The New Year is quickly approaching, and it is estimated that nearly half of all adults make at least one resolution to implement on January 1. Unfortunately, it has become a cliché to make and then fail to complete such goals. For a person in recovery, goals may be tied to life-or-death decisions, and being unable to set and achieve goals could cost them greatly.

Expectations Versus Reality

In a Psychology Today article, Dr. Alex Lickerman describes how a mismatch between expectations and outcomes can be undermining. According to Lickerman, if we have low expectations and experience a poor outcome, then we don’t tend to feel as upset. And if we have a good outcome, regardless of how high or low our expectations were, we are likely to feel content or happy.

The problem occurs when high expectations result in a mediocre outcome. Lickerman advises combatting this by having an informed view of the situation. By understanding the full range of possible outcomes and which outcomes are most likely to occur, we’ll find it easier to handle any results we face and be better able to make realistic goals. Otherwise, we may allow disappointment to get the best of us and derail future successes.

Each time you perceive that you have failed to reach a goal, it reinforces the belief that you are incapable or weak. Fortunately, there is an approach to goal-setting that can increase your chances of success.


As referenced by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), goals should follow the acronym SMART. Goals should be:

  • Specific – Is it clear what exactly needs to be done and who will complete each step?
  • Measurable – How will we know that the goal has been achieved? What will it look like?
  • Achievable – Is the goal realistic? Are you planning to do something that is possible in the time you have available?
  • Relevant – Will achieving this goal improve your life or make a difference in the future?
    Time-bound – When will you consider your goal achieved? Can you give it a specific end date?

An example of a SMART goal related to recovery might be to attend three recovery meetings per week for the entire year. Attending recovery meetings is specific. The measure of success will be if three are attended weekly. If this is achievable might depend on a person’s schedule, their access to transportation, and the availability of recovery groups in their area. Recovery meetings strengthen fortitude for a long-term sober life, so hopefully this is relevant for everyone in recovery. It is time-bound, in the sense that the goal will be completed at the end of the new year.

When Someone Else Sets the Goals for You

My professional and personal background are both heavily rooted in child welfare. After growing up in the foster care system, I entered a career in human services. One of the issues I have experienced, both in the system and also when trying to help the various clients on my caseloads over the years, has been that sometimes neither myself nor the clients are the ones setting the goals. There have been times when the legal system, child protective services, or other entities have set the rules, and we had to live within their parameters.

Unfortunately, we aren’t always blessed with goals that meet the SMART criteria above. While a person’s first reaction might be to resist these mandates, it is often far more productive to reframe the goals to fit the SMART framework. List the ways these rules will help you move forward in your journey. Try to change “I have to” to “I want to.”

Why it is Important to be SMART

Think of the New Year’s resolutions you have heard over the years. They don’t generally hit all, if any, of the measures to be considered SMART. How many millions of people have said they “wanted to lose weight,” year after year, without it ever happening? How would they even know if they achieved success, with such vague aspirations? Also, while it might be a good idea for a person to lose weight, if they don’t take the time to explore why it is important to them, it will be easier to lose the motivation to slim down. Is there a high school reunion they want to look good for? Are they concerned about medical issues? Do they want to be able to run a marathon? What is both a realistic and a healthy amount of weight for them to lose?

Break it Down

Sometimes a goal is realistic, but looking at the full goal all at once is a bit overwhelming. Perhaps, instead of focusing on losing 25 pounds by summer, you could start by focusing on losing 5 pounds this month–or you could focus on the specific behaviors that will result in weight loss: a daily walk, smaller portions, a healthy breakfast, etc.

Many “Right” Ways

If three people want to lose weight and one person chooses to go to a gym three times per week, another chooses to walk around their neighborhood for an hour after work each night, and a third person removes all refined sugar from their diet, none of them are “wrong.” We all tackle problems differently. This is also true in substance abuse recovery. We don’t have to embrace the same path as someone else to be successful.

At Safe Harbor Recovery Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, we strive to help our guests set goals that are customized to their unique circumstances and long-term plans.

For more information about programs at Safe Harbor Recovery Center, Virginia drug and alcohol treatment center, contact us at (888) 932-2304. We are ready to help you make a new beginning.