How You Can Help Your Clients (and Yourself!) Achieve Their Goals for 2018


Amy McManus, LMFT

How You Can Help Your Clients (and Yourself!) Achieve Their Goals for 2018
by Amy McManus, LMFT

We’ve all heard about The Secret, the 2006 book that has sold over 28 million copies and been on the New York Times Bestseller List for over 200 weeks.

“The Law of Attraction” that is described in this book tells us that if we want something to appear in our lives, we need to imagine it regularly, to “know” that it will come to us.

But what does science actually show us is the way to achieve what we want in life? 

Gabriele Oettingen, Professor of Psychology at New York University and University of Hamburg, and author of the 2014 book, Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation, draws on twenty years of social science research to explain the best way to reach our goals.

Dr. Oettingen tells us that rather than focusing solely on the positive outcomes we want in our lives, we should actually spend time and energy focusing on the obstacles that keep us from reaching these goals.

The research shows us that simply dreaming about a positive future, without making a plan or anticipating the setbacks, 1. Saps the energy we need to reach our goals, 2. Predicts lower physical and mental health, and 3. Predicts a lower sense of overall well-being.

What do we need to do in addition to imagining positive outcomes in order to more effectively achieve our goals?

The answer is surprisingly simple!

The key to achieving our goals is to envision any possible obstacles, and to make specific plans about how to overcome them when they arise. 

Dr. Oettingen’s mental strategy for achieving goals is known in the scientific community as “mental contrasting with implementation intentions”. You can just call it WOOP, to reflect the following mnemonic:

Wish + Outcome + Obstacles + Plan.

Let’s look at each of these a little more closely.

WISH. Clarify what you want to achieve.

You are most likely to reach your goal if it is specific, meaningful, achievable, relevant, and trackable. Many of us know this by the acronym SMART, as coined in 1981 by George T. Doran.

Let’s look at two common New Year’s Resolutions and see how we can make them SMART.

  1. I want to have more friends and be less lonely this year.
  1. I want to stop procrastinating in 2018.

S- Specific or simple. See if you can state your goal in one sentence. Be sure to state what you do want, not what you don’t want!

  1. I would like to participate in one new social activity every Friday”
  1. I will make a list of projects I have been putting off and work on the next one on the list for 3 hours every Sunday afternoon.

M- Meaningful. The “M” is often shown to stand for measurable, but if you have been specific in stating your goals, then they will very likely already be measurable. “Meaningful” is a more powerful definition for the letter “M”, because we are much more likely to want to stick with our goals when it becomes difficult (and it usually does!) if they have some important meaning in our life. Connect it to an overall value you have in your life, and write that down next to your goal. In the above examples, you might write:

  1. “Connecting with other people on a deep and meaningful level enriches my life.”

In fact, social connection has been shown to be one of the major components of a happy life all over the world.

  1. “I value productivity, and also the peace of mind I will gain by finishing these projects.”

A- Achievable. Make sure you can break down your goals into small parts that you can achieve bit by bit, so you can feel your progress along the way. Again, if your goals are specific enough, this should be easy. Make sure to list the steps under each of your goals. In the above examples you could make a list of social activities or break down each project into smaller steps.

R- Relevant. Again, the most common “R” is “results-focused,” but if you have already followed the directives in “specific,” “measurable,” and “achievable,” then your goals will probably already be results-focused. A more appropriate “R” might be “Relevant.” Make sure your goals are related to the things you value most in your life. It is easy to focus on a goal like “Lose 10 pounds,” when a goal that might better reflect our values is “Be healthier by exercising three times a week for one hour.”

T- Time-focused. Often this criterion refers to an end measurement of the goal, but if you are focused on changing habits, like being more connected to others or working on unpleasant projects instead of putting them off, then a more appropriate “T” might be “trackable.” Keep a record of when you work on your goal. Remember all those stars on the calendar when you were a kid? They work.

OUTCOME. Imagine your goal. This is the part that is similar to the method popularized in The Secret. Imagine your goal, and what it would be like to reach it. Don’t expect it to come to you, however, without working on the important steps below:

OBSTACLES. Specify any obstacles that might get in your way. This is an area where, as therapists, we can be particularly helpful. Our clients might not be aware of all the ways they are sabotaging their own best efforts.

PLAN. This is the most critical part of the strategy! Make a plan for what you will do to overcome each of your obstacles. When we make a plan ahead of time, we don’t have to fall victim to all the things that can sabotage our best intentions.

Now when your clients are agonizing over how after just one short month they have already given up on their New Year’s Resolutions, you can offer them a scientifically-proven mental strategy to get them right back on track!

Amy McManus, LMFT, specializes in communication between parents and teens. Amy previously worked for four years as a school counselor in various high schools in Los Angeles. She has raised four teenagers of her own, and is married to a high school teacher and administrator. Amy’s weekly blog (http://www.thrivetherapyla.com/blog/) offers parenting tips and other mental health information for parents and teens. You can contact Amy at amymcmanuslmft@gmail.com.