no idea if it’s working or not.
Read on for tips on how you can set goals for therapy. By following these steps, you can come up with a list of personally meaningful goals that can keep your work in therapy focused and productive.
Start by identifying broad motives, hopes, and dreams.
At your first therapy session, when your therapist asks, “What brings you to therapy?” the first thing that comes to mind might be a simple, heartfelt statement like, “I just want to be happy,” or “I feel stuck,” or “I’m tired of just going through the motions.”
These statements express deep feelings that are important to connect to and work with in therapy. Just saying them to a therapist can kickstart a process of change, growth, and healing. But they’re too vague to make effective goals.
To help transform these powerful yearnings into more specific goals, ask yourself: What does being happy look like for you? What specific struggles make you feel stuck? Taking time to reflect on these questions can be therapeutic in itself.
One way to develop goals is to brainstorm and write down as many reasons for coming to therapy as you can. Whether you’re writing in paragraphs or making a mind map, the simple process of getting your ideas down on paper (or on a screen) can help you clarify them. It can help to start with a prompt.
Questions to Ask Yourself to Help You Figure Out Your Therapy Goals
If you’re not sure where to start, it can help to use some prompts. Here are a few questions to get you started:
- What are some things in your life that you’re tired of?
- What are some things in your life that you love and want more of?
- What are some things you haven’t done yet that you still want to do?
- Was there a specific problem that brought you to therapy? How and when did it start?
- Have you been in therapy before? How did it go? What do you hope will be different or better this time?
If you have a mental health condition, addressing it will probably be your most important goal. However, taking the time to come up with specific goals related to your mental health journey can help you tailor your therapy experience and make it more satisfying.
As you build lists and examine your responses to these or other prompts, you may find that certain motives, hopes, or struggles stand out more than others. Explore these more deeply. What you thought your reason was for coming to therapy might not be the most important change you want to make in your life.
Choose a theme to focus on.
You might come to therapy feeling like your life is a total disaster. Where do you even begin if you’re having serious problems at work and at home and your bad habits are affecting your health, your finances, and your relationships?
It’s okay to walk into your therapist’s office and say, “I’m a total wreck. Can we fix everything?” Your therapist will be sympathetic, want to help, and be ready to listen to you describe the problems you’re having. But you’ll be more successful if you ask your therapist to help you find specific issues to focus on.
If you’re falling behind at work and snapping at your partner or children, for example, you might be able to connect these issues to a particular habit or behavior you want to change. It might also be related to a specific cause that you can address in therapy, such as stress, depression, or guilt. Your therapist is trained to identify root problems and can help you if you’re overwhelmed or uncertain how to proceed.
Narrow your theme into one or more specific goals.
Sometimes, it’s easy to identify specific goals for therapy. Sometimes it takes a little more work. Often, it’s a matter of finding the right term.
“I want to figure out if I’m depressed” is easier to turn into an effective goal than “Something just seems to be wrong.” Either one is a fine place to start, but it’s easier to identify symptoms of depression than to identify a needle in the emotional haystack of “Something is wrong.”
One of the most common reasons people seek therapy is that they want to be happy but aren’t. Of course, it’s not your job to figure out exactly why you’re unhappy—therapists wouldn’t have much work to do if everyone could figure that out so easily for themselves. But you can start the process by trusting your instincts and saying what you think the problem might be.
You can share suspicions with your therapist that you’ve been afraid to share with anyone else. When you confess fears like “I think I might be unhappy because I’m in the wrong line of work,” or “I’m not sure I want to be with my partner,” your relationship with your therapist and your work with each other will deepen. Even being able to say, “I don’t know what I want” can help.
Make your goals concrete, measurable, and SMART.
The idea of SMART goals comes from the corporate world, but it’s a good frame of reference for any process of goal formation. It helps you avoid the trap of making goals that are too fuzzy to measure.
Of course, it’s okay to have fuzzy therapy goals, especially in the beginning. In fact, your goals are likely to change over the course of therapy, as therapy is a process of gaining self-knowledge. However, having only vague goals can make therapy frustrating, especially if you’re not planning on being in therapy for a long time.
Think of it as “both/and,” not “either/or.” You can come to therapy to explore deep questions that aren’t concrete or measurable, and enjoy the slow process of getting to know yourself as you change and grow, while also having some specific, concrete things you’re working on.
What's a SMART Goal?
A SMART goal is:
These aspects make it easier to know whether you’ve achieved your goal, and they also make it easier to track your progress.
For a goal to be measurable, it has to be specific. Goals that are both measurable and specific are concrete. You can visualize concrete goals and mark exactly when you’ve met them.
For example, “I want to get up every morning by 7:00 AM” is much more concrete than “I want to stop sleeping late.” Saying, “I want to stop binging on Little Debbie and start going to the gym at least twice a week” is more concrete than “I want to be healthier.”
Time is an important factor in any goal-setting process. If you’re not sure how long it should take to achieve a major therapeutic goal, break it up into smaller goals. For example, instead of saying, “I want to cure my social anxiety completely in one year,” you can say, “I want to go to at least two social events in the next month” or “I want to get out of the house at least once a day for the next week.”
It’s okay if you don’t achieve your goals right away; part of the process of growth is learning what didn’t work and trying again when you don’t succeed the first time.
Create an action plan to track and achieve your goals.
Once you’ve identified one or more important goals you want to achieve in therapy, you can work together with your therapist to come up with an action plan.
In fact, many therapists are required to do this as part of the treatment planning process for their agencies. In general, a treatment plan includes major goals, smaller objectives you can use to track your progress toward these goals, and the methods you’ll use to facilitate change.
Your therapist may have already written up a treatment plan for you based on what you told them you wanted to achieve in therapy. You can ask them to see it, or you can just ask to go through and discuss the goals they’ve written down to see if those are the goals you want to track at home, too.
If you haven’t found a therapist yet, you can use the search feature on OpenCounseling to find affordable therapy in your area or sign up for affordable online therapy with BetterHelp (a sponsor). If you can figure out your goals before you even start therapy, you’re sure to hit the ground running!
Stephanie Hairston is a freelance mental health writer who spent several years in the field of adult mental health before transitioning to professional writing and editing. As a clinical social worker, she provided group and individual therapy, crisis intervention services, and psychological assessments.