13 Goal-Setting Tips From Mental Health Experts on Instagram

Updated: Apr. 27, 2021

Social media's most-followed therapists share what it really takes to follow through on any goal.

Goals. Goals. Goals. We love to shoot for them. Sometimes we hit them out of the park, sometimes we barely even get started. Creating, achieving, and sticking with goals for the long haul is tough, especially when life gets in the way of our plans. So how can you make it easier to achieve your goals? We asked top mental health experts what really works for their clients—and for them. Read on to get inspired.

Find your “why”

middle aged woman mom mature mimagephotography / Shutterstock

“Be intentional about the goal you are setting and get very clear on the why behind your goal. When the why is crystal clear, write that down next to your goal—it will be the fuel you need when the how gets tough. For achieving your goals, particularly health-related goals, I recommend focusing on adding rather than subtracting. It can be tempting to focus on what you want to stop doing or remove from your life, but stopping something tends to be much harder than inserting something new. For example, if your goal is to lose weight, instead of focusing on foods or calories you want to eliminate, focus on introducing more vegetables into your day. If you want to drink less alcohol, start by increasing your daily water intake.” —Carolyn Rubenstein, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist, Delray Beach, Florida, @carolynrubensteinphd

Practice patience

Black lady making a meditation at a parkRawpixel.com/Shutterstock

“It’s important to be patient because achieving goals doesn’t happen overnight. When people don’t see results right away, or perhaps they see results and plateau, they may get discouraged and want to give up. People can combat this by practicing patience, remembering their purpose and motivation for setting a goal, and constantly reminding themselves [of] the importance of staying consistent. For some, this may mean having motivational mantras, having loved ones cheer them on, or writing out reminders on their calendar or planner. For me, it means seeking support from others (whether it’s through medical professionals or my husband) to help hold me accountable when I start to lose motivation. When I have regular appointments, I’m more likely to stay consistent, but on days I’m tired and unmotivated, my husband reminds and encourages me to stay focused.” —Vania Manipod, DO, psychiatrist, Ventura, California, @freudandfashion. Here are more tips on how to manifest something you want in your everyday life.

Start really small

“People often feel like they need to set a huge goal in order for it to make an impact. But I recommend starting with small goals and building from there. Small goals are easier to accomplish and build our self-esteem to keep going. For example, running a marathon is a huge goal to take on. While that may be your ultimate goal, I recommend starting with running a mile twice a week, depending on your fitness level. I also recommend setting health-related goals that focus on how you feel rather than how you look. This will not only make you more likely to achieve it because you have a deeper motivation, but it will also make it more likely that you go about achieving it in a healthy way. If you are setting a health goal that negatively impacts your mental health, the costs of it are going to outweigh the benefits.” —Amanda White, MA, licensed professional counselor, Philadelphia, @therapyforwomen

Track your progress

“Most people fail when setting goals because they take on too much at once. The slower you move, the longer the change will last. So, when you’re starting out, make your goal something that you are fairly confident you can achieve and do that consistently until it becomes so easy it feels almost robotic. Then, add a new challenge and do it consistently. Find a way to track your progress. For me, measuring my progress is key.” —Whitney Goodman, licensed marriage and family therapist, Miami, @sitwithwhit

Drop the “shoulds”

“I find that people often set goals based on ‘shoulds,’ which aren’t very motivating. I should get healthy. I should exercise. I should eat better. I should be more connected to people. I should see a therapist. I should drink less. I should stop smoking. I should be more positive.”

“Did that sound motivating? Probably not. There is often shame that is subtly embedded in the language of ‘should,’ which sets us up to feel really bad about ourselves when we don’t meet our goals. So instead of getting caught up with ‘I should exercise,’ focus on ‘I wonder which type of exercises would feel enjoyable or fun’ or ‘I am looking forward to having more energy and feeling better about myself.’ I find that connecting with our true inner desires and discovering real positive motivators are the key.” —Hatty Lee, MS, licensed marriage and family therapist, Los Angeles, @oakandstonetherapy. (That said, here are reasons you should really take a mental health day soon.)

Pre-plan for failure

“Many people don’t have a plan in place when they feel like giving up. True change takes time—the root of everything we say and do is based on the memories we have built into our brain through our thinking. Memories take time to build. Nothing worthwhile happens in an instant, and research shows that most people give up around day four. This is why I recommend having a plan in place when you feel like giving up, whether it’s a phone call with your best friend to motivate and encourage you, a long walk in the park or even going to an exercise class to clear your mind. Never just wallow in feelings of hopelessness—whatever we think about the most grows and affects the way we see and interact with the world.” —Caroline Leaf, PhD, neuroscientist and author of Think, Learn, Succeed, Southlake, Texas, @drcarolineleaf

