How to Reach Your Goals

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on November 19, 2014
From the WebMD Archives

Have you ever found yourself nodding when your doctor says you should lose weight, quit smoking, or exercise more? And while you have every intention of trying, that’s not enough to make healthy habits happen.

You need a plan for putting your ambitions into action. Smart goal-setting and the right mindset can put you on a path to success.

Motivation Matters

First, think about what will drive you to strive. The most compelling goals are those that have an emotional element.

“You need to find a personal hook,” says Martha Carnahan, a business and life coach in Atlanta. She uses a technique she calls “drilling down to the deepest why.”

Say your goal is to lose weight. Consider this Q&A example:

Q: Why do you want to lose weight?
A: Because I want to be healthier.

Q: Why do you want to be healthier?
A: Because I need to lower my blood pressure.

Q: Why do you want to lower your blood pressure?
A: Because I want to feel better.


Q: Why do you want to feel better?
A: Because I’d like to have more energy at the end of the day.

Q: Why do you want to have more energy at the end of the day?
A: Because I want to be able to spend time playing with my kids when I get home from work.

Keep going until you reach a deep, emotional level, Carnahan says.

“By the end, you’ve dug down to a motivator that will stick,” she says.

Motive + Method

Once you’re clear on the motive behind your goals, make sure you have a sound method for reaching them.

“One of the colossal mistakes people make when trying to change is overestimating the value of motivation,” says John Norcross, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Scranton.

It takes practice to define goals that not only are personal, but also specific, measurable, realistic, and positive. As you set your eyes on the prize, think about exactly how you will get there. Some strategies include:

  • Use a journal, diary, calendar, or app to track how you are doing. It keeps you focused on the goal, lets you know when you get off course, and gives you a rewarding feeling when you move in the right direction.
  • Commit to your goal by saying it out loud. You can even come up with a slogan that inspires you.
  • Decide in advance when and where you will take each action you’re striving for. Be as specific as possible. For example, “I’ll exercise for 30 minutes before work on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.”
  • Write a story or draw a picture to envision how your life will change when you reach your goal. And give it a happy ending.
  • Watch movies or read about people who’ve achieved the same goal you’re going after. If you understand how they succeeded, you’ll have a better idea of what might lie ahead for you.
  • Chart the pros and cons of the change for yourself and others in your life. Go back to the list every week or so, and add or shift items as needed. If your goal is a healthy one and you are ready for change, the pros will win.

Avoid Missteps

One of the main reasons people fail to reach goals is that they rip out an old problem without a plan to replace it with a new behavior. If you want to change your ways, ask yourself, “What will I do instead?”

Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD, of the Columbia Business School, recommends that goal-setters have an “if-then” plan. She says she applied this principle herself to lose weight after she had two children.

“I figured out exactly what I would eat, and, more importantly, how I would respond when temptations arose,” she says. “If I have a craving for a snack, then I will eat one piece of fresh fruit or three pieces of dried fruit. I lost about 50 pounds over a year and a half.”

Go for Two

Look at the whole picture and then think about setting two related goals rather than just one.

“New science tells us you’re just as likely to be successful in undertaking two changes at once, particularly if they are related,” Norcross says.

For example, commit to a new exercise regimen and a healthier meal plan at the same time. Or work to quit smoking along with a plan to better manage stress.

WebMD Feature



Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD, associate director, Motivation Science Center, Columbia Business School; senior consultant, The Neuroleadership Institute; author, Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals.

Koo, M. Fishbach, A. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, February 2008.

Martha Carnahan, PCC, CPCC, Business & Life Coach, Atlanta.

John C. Norcross, PhD, ABPP,distinguished professor of psychology, University of Scranton; adjunct professor of psychiatry, SUNY Upstate Medical College.

Norcross, J. Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions, Simon & Schuster, 2012.

Halvorson, H. Nine Things Successful People Do Differently, Harvard Business Review Press, 2011.

Yin, H. Translational Behavioral Medicine, published online Feb. 2, 2013.

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