Recovery Messages & News

Realistic Goal Setting

By Ms. Paige Abbott, Registered Psychologist
The beginning of a new year is inevitably associated with ‘resolutions’ for behaviours that one wishes to change in the months ahead. The media go on a blitz during early January about all the personal growth goals people set, from cutting down on junk food or chocolate, to losing weight, to being more fiscally responsible. Yet, for those who have set new year’s resolutions, the reality is that these goals often are not attained which leaves people feeling frustrated, guilty, and shameful.

It is not a lack of motivation or willpower driving this struggle. Rather, the goals themselves are problematic and often the resolutions people make are not realistic or attainable. SMART goal-setting, developed by management professionals, has now been widely discussed in educational and professional settings in a variety of fields. It stands for:

  • S – Specific
  • M – Measurable
  • A – Attainable
  • R – Realistic
  • T – Timely

Specific  goals are concrete and detailed. For example: “I am going to eat 4 servings of fruits or vegetables every day” rather than “I am going to eat healthier.” With the latter, it becomes harder to develop a plan of action when the criteria for the goal are vague.


Measurable goals have a way of determining progress. To use the fruits and vegetables example, it is easier to know if you have met your goal using the criteria of 4 servings per day rather than the vague, undefined goal of ‘eating healthier.’ When we can measure progress, we can be mindful of successes and challenges and work with them.


Attainable goals are appropriate and achievable. If you have never eaten fruits or vegetables in your life or dislike most of them, saying you will eat 4 servings per day may not be attainable. However, eating 1 serving per day may be attainable.


Realistic goals, similar to being attainable, need to be reasonable within your current life. For instance, if you have struggled with weight throughout your life, saying that you will ‘finally be thin’ may not be realistic. However, shifting eating and exercise habits in a way that is realistic, concrete, and attainable may be possible.

Timely goals are not open-ended and have a specific time-frame attached to them. This way one can re-evaluate their goal and progress during and/or at the end of the specific time frame to see if their action plans needs to be changed in any way.


New Year’s resolutions often do not meet these SMART criteria, which is why they are often difficult to put into action. If you are looking for personal growth and self-change, whether now or at another point in the year, keep in mind the SMART checklist as you develop your goals.