April 3, 2023

Therapy goal setting: Five simple steps for getting the most out of your sessions

I'm Ash montgomery
Counsellor & Therapy Dog Handler
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Firstly – congrats on deciding to give therapy a go. If you want to make the most of your experience, setting goals is one of the most important part of achieving the results you’re after. In this article, we’ll go through five simple, research-backed steps for effective therapy goal setting, so you can make the most of your time and energy and set yourself up to reach your goals.

Step 1: Before starting therapy goal setting, clarify what you really want

Before setting any goals, take some time to think about what you really want to achieve in therapy. You might find it beneficial to discuss this with your therapist, because it’s normal to feel unsure about what the scope of therapy entails. Research shows that setting clear and meaningful goals is an essential part of successful therapy (Wampold, 2015). What’s been bothering you? What do you want to change? Be honest with yourself and try to be as specific as possible. This will give you a clear starting point for setting your goals.

Step 2: Make your goals SMART

Okay, okay – before you roll your eyes at the ol’ SMART goals technique, stay with me.

Even though it’s a term flung around heavily by the company frat bros and 4 hour work weekers, SMART goals offer a decent framework for taking a vague, hopeful goal and converting it into something actually doable.

SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Research suggests that using this method is statistically more likely to help you achieve (Doran, 1981). Here’s a quick breakdown:

  • Specific: Be clear about what you want to achieve.
    For example: “I want to improve my depression symptoms so that I can feel better each day.”
  • Measurable: Figure out how you’ll know when you’ve reached your goal.
    For example: “I will use a combination of mental health assessments to measure my depression symptoms over time and intrinsic self exploration to gauge how I feel over this period.”
  • Achievable: Make sure your goal is realistic and doable.
    For example: “I will take these steps slowly and commit to building things up over time, hoping for a reduction of one point per fortnight in DASS (Depression, Anxiety and Stress Survey) results, which may suggest eased symptoms.”
  • Relevant: Choose goals that matter to you and align with your values.
    For example: “This goal is meaningful to me personally because I know I’m not feeling good and I desire more happiness and peace in my life. I’m not doing this because anyone else is telling me to or because I want to perform better within another person’s framework. I understand that things could feel better for me, and I’m curious about how I could be feeling.”
  • Time-bound: Set a deadline for when you want to achieve your goal.
    For example: “I will track my results over a period of 3 months, with a monthly review of which strategies are helping and which aren’t.”

Step 3: Break it down

Big goals can be overwhelming, so break them down into smaller, more manageable steps. Research shows that breaking goals into smaller tasks can help you stay motivated and make progress (Bandura & Schunk, 1981). This will make it easier to track your progress and stay motivated. Plus, it’ll help you feel a sense of achievement as you tick off each step along the way.

Step 4: Be flexible and adjust therapy goal setting as needed

Cue perfectionist eyeroll.

Life happens, and sometimes our goals need to change. It’s essential to be flexible and adjust your goals as you go. In fact, for you evidence-nerds out there (same): research has found that being adaptable is key to achieving your goals (Martin et al., 2016). If something isn’t working or if your circumstances change, don’t be afraid to reassess your goals and tweak them as needed.

Step 5: Keep track of your progress

Regularly check in with yourself (and your therapist) to see how you’re doing with your goals. Research suggests that monitoring your progress can help keep you on track and increase your chances of success (Harkin et al., 2016). Celebrate your achievements, no matter how small, and learn from any setbacks. This will help you stay motivated and focused on your journey.


Effective therapy goal setting can make a huge difference in your progress and overall well-being. Remember, it’s all about finding what works best for you and being open to change along the way. If you’d like some guidance on therapy goal setting or want to explore how therapy can help you achieve your goals, feel free to reach out. We’re here to support you!

Click here to find out more about our team at Golden Thread Therapy and here to make an online booking.


Bandura, A., & Schunk, D. H. (1981). Cultivating competence, self-efficacy, and intrinsic interest through proximal self-motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41(3), 586–598. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.41.3.586

Doran, G. T. (1981). There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives. Management Review, 70(11), 35–36. https://doi.org/10.2307/2579639

Harkin, B., Webb, T. L., Chang, B. P. I., Prestwich, A., Conner, M., Kellar, I., Benn, Y., & Sheeran, P. (2016). Does monitoring goal progress promote goal attainment? A meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 84(10), 797–810. https://doi.org/10.1037/ccp0000125

Martin, L. L., Wang, D., & Gottlieb, M. C. (2016). Adaptive goal adjustment: A lens through which to understand the association between self-discrepancy and well-being. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 20(1), 33–50. https://doi.org/10.1177/1088868315585060

Wampold, B. E. (2015). How important are the common factors in psychotherapy? An update. World Psychiatry, 14(3), 270–277. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20238

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