Setting goals

As the new year approaches, and if you’re like me, you may be feeling the pang of guilt of things you not yet accomplished from the previous year and the guilt of over indulging over Christmas, so you begin to think of goals and targets for the new year.  Writing goals is often a very therapeutic activity for me, but execution can be difficult. So here are some tips, from a Behavioural Analytic approach, of how to set goals that will take your towards your values.


1.  Consider your values

Most importantly before you start, consider your values. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) has been showed to be an effective approach to leading a meaningful life, and reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety (Bohlmeijer, 2011; Clarke et al, 2014; Hayes et al, 1999; Hayes et al, 1994). ACT’s approach focuses on acceptance of difficult feelings, defusion from difficult thoughts and feelings, and taking committed actions towards values (Learn more: What is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)?). Values are aspects of your life that give your life meaning, and are important to you. Values have no end goal so you continue to strive towards your values throughout your life. These could be relationships/family, or health, or career, etc.. Once you have considered your values, you can choose a small goal that takes you towards your value. Here is a great video from Russ Harris that explains this.

In addition, Ramnerö & Törneke (2015) discuss that choosing goals that are in line with intrinsic outcomes and are approaching values are associated with positive psychological functioning and not associated with risky behaviours such as smoking or using drugs.


2. Set achievable goals

Once you have considered your values, pick a goal/s that help you take committed action towards that value. Consider that exercising can increase muscle mass, which is heavier than fat, so targets of weight loss may be impacted by this. Although, if picking weight loss as a goal, pick a weight loss that is achievable and healthy for the time frame you are hoping for. However, it is important to consider picking specific targets that are measurable. It helps keep you motivated knowing you striving towards the goal. In relation to health, you may want the goal to be to go to the gym twice a week, or do a yoga class three times a month, as these allow some flexibility, can be achieved, and take you towards your value of health, without focusing on weight. If you want to read more books, specify how many books you would have to read. When the goal is ambiguous you might say you’ve achieved it when you have done the minimum, for example if the goal is to “read more”, you could count that magazine you read in the dentists waiting room.

Defining your goals will allow you to monitor your achievement. “Self-monitoring (also called self-recording or self-observation) is a procedure whereby a person observes his[/her] behavior systematically and records the occurrence or nonoccurrence of a target behaviour” (Cooper, Heron & Heward, 2007, page 590). Research has supported this as an important and effective component of behaviour change interventions (Foxx & Brown, 1979; Plavnick et al, 2010; Richman et al, 1988).

3. Plan for reinforcement

There may be reinforcement already embedded within your journey towards the goals. For instance, saving money for a holiday will naturally be reinforced by the access to the holiday. However, with learning a new skill, or developing a new habit, you may require another competing reinforcement to the one already operating. For instance, if you want to improve your health, by exercising or changing your eating habits, then there already are reinforcers operating that maintain your current exercise or eating habits (or lack of). Therefore you may need something extra; the promise of a cheat meal once a week, a massage or pamper day, or a special activity may keep you on track and motivated. The Matching Law highlights that we allocate time to behaviours and contingencies with the richest/most reinforcement (Herrnstein, 1961; Herrnstein, 1970; Reed, & Kaplan, 2011). Considering two contingencies, contingency A – exercise vs contingency B – watching a movie, differing levels of reinforcement values will be allocated to each contingency depending on the delay and amount of reinforcement and the effort required. If contingency B has the richer schedule, because you get immediate, valued reinforcement and there is no effort require – Netflix and Chill – then you may be tempted to choose this. Where as contingency A, requires effort and the reinforcement of health or weight loss, or body definition/tone are extremely delayed.


4. Share your goals with friends and families

Sharing your goals motivates you to continue, and prevents bootleg reinforcement. Bootleg reinforcement is when reinforcement can be assessed when the contingency parameters have not been met. Copper, Heron & Heward (2007) state that “Bootleg reinforcement – access to specified reward or to other equally reinforcing items or events without meeting the response requirements of the contingency – is a common downfall of self-management projects” (page 603). For example, if I set myself a goal of dieting all week and having one cheat day on Sunday, but I go out on Saturday and have dinner with friends, I may decide to still allow myself the cheat day on Sunday despite not meeting the goal I set myself. A way to tackle this is to try and avoid using typical daily activities (watching a tv, for example), or give control to another person. One way to give control to another person is to write a cheque for someone or something you dislike (for example, a political party you disagree with) and give that cheque to a friend. If you achieve your goal, the cheque is returned to you and destroyed, if you fail then the cheque gets sent off to the recipient – you lose some money and it would go to a undesirable cause.


5. Enjoy the journey towards your goals

ACT also encourages you to be present in the moment. Here is a quote from Ken Poirot

“Often in life the pleasure of the journey is only eclipsed by the ecstasy of the destination.”

There is so much to enjoy about the journey towards our goals, each step takes our towards our values. Here is another video from Russ Harris, that perfectly highlights this concept.



I hope you found these tips helpful. Some of my goals for the next year include:

  • Run a half marathon in 1 hour and 45 minutes (approximately 10 minutes faster than my current personal best)
  • Read 3 books
  • Save money (I have set the amount I wish to save)
  • Complete a course

I wish you all the best for the new year. If you have any questions, comments or feedback, comment below or contact me.



Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT):

Russ Harris, (2017, Dec, 6). The Choice Point: A Map for a meaningful life. Retrieved from

Russ Harris, (2015, Aug, 18). Values vs Goals – By Dr. Russ Harris. Retrieved from

Bohlmeijer, E. T., Fledderus, M., Rokx, T.A.J.J, Pieterse, M. E. (2011). Efficacy of an early intervention based on acceptance and commitment therapy for adults with depressive symptomatology. Behaviour Research and Therapy49, 62-67.

Clarke, S., Kingston, J., James, K., Bolderston, H., Remington, B. (2014). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy group for treatment-resistant participants: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 3, 179–188.

Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (1999). Acceptance and commitment therapy: An experiential approach to behavior change. New York: Guilford.

Hayes, S. C.,  & Wilson, K. G. (1994). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: Altering the Verbal Support for Experiential Avoidance. The Behavior Analyst17(2), 289-303.

Bootleg Reinforcement:

Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied Behaviour Analysis (2nd ed.) New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc


Ramnerö, J., & Törneke, N. (2015). On Having a Goal: Goals as representations or Behavior. The psychological Record, 65(1), 89–99.

Matching Law:

Herrnstein, R. J. (1961). Relative and absolute strength of response as a function of frequency of reinforcement. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 4, 267–272.

Herrnstein, R. J. (1970). On the law of effect. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 13, 243–266.

Reed, D. D., & Kaplan, B. A. (2011). The Matching Law: A tutorial for practitioners, Behavior Analysis in Practise, 4(2), 15–24.


Foxx, R. M., & Brown, R. A. (1979). Nicotine fading and self-monitoring for cigarette abstinence or controlled smoking. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 12(1), 111-125.

Plavnick, J. B., Ferreri, S. J., & Maupin, A. N. (2010). The effects of self-monitoring on the procedural integrity of a behavioral intervention for young children with developmental disabilities. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 43(2), 315-320.

Richman, G. S., Riordan, M. R., Reiss, M. L., Pyles, D. A. M., & Bailey, J. S. (1988). The effects of self-monitoring and supervisor feedback on staff performance in residential setting. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 21(4), 401-409.


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