How to set goals in therapy (2023)

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If you’ve ever been in therapy, chances are you’re familiar with the question, “What brings you here?” Simple and straightforward on the surface, this can also be one of the most complex and baffling questions.

Collaborative goal setting can break this question down into concrete terms by delineating what you want to be addressed in therapy. When used in time-limited therapeutic approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy, solution focused therapy and motivational interviewing, it has the potential to increase a client’s motivation, strengthen the therapeutic alliance, improve treatment outcomes and reduce the number of sessions needed.

When therapists don’t set goals

There are certain therapeutic approaches, such as depth psychotherapy, where goal-setting might not make sense. While treatment goals are often symptom-focused, in these modalities symptoms are considered surface-level indicators of deeper issues to be discovered and worked through.

For example, in Jungian analysis, the goal of individuation is already baked into the treatment. Individuation is a process of developing an ongoing relationship between your conscious mind, your unconscious, the collective unconscious and your environment. You might explore how you react to challenges, how you manage complexity and most importantly, be willing to commit to hearing the snippets that arise from your unconscious, whether it be through dreams, sensations, images, experiences or events. Setting therapy goals may interfere with this process because if your goal is to reduce a symptom, you might bypass the deeper issue that the symptom is signaling.

How to set goals in therapy (1)

What are therapy goals and objectives?

Some therapists will work with you to set broader level goals that align with your values. They’ll then support you in breaking that goal down into concrete objectives that will help you reach your overarching goal.

For example, a person’s goal might be to improve their self-esteem. An objective towards this goal could be to identify one thing each day that they are proud of. This could be anything from getting out of bed or brushing their teeth, to taking a walk, or doing something that they were reluctant to do.

(Video) Stop Making Self-Defeating Goals: How to Set Better Goals With This One Shift in Thinking

Another person’s goal could be to become more assertive. An objective towards this goal would be to speak up at least once a day in professional meetings or class discussions.

How to set goals in therapy

Goals may revolve around several themes including:

  • Developing coping strategies
  • Reducing symptom intensity
  • Discovering more about who you are
  • Practicing mindfulness
  • Improving sleep
  • Increasing self-esteem
  • Addressing challenging dynamics
  • Processing past trauma
  • Changing harmful habits
  • Improving communication skills
  • Learning to set boundaries

Below are eight tips that can guide you through the process of setting goals in therapy.

(Video) CBT Demo Goal Setting

1. Set goals from the get go

One study of more than 700 adults found that people perceived more goal clarity when treatment goals were developed at the start of treatment and in collaboration with the therapist. It was also shown that regularly checking in on and adjusting goals can have a positive impact on treatment.

2. Brainstorm

If you’re stuck, think about as many reasons as you can for why you started therapy. They don’t all have to be true; it’s a brainstorm. You can also ask your therapist to give you a prompt such as:

  • What changes would you like to see in your life?
  • What’s going well for you?
  • What are you tired of?
  • What’s on your bucket list?
  • Is there any specific issue that prompted you to start therapy?

Consider which answers strike a chord with you and delve deeper. See what you can find.

3. Get specific

You might first think that the answer is right in front of you. You want to feel better, less lonely or get unstuck. While it’s important to be in touch with these feelings, they’re a bit too vague to know exactly how to work towards them. Consider the difference between these two goals:

  • I’ll do my best to connect with people
  • I’ll reach out to one friend or acquaintance per week for 6 weeks

With the “do your best” goal, how would you know if you’ve achieved it?

How to set goals in therapy (2)

4. Focus in

It’s possible that there’s a lot in your life that you’d like to work on and you want to do it all at once. You might be having serious problems at work and at home. Your harmful habits could be affecting your health, your finances, and your relationships. And maybe you’re having trouble getting on track with anything.

(Video) How Do You Set Goals in Occupational Therapy?

Work with your therapist to get more clarity on where you want to start and what you can address.

5. Think in positive terms

Consider whether there is a way to frame your goal around what you do want rather than what you hope to avoid. For example, rather than developing a goal around not sleeping in as much, think about creating a goal that focuses on when you want to get out of bed each day.

6. Follow a structure

If your goals are too vague or abstract, it’s hard to know if you’re actually reaching them or even what you can do to move towards them. Developing goals within the SMART framework is a potential solution to this. The SMART acronym stands for:

  • Specific: Identify what your goal exactly is and where it will take place.
  • Measurable: Make sure there is a way to measure your progress and know when the goal has been achieved.
  • Achievable: Ask yourself whether it’s actually possible to meet the goal.
  • Relevant: Consider whether the goal fits with your overall values.
  • Time-bound: Formulate a clear timeline for completing the goal (or smaller pieces of the goal). If it’s a repeated behavior, make a plan for when and how often.

For example, instead of setting a goal to be healthier, you might say “I plan to go on a 30 minute bike ride three times per week.

