Setting successful goals


Dr. Tony Willis
Clinical Director for Diabetes, NWL Health and Care Partnership

We all have goals, but sticking to them is a lot harder. We may have tried to get more active before, and have just felt too tired in the morning to get up to do it. Things can get in the way. Work, family, feeling just too tired. Having a clear idea of what we want to see happen in, say, 3, 6 or 12 months, and why, will hugely increase our chances of success.

In fact, if we don’t set goals, we might want to think about starting setting goals fairly soon. According to research, setting a specific goal makes us more likely to achieve the outcome we’re after. Dr Gail Matthews, a research psychologist in California, showed that we are 42% more likely to achieve our goals if we write them down.

To achieve our goals, we need to know how to set them. But before we go any further, let’s take a few moments to think deeply about our lives.

Like everybody else, I’ve got a dream

It all starts with a dream.

One of my favourite recent Disney films is Tangled, a modern-day retelling of the classic Rapunzel fairy tale (I have daughters). After escaping from the tower that she’s been locked in for her whole life, Rapunzel encounters a bunch of thugs, Vikings and other assorted shady individuals, who all proceed to sing a hilarious song about each of their personal and out-of-character dreams.

There are two lines that repeat throughout the song:

Like everybody else, I’ve got a dream

We’ve all got dreams. It’s part of who we are as humans.

Every inspiring writer encourages us to follow our dreams and to keep going through all the obstacles.

'Cause way down deep inside I've got a dream

We can lose track of our childhood dreams. Personal dreams can get suppressed by work and family responsibilities or by difficult experiences in life. We become fearful that we might not achieve our dreams or don’t have what it takes to get there, and so we give up or don’t try. We may become bound up with a sense of failure. If that’s the case, then this blog about failure may help.

Whatever, our experiences, however, it’s worth recognising that somewhere inside there’s still a dream waiting.

Let’s just take a moment to dream:

  • What, in the big picture, are the key things you’d like to experience and achieve?
  • What key improvements would you like to see happen with your emotional and physical health?
  • What habits would you like to change?
  • What relationship patterns would you like to see improved?
  • What skills are you keen to learn?
  • Are there any other things you’ve thought about changing?

Now that you’ve got a few things in mind, choose one. Try and write that down or draw it. Allow yourself to picture for a moment what achieving your goal would look and feel like.

The next step is an exercise which can really help us in achieving our dreams.

Setting goals is the first step in turning the dream into reality.

Our change plan is a really useful tool to help get going with this process.

Download our Change Plan


Setting SMART goals for ourselves is a really important exercise in moving towards success. I can’t emphasise how important it is to take the time to do this.

It helps us really clarify what our goals are and the specific steps we need to take to get there.

  1. Specific

Each goal needs to be specific, otherwise, it can be difficult to focus our efforts. It’s worth asking ourselves the key “W” questions:

  • What do I want to accomplish?
  • Why is this goal important?
  • Who is involved?
  • Where is it located?
  • Which resources or limits are involved?

For example, let’s say I decide I want to get more active. It’s important to me because it’ll reduce my risk of heart disease, and increase my sense of wellbeing. It only involves me. I’ll do it at home first thing in the morning. I decide to get some cheap dumbells and download the free EXi app.

  1. Measurable.

How will we know we’re succeeding? Tracking progress can be incredibly motivating.

With my activity example, I may set my goal as getting to 20 minutes moderately intensive activity 5 times a week after 3 months. But I probably need to set myself an achievable target for this week.

Setting our sights too high will increase our chances of failure and losing motivation. My goal needs to stretch my abilities but still remain possible. If I kick off trying to do 20 minutes 5 times a week straight away, I’m bound to fail. How about 5 minutes just twice in week one? By setting a relatively achievable goal, I start building confidence that I can change and am more likely to keep going. Success breeds success.

We need to choose goals that will motivate us. They have to matter because that will keep us going through difficult times and challenges. Think about how you would convince your best friend /partner /relative why you want to achieve this.

  1. Time-bound.

Every goal needs a target date so that we have a deadline to focus on and something to work towards. It’s useful to break it down into these questions:

  • When?
  • What can I do six months from now?
  • What can I do six weeks from now?
  • What can I do today?

This 2-minute video really helps us get started with the process:

Download and print off our SMART goal setting sheet to get started with your planning today.

Start setting goals

Alternatively, you might want to try out some of the top goal-setting apps on Google Play or the Apple Store. This review of different goal-setting apps may be quite helpful. 

Overcoming difficulties

There are three more things that we can do to increase our chances of success:

1. Find cheerleaders. Getting friends, family or colleagues who can cheer on our progress and help avoid slip-ups will help us succeed.

2. Celebrate small successes. Planning in ways of rewarding ourselves can help keep the motivation up. For example, some people who want to quit smoking will plan a holiday with the money they’ve saved from the cigarette costs.

3. Understanding our triggers. Many of us have triggers that can push us back into unhelpful patterns. It might be a sudden work deadline or a relationship issue. These things might kick off an emotional eating pattern and turning to comfort foods or make us feel too tired and low in the morning to get up and get active. Or we may feel stressed and have a smoking relapse. Despite our best-laid plans, we will run into obstacles. It’s worth planning for these. What would I do if….? How will I overcome this pattern? What will I do instead?

Taking action

With a bit of time spent planning, it’s possible for our dreams to become reality.

What steps will you take?


Dr. Tony Willis

Clinical Director for Diabetes, NWL Health and Care Partnership

Tony has been a GP in West London for 20 years and leads the North West London Diabetes Transformation Programme (NWL-DTP).

His passion is to support people make healthy choices, improve their wellbeing and reduce their risk of developing diabetes complications.