How to Set Achievable Personal Recovery Goals

When I help people who are in recovery from mental illness and addiction, one thing we often discuss is setting goals. Usually, personal goals have gotten off track or have gone by the wayside completely as a result of stress, illness, or other challenges. People often feel adrift and without clear direction in their life. As Robert Heinlein said, “In absence of clearly defined goals, we become strangely loyal to performing daily acts of trivia.”

As recovery takes hold, hope for the future begins to re-emerge. This is a good time to give attention to setting personal recovery goals to start to reclaim a sense of purpose and to improve overall quality of life.

I believe there are 5 critical questions to ask yourself to help you set achievable personal recovery goals:

1. What are my overall goals?

First, think about how you would answer the question “What are your personal goals for your recovery?” Chances are some of your answers will be things like “become a better person” or “just be happy” or “get control over my emotions.”

While there’s nothing wrong with these ‘big picture’ statements, they aren’t very specific and it’s hard to measure them to show how you are making progress toward achieving them. For these reasons, let’s take the next step and get more focused about your goals.

2. What specific areas do I want to improve?

Next, take a little time to generate a list of more specific personal recovery goals. Don’t worry at this point about the number of goals or how feasible they may be. Some common areas to consider (and possible goal statements) are listed below, or add other goals that are important to you. As you make your list of goals, try to put them in a similar format as the sample goal statements: short and to the point. The guiding principle is to generate specific goals whose progress can be easily and clearly measured over time.

Possible focus areas for personal recovery goals:

  • Physical health (manage health conditions, take medication, recover from injury or surgery)
  • Mental health (manage stress, depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses)
  • Addiction (stop using drugs and alcohol, quit smoking or gambling, maintain sobriety)
  • Spirituality (connect with faith or church groups, read religious materials)
  • Self-improvement (read self-help books, attend support groups, review Internet sites)
  • Lifestyle choices (lose weight, eat a healthier diet, improve fitness, get more rest)
  • Relationships (become a better parent, friend, co-worker, spouse or partner)
  • Personal growth (read more, learn a new skill, enjoy a new or well-established hobby)
  • Basic needs (find a safe, stable place to live, obtain reliable transportation)
  • Employment (find a new job, change occupations, advance in career)
  • Money (get out of debt, establish a budget, seek financial assistance)
  • Education (get a GED, go to college, learn a trade)
  • Legal issues (resolve civil or criminal charges, settle child custody, file bankruptcy)
  • Community service (volunteer, help others in need, support worthy causes)
  • Quality of life (find greater peace of mind, happiness, sense of purpose)

3) Which goals are most vital for my health?

Now that you’ve generated your list of possible personal recovery goals, you may find that you have identified several different areas you could choose to work on. It’s not unusual to have a handful or even a dozen or more possible goals to consider. This can be exciting but also a little overwhelming.

Next, try to prioritize and select the top two or three goals which are most vital to your overall physical and mental health. If addiction has been an issue, the goal to “maintain sobriety” is a must to include. Next would likely be a goal related to mental health (manage mental illness) and one or more related to physical health (rest, physical activity, medications, healthy diet, etc.).

Check out the rest of the goals you have identified and try to put them in order of importance. After physical and mental health, basic needs and finances will likely be the next highest priorities. Additional goals, while still important, may need to be worked on a little later after the primary goals are being managed well.

4) Why are these goals important to me?

Now that you have prioritized your goals and have selected your top areas to work on, spend some time considering why each of these main goals is important to you. If the answer is they will bring you better health, increased happiness, improved relationships or overall peace of mind, then they are good goals to pursue.

If, on the other hand, you conclude you are working on these goals to please someone else or to get somebody off your back, you may need to consider whether you should set them aside for now and focus on the goals that you strongly agree can change your life for the better.

5) Are these goals realistic?

One man I was working with said he would attain his goal of financial security by winning the lottery. I tried not to laugh and asked him if that wonderful outcome would be very likely. He admitted it wasn’t very reasonable and we turned to more conventional steps to better his financial condition.

So, once you have selected a few primary goals and agree they are important for your well-being, ask yourself if they are realistic. If the goals you have selected do seem reasonable and within your ability to achieve them, they are worth keeping as active goals to work on.

At this point, you should have a fairly comprehensive list of specific, measurable personal recovery goals in order of priority that are both realistic and personally meaningful to you. In my next post, we will use this list of goals and help you develop a successful personal recovery plan to prepare you to begin working actively toward achieving your goals.

So, here’s a question: Can you go ahead right now and develop your own list of specific personal recovery goals? Please leave a comment. Also please consider subscribing to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Thanks!

  • Cristy A Brown

    Thank you for this article! I definitely need help in this area. I have never fully achieved recovery. In fact, I have been on a bipolar roller coaster for approximately three years. I have had to struggle almost daily with symptoms of bipolar and depression. I have been switching medications for months and nothing seems to get me to any type of remission. I feel like I am out of options and it is very discouraging.
    I have followed the steps you have advised and now have my specific goals written down. I am a fighter and what drives me is my passion to help others who struggle with bipolar and depression. I look forward to more of your posts.

  • Cristy, thanks so much for your comment. I’m glad you are receiving treatment and are sticking with it. Sometimes it does take a while to find that right combination of medication, therapy, self-help, support and a great recovery plan for all the pieces to come together. You may like my next post which talks more about putting together a recovery plan. Thanks again!

  • At first, my son and daughter set very small reachable goals. To cope living with schizophrenia and bipolar disorders, they learned how to take small baby steps – one hour at a time – and one day at a time. Later, they learned how to set more small reachable goals that helped them walked to the entrance of their roads to their recovery journeys. Still later, they learned to set another set of small reachable goals to stay on their recovery pathways. Then there was another set of small reachable goals that rebuilt their self-confidence, self-esteem, and developed their overall self-improvement skills.

  • Alyse, that’s so great to hear about all of the progress that your children have made toward their recovery goals. I’m sure your support was also a critically important factor in their success. Thanks for your comment and my best to you and your family.

  • David, thank you so much for your kind words. Yes, I have placed my life on hold for over 2 decades helping my son, daughter, and friends with their coping and the recovery process. It has been a very long, difficult, tiresome journey for all of us but it was worth all the years I put into helping them. Currently, my son is living independently, my daughter is holding a fulltime job, (with some difficulties,) and one friend returned to his teaching job. I now spend most of my time writing. I have written several Workbooks for the mental health sector on developing coping skills and essential skills for everyday living and how to get a job and keep the job. Yes, there is hope of recovery even for those with severe mental illnesses. It takes time, effort, courage, determination, strength, patience and never giving up or giving in to the pressures and hardships that come with mental illness.Best regards. Alyse.

  • Shannon Love

    David, I think your point of creating realistic goals is key.

    Alyse, I can relate to your plan of setting them in stages. Eager to return to my old self after my psychotic breaks, I sometimes became frustrated that I wasn’t improving quickly enough. Then my psychologist pointed out my progress from one step to another, allowing me to see that I was in fact moving forward.

  • Betsy Chavez

    Alyse, I am interested on your Workbooks. Is there a place I can purchase them?

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