Another acronym that you can consider using is GROW. This stands for:

  • Goal: Define what it is you want, and identify how you’ll know when you’ve achieved it.
  • Reality: Be sure that you have a good chance of being able to reach your goal.
  • Options & Obstacles: Consider your options for reaching your goal. What obstacles will you face?
  • Way forward: Develop a plan to move towards your goal.

7. Be kind to yourself

Change is not easy and often doesn’t happen overnight. Take care of yourself as you embark on this journey and be patient. If you get off track or experience a setback, know that it’s a normal part of the journey. See what you can learn from it and consider adjusting your goal if it is too difficult to do it all at once.

8. Collaborate with your therapist

If your therapist sets all of your goals for you, there’s a very low likelihood that you’ll achieve them. You also probably won’t feel very good about yourself. That said, your therapist can absolutely support you in developing goals that fit within your larger value structures and long-term hopes.

(Video) How Do I Set Goals in Therapy

A meta-analysis reviewing studies between 1978 and 2017 found that when a client and therapist are able to find consensus around therapy goals, treatment outcomes may improve. In addition, further research indicates that goal setting may be most effective when it is done and tracked in collaboration with another person.

Think of your therapist as a resource who can check in with you regularly and support you in adjusting your goals as they shift and change over time. If you haven’t made goals but would like to, talk with your online therapist and they’ll work with you to formulate goals that make sense for you.

Try Calmerry therapy

  • Text therapist (online chat).
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  • Emotional abuse therapy
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  • Relationship counseling


What are the five most common goals of therapy? ›

Common Counseling Goals and Examples
  1. Changing Behaviors. Everyone has behaviors in their life that they'd like to change. ...
  2. Establishing and Maintaining Relationships. Relationships are the building blocks of community. ...
  3. Enhancing Your Ability to Cope. ...
  4. Facilitating Decision-Making. ...
  5. 5. Development.
21 Dec 2020

How do you set effective goals? ›

First consider what you want to achieve, and then commit to it. Set SMART (specific, measureable, attainable, relevant and time-bound) goals that motivate you and write them down to make them feel tangible. Then plan the steps you must take to realize your goal, and cross off each one as you work through them.

What are therapy goals examples? ›

Therapy Goals: A Few Examples

If you're not sure what a therapy goal might look like, these example goals may give you some ideas: “I want to heal from depression and get my hope and energy back.” “I want to stop having the same fight with my partner over and over again.”

What are the 3 basic tasks of the therapist? ›

According to Yalom what are the three basic fundamental tasks of a therapist? Yalom (2005) states that the three fundamental tasks of a therapist are "1) Creation and maintenance of the group, 2) Building a group culture and 3) Activation and illumination of the here-and-now." (p.

What is the most important factor for successful therapy? ›

The most significant factor contributing to positive results in therapy has been found to be the aforementioned good relationship between therapist and client.

What are the three most important factors for therapy to be effective? ›

Another important issue is the degree to which these three common factors (empathy, positive regard, and genuineness) contribute to treatment outcomes and how these findings accord with the well-established link between therapeutic alliance and outcomes.

What are the 5 P's in therapy? ›

They conceptualized a way to look at clients and their problems, systematically and holistically taking into consideration the (1) Presenting problem, (2) Predisposing factors, (3) Precipitating factors, (4) Perpetuating factors, and (5) Protective factors.

What goals should I set for myself in therapy? ›

10 Goals You Can Achieve in Therapy
  • To better understand your emotions and where they are coming from. ...
  • To learn and practice using new, healthier methods of coping. ...
  • Making positive, healthy changes in your behavior or routine. ...
  • Being more productive or working towards long term goals.
19 Jul 2021

What are smart goals in therapy? ›

SMART typically stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Based. Chances are by now, you created SMART goals for yourself in work or graduate school and may have used them in your counseling sessions with students.

What are the 4 easy steps to setting goals? ›

Here's a quick overview of the easy 4-step process to achieving any goal.
  1. See the “goal achievement” vision of yourself. Develop a clear vision of what you want to achieve in your lifetime. ...
  2. Design a strategy. ...
  3. Develop tactics. ...
  4. Create a timeline. ...
  5. We'd love to hear from you!

How do you set goals give at least 5 ways? ›

5 Ways to Set Achievable Goals
  1. Give yourself time to think. I learned this from my dad. ...
  2. Write it down—and be accountable. This simple act is essential. ...
  3. Categorize. Goals can feel overwhelming sometimes, or just all over the map. ...
  4. Set Deadlines. ...
  5. Work Backwards. ...
  6. Contact us at
6 Sept 2016

What are the 5 key words for smart goals? ›

The SMART in SMART goals stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.

What are the 5 smart goals your answer? ›

Setting specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) objectives is a good way to plan the steps to meet the long-term goals in your grant. It helps you take your grant from ideas to action.

What is the first question a therapist asks? ›

Why are you seeking therapy at this time? People go to therapy for a variety of reasons. You'll be asked to explain why you're seeking therapy to give the therapist an idea of your goals.

