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How to set goals for success

Updated: Dec 11, 2022

Do your personal goals set you up for success? It’s worth taking a moment to think about this.

A goal is something that you hope to achieve in the future. This could be in the next hour, day, week or even months to come. They are useful when we want to change certain behaviours in our life and there is a lot of evidence that setting goals works.

Much of the work we do with young people involves setting goals. We can think of this as like planting seeds for the future.

The types of goal we might set ourselves include applying for a job, getting a lease for a flat, or making new friends. All of these are important for helping young people to improve their wellbeing and build their resilience. But what sort of mental skills do young people develop when they set goals?

Mental skills

The kinds of mental skill we use when we set goals are:

  • Attentional control

  • Planning

  • Problem solving

  • Self-regulation

These mental skills are developed when young people are supported to envision, plan for and commit to their goals. This process can be energising for young people and can help to boost their confidence and self-esteem.

But what factors should we take into account when we plan our goals? How can we help to support young people in achieving their goals and improving their resilience?

The answer is that we developed a SMART goal-setting tool as part of our Mental Skills Training Toolkit. Before we go on to look at this tool in detail, let’s first talk a bit about the psychological theory behind setting goals.

Goal-setting theory

Psychological theory underpins the work we do. To help to support staff when they deliver our mental skills training resources, we like to include an explanation of the theories behind our work. Academic researchers tend to distinguish between what we call performance goals and learning goals. Let’s briefly look at each of these in turn.

Performance goals

You have probably set performance goals without realising it. A performance goal is a very specific and focussed target of achieving a particular task to a certain standard or quality. These are the kinds of goals that you see in initiatives to get people moving more.

There has been a recent explosion in the number of portable devices you can use to track your activity levels, such as measuring the number of steps you take in a day.

An example performance goal, in terms of exercise, would be: ‘Walk 1 mile every day’.

Performance goals can be great for people who are used to setting goals and achieving them, or if they already have skills and experience in the particular area they are setting a goal in.

Learning goals

Learning goals on the other hand focus less on the end result. They involve developing different ways of working towards a goal. In terms of exercise, an example of a learning goal would be: ‘Find five ways of fitting in some exercise this week’. Learning goals are well suited to people who are new to setting goals, or who are trying out something brand new for the first time.

So, now we know a bit about the theory behind some of the different types of goals. Let’s look now at the goal-setting tool we developed for working with young people to make their learning and performance goals SMART.

SMART goal-setting

The SMART goal-setting tool from our toolkit is an effective resource for helping young people to focus on the things that they would like to achieve in the future. This tool draws on what we know from goal-setting theory.

To give young people the best chance of achieving their goals, any goal they set themselves should be:

Specific: What is the exact goal that you are trying to accomplish?

Measurable: How will you be able to see that you are making progress?

Attainable: Is this a goal that you think you can actually reach?

Relevant: Is this something that’s important to you right now?

Time-bound: When do you think you’ll be able to reach your goal?

When we use this tool, we start by talking about past goals and what they have meant to the young person. We can then start to think about brainstorming ideas for new goals that they would like to set. From this point, the young person can have a discussion with their support provider around how to turn this idea into a SMART goal.

It’s important at this stage to develop a plan for how to work towards the goal. But what else should be considered at this planning stage?


There are other things to consider besides what you would like to achieve. Sometimes there are factors that may act as barriers to achieving goals. We call these moderators.

Early on in your conversation with young people, you should consider the impact that moderators might have. Examples of moderators include:

  • Ability: Do we know how to do something and are we able to do it? Yes, we need to challenge ourselves, but there is little point in setting the bar so high that we can’t achieve our goal

  • Task Complexity: How difficult is our goal? If we are just starting out with a new activity, it might be more difficult for us to achieve our goal than if we have been doing that activity regularly for years

  • Feedback: We need to know how well we’re doing and how far we’ve come. If we didn’t do this, then how would we know if we’re on track to achieving our goals or not?

  • Situational Resources: What kind of resources do we have around us and do we feel able to use these resources? For example, who is in my social support network? We look at identifying your support networks in our Dream Team tool

  • Commitment: We need to be dedicated to working towards our goals. Goals must be important to us, otherwise why bother?

Taking moderators into account and planning around them makes our SMART goals more achievable. This can help to act as a buffer against poor mental wellbeing, which we know is an important psychological indicator of resilience.

Top tips

So, we have learnt about what we mean by goals and why it’s important for young people to set them. We have looked at how to set effective SMART goals and considered why we need to plan around moderators. Here are our TOP TIPS to summarise how best to support young people to set effective goals:

  • Be flexible: We know from sport psychology that as a rule of thumb, it is a good idea to consider setting different types of goals (some performance, some learning). Goals do not need to be set in stone. If a young person is facing challenges achieving their goals, it’s a good idea to go back to the drawing board and consider how you can break larger goals down into smaller, more manageable pieces. As the young person becomes more used to setting goals, you can start to introduce more challenging ones

  • Think about mental health: It is important to support young people in a psychologically-informed way to set appropriate goals that they have a good chance of achieving. This way, young people can be supported to improve their mental wellbeing and overall resilience

  • It’s the journey, not the destination: Consider that sometimes, what matters is the effort a young person puts into working towards their goals, regardless of whether they necessarily achieve them or not.


Interested in learning more about strengths-based tools that can help young people to set effective goals? You can download our Mental Skills Training Toolkit and Delivery Guide, explore our free resources and read an academic paper on the differences between performance goals and learning goals.


What are your favourite ways of supporting young people to reach their goals? We’d love to hear them in the comments below, or on Twitter using #MSTtoolkit #MST4Life



Locke, E.A. & Latham, G.P. (2015). Breaking the Rules: A Historical Overview of Goal-Setting Theory. In A.J. Elliot (Ed.), Advances in Motivation Science (Vol. 2, pp. 99-126). Waltham, MA: Academic Press.

Swann, C., Rosenbaum, S., Lawrence, A., Vella, S.A., McEwan, D. & Ekkekakis, P. (2020). Updating Goal-Setting Theory in Physical Activity Promotion: A Critical Conceptual Review. Health Psychology Review. DOI:

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Megan Plançon, Nina P & De’Shonda on Reshot.

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