Make it fun

“Set your intention from a place of love, rather than punishment or frustration. And don’t attach too much of your worth to any particular goal. When we attach our sense of worth, value, belonging, or future happiness to a particular goal it makes it incredibly daunting. As a consequence, we may find ourselves avoiding such goals because ‘too much is riding on it.’ What works for me is staying connected to the ‘why’ of any given task and looking at the bigger picture. I also ensure to make the process of achieving my goals as enjoyable as possible. For example, I value my health so I try to go to the gym regularly. I try to make the experience enjoyable by choosing a gym that I like, listening to my favorite playlist only for when I work out, and sometimes getting myself a delicious smoothie afterwards.” —Sara Kuburić, MA, online psychotherapist, @millenial.therapist

Focus on meaning

“Make sure you are picking goals that will actually move you toward the life you want. For example, let’s say someone has decided that they need to lose a certain amount of body weight in order to find love and be happy. This goal is a big problem. There are many things that may be getting in the way of meeting someone that have nothing to do with the number on the scale. Better goals may be to work on improving self-confidence or communication skills. Weight loss doesn’t automatically mean a boost in self-esteem. In order to identify the most meaningful goal to work on, consider these questions: Where do I want to be in my life in one year and in ten years? How will my life feel differently to me once I’ve met my goal? What barriers are standing in my way? What skills do I need to learn and what ways do I need to grow in order to get to the life I want?” —Jennifer Hardy, PhD, licensed psychologist, Maryville, Tennessee, @drjennhardy

Put pen to paper

“Writing down a goal affords us the opportunity to solidify it threefold: As we think of it, as we write it down, and when we read it back to ourselves. Revisit your goals on a daily basis. Keep yourself accountable but allows yourself grace if you have a slip-up. And remember: Focus on one small achievable goal at a time. By setting smaller goals, we can focus our energy on tackling that goal first and then work towards other goals as we strengthen our commitment to ourselves.” —Erika Velez, PhD, licensed psychologist, Miami, @themindfulcorner

Find your tribe

“I have found that community and accountability to others works best for me. I have wanted to increase my physical activity for the past year and couldn’t find something that would stick. After hearing friends rave about using and loving their Peloton bikes, I ordered one and joined a Facebook group called Black Girl Magic, the Peloton Edition that is for black women who use the bike, treadmill, or app and it has made all the difference. Seeing others sharing what time they will ride and inviting others to join or taking part in challenges set up by the group has really been helpful for me. If you’re someone who knows that you thrive more with a sense of community, either finding or starting a group to support your goal could be key.” —Joy Harden Bradford, PhD, licensed psychologist and founder of Therapy for Black Girls, Decatur, Georgia, @therapyforblackgirls

Shift your mindset and your routines

“Mindset is the biggest hurdle to achieving goals. Often, we talk ourselves out of following through with goals because we are operating with an ‘I can’t’ mindset. Be intentional about the way you describe what you want to change and how you plan to change. Use affirming language such as, ‘I am_____,’ instead of, ‘I would like_____,’ or ‘I will try_____.’ And remember that it’s essential to establish new routines associated with your goal. For instance, if you want to exercise more, decide on a day and time to exercise. Put your gym bag in a place where you will see it as a way to prompt yourself to honor your commitment. If you want to eat healthier, make healthy choices by always packing a lunch, removing food delivery apps from your phone, or asking yourself, ‘how does this behavior align with my goal?’ Goals are great, but without real behavioral changes, we won’t achieve them.” — Nedra Tawwab, licensed clinical social worker, Charlotte, North Carolina, @nedratawwab

Tap into your most authentic self

“Set goals that help you feel more like your authentic self, not a version of you that society has made you feel like you need to achieve. Ask yourself what your inner child needs or what younger self needed but didn’t get. Make those your goals. We heal when we show up for our younger selves. My goals, for instance, center around feeling powerful, being embodied, and being happy. So that can mean eating well and moving my body, but with the intention of feeling good, not being thin. I stick to them because I get the benefits of being able to live inside myself, feeling at home, versus dieting and unfun exercise that makes me dissociate and leave myself.” —Andrea Glik, licensed marriage and family therapist, New York City, @somaticwitch

Treat yourself with compassion

“What helps me stick to my goals is breaking them down to small, manageable tasks—and doing so with compassion and kindness. The 20 minutes of working out (I really don’t like working out) is better than the hour I will never do. The three glasses of water I drink per day (I always forget to drink water) is better than the eight I may not drink then feel bad about. When we set ourselves up for small successes, we get more inspired and motivated. Most often people have self-limiting beliefs that make it difficult for them to begin and maintain the steps necessary for change. Those beliefs are the result of past hurtful experiences and messages learned along the way. They end up becoming barriers to our dreams and goals. So exploring them in therapy can be very helpful. Progress is more about letting go of our limitations, negative beliefs, and past traumas.” —Anna Aslanian, LMFT, psychotherapist, trauma, and relationship specialist, California, Florida, New York, @mytherapycorner