What are the four counseling techniques? ›

The techniques are: (1) Directive Counselling, (2) Non-Directive Counselling, and (3) Eclectic Counselling. 1. Directive Counselling: In this counselling the counsellor plays an active role as it is regarded as a means of helping people how to learn to solve their own problems.

What is the most effective therapy method? ›

In summary, because of its clear research support, CBT dominates the international guidelines for psychosocial treatments, making it a first-line treatment for many disorders, as noted by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence's guidelines2 and American Psychological Association.

What is the most effective approach to therapy? ›


Despite the bewildering array of current systems of therapy, when you get right down to it, the most effective ones all emphasize three major interventions: exposure for anxiety, behavioral activation for depression, and assertiveness skills training for most social and interpersonal difficulties.

What is the number one predictor of successful therapy? ›

Interestingly enough, patients and therapists often (but not always) agree on the quality of their relationship. However, it is the patient's perception of the quality of the relationship that is the strongest predictor of treatment success.

How do you know if your therapy is successful? ›

6 Progress-in-Therapy Indicators
  1. Your moods and emotions have improved. Depending on the reasons for entering therapy, check if any of your symptoms have improved. ...
  2. Your thinking has shifted. ...
  3. Your behaviors have changed. ...
  4. Your relationships with others are better. ...
  5. You have better life satisfaction. ...
  6. Your diagnosis changes.
24 Jan 2017

What is the most important element of outcome in therapy? ›

Previous research indicates that the therapeutic alliance is a main factor in determining successful outcomes of psychotherapy.

What are the 3 key elements to a successful person therapist relationship? ›

According to Rogers (1977), three characteristics, or attributes, of thetherapist form the core part of the therapeutic relationship - congruence,unconditional positive regard (UPR) and accurate empathic understanding.

How do you write a 5 p formulation? ›

What should a formulation comprise? The 'Five P's' approach to formulation
  1. Presenting problem. ...
  2. Predisposing factors. ...
  3. Precipitating factors. ...
  4. Perpetuating factors. ...
  5. Protective/positive factors.
27 Sept 2012

How do you write a 5p formulation? ›

The 5Ps highlight an approach that incorporates Presenting, Predisposing, Precipitating, Perpetuating, and Protective factors to a consumer's presentation.

What are the 6 suggestions for setting goals? ›

What goals have you set for your business?
  • Recognise the importance of having goals. ...
  • Write down your goals. ...
  • Use SMART goals. ...
  • Use a detailed Action Plan. ...
  • Develop self-discipline and focus on implementation. ...
  • Review your goals regularly.

What are the 12 steps to setting goals? ›

12 Steps to Set and Achieve Any Goal
  1. Have a Desire: What Do You Really Want?
  2. Believe That Your Goal is Achievable.
  3. Write Your Goal Down.
  4. Determine Your Starting Point.
  5. Determine Why You Want It.
  6. Set a Deadline.
  7. Identify the Obstacles in Your Way.
  8. Determine the Additional Knowledge and Skills You Need.

What are the 7 keys to effective goal setting? ›

The 7 keys to setting effective goals
  • Set your goal. Many of us fail at this first step – by focusing on too many things and not stopping to think about whether any of these goals might ultimately make us happier. ...
  • Make a plan. ...
  • Commit to achieving it. ...
  • Reward yourself. ...
  • Share your goal. ...
  • Seek out feedback. ...
  • Stick to your goal.
13 Dec 2017

What are the 3 ways to set a goal? ›

Set all three types of goals- process, performance, and outcome – but focus on executing your smaller process goals to give you the best chance for success! specific – highly detailed statement on what you want to accomplish (use who, what, where, how etc.)

What is the basic goal of therapy? ›

The purpose of most therapies is to heal, or alleviate, symptoms of a concerning issue or condition. Medical professions create treatment plans that outline the professional's approach and interventions used to achieve a certain goal.

How many goals should a therapy treatment plan have? ›

Counselors should strive to have at least three goals. Signatures: The final section of the treatment plan is where the counselor and the client sign their names. This signifies that the patient participated in developing the treatment plan and agrees with the content.

What are 3 factors considered to successful treatment? ›

The first is the use of evidence-based treatment that is deemed appropriate for your particular issue. The second important factor is the clinical expertise of the psychologist or therapist. The third factor is your own characteristics, values, preferences, and culture.


1. How to write therapy treatment goals
(Maelisa McCaffrey)
2. How to Help Your Clients Achieve Their Therapy Goals
(Uncommon Practitioners)
3. 3 Tips for Creating Great Goals in Play Therapy
(Lisa Dion, Synergetic Play Therapy Institute)
4. Setting goals in therapy.
(Shishir Palsapure)
5. Stating Therapy Goals in Positive Terms to Improve Client Motivation and Compliance
(Uncommon Practitioners)
6. Goal Setting and Motivation
(Doc Snipes)
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