Goal Setting | Advice for Young People | Jigsaw Youth Mental Health

Goal setting

Goal setting

Monday, 06 July 2020

We are often asked about our ‘goals in life’ when it comes to careers or discussions about the future. ‘Squad goals’ or ‘couple goals’ appear in many Instagram posts, but what does this really mean? Is a goal something we want to be, or want to have?

In this article, you will find the following to help you set and achieve your goals:


A keyboard, post-its and notebook that says 'goals'
A goal is something that we are aiming towards

What is a goal?

A goal is something that we are aiming towards. They could be:

  • Getting on a sports team
  • Losing a certain amount of weight
  • Saving money
  • Getting into a specific college
Sometimes goals can be demoralising or demotivating. We can feel as if we are always chasing something without reaching it.

The purpose of goal setting

Goals can be useful to give us a sense of direction. If we don’t have an idea of where we’re heading, it can feel as if we’re not moving forward. Goals can help to motivate. They can focus our attention to activities or behaviours we would like to change. Having goals can guide the choices and decisions we make.

However, sometimes goals can be demoralising or demotivating. We can feel as if we are always chasing something without reaching it. If we don’t achieve a goal, it can lead to a sense of failure. So, how can we ensure our goals are helpful rather than holding us back?

Whose goal is it?

When thinking about setting a goal, ask whether it is something you would genuinely like to achieve? Or is it something guided by other people’s ideas for us or even society’s expectations.

Getting a college degree is a goal that many young people have. But is it a goal of yours, because you enjoy the subject or feel that going to university is important? It may be our parent’s or teacher’s goal for us rather than our own. If we set ourselves goals that don’t fit with our own values or desires, it becomes harder to achieve them.

Is the goal SMART?

You may have heard this term before. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. If we shape our goals using these headings, it can make them a little easier to reach. Consider whether your goals are:

  • Specific: Are you clear about what you want to work towards? The clearer your goal is, the easier it is to start taking steps to get you there.
  • Measurable: How will you know when you have achieved your goal? Sometimes young people come to Jigsaw and say things like ‘my goal is to be happier’. While this might seem to make sense, it is difficult to measure.
  • Achievable: Be aspirational, by all means, but also be realistic. If we set unrealistic goals, our motivation to work towards them can drop. Thinking you can run a marathon in a month’s time, when you’re really at couch to 5k level is setting yourself up to fail.
  • Relevant: Whose goal is it anyway? If you don’t see the relevance of something, it is much harder to get motivated. We need to set goals that are meaningful to us and fit with our own interests and values.
  • Time-bound: Setting a target can help you get moving towards your goal. If you have six weeks to achieve it, it will spur you on and focus.
Dart board with dark in bullseye target

What happens if I don’t achieve my goal? 

Sometimes people say that by not setting goals they can’t fail. The fear of failure can be paralysing and can mean that we never start anything. Not achieving something that we set out to do does not necessarily mean we have ‘failed’. It may be that a goal is no longer relevant to us and other things have become a priority. Maybe it was not the right goal in the first place.

Not reaching a goal presents us with a learning opportunity, either to try something different or to change our goal.

Even if there are projects or plans we didn’t complete, there may still have been achievements gained. Not finishing a college course, doesn’t take away the achievement of getting a place on it. The experience could make you realise you have an interest outside academia. It could also highlight that your interests and passions lie elsewhere.

While thinking negatively isn’t helpful, we can be realistic about what some of the challenges will be to achieving our goal

Anticipate obstacles

Think back on the things you are most proud of in life. They probably didn’t come easily. For most of the meaningful goals that we set, there will be obstacles to our achievement of them. While thinking negatively isn’t helpful, we can be realistic about what some of the challenges will be.

What is stopping you from reaching your goals? These could be external such as other people, events or the environment. They could also be internal, like our own mindset, health or skills. Whatever the obstacles are, thinking about ways to navigate or overcome them can help reduce the impact.

How to increase your chances of success

Write your goals down

You may have heard the quote ‘it’s a dream until you write it down, then it’s a goal’. There has been research that shows if you write down your goal then you are more likely to achieve it. Place the paper somewhere prominent as a regular reminder of what you’re working towards. Bullet journals are a popular method for writing down and working towards goals.

Track your goals

There may be a checklist of items you need to get through to achieve those goals. Keeping a record of how far you’ve come since the beginning of setting your goal can be helpful.

Look for allies

Let the people close to you know you are working towards a particular goal. Support and encouragement from others will help you navigate obstacles as they arise. Be clear with them how they can help you.

If we don’t have a sense of direction it can be easy to feel left behind. Working towards something, even if we never get there, can open up new possibilities. We may end up somewhere that we had never even considered.

Ciara’s story: A goal I achieved

Ciara, 19, a Jigsaw volunteer from Dublin shared how she set out to achieve a goal.

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