Goal Setting: Why The Words You Use Are Important


An Approach-Oriented Approach To Goal Setting


The beginning of a new year is often when we reflect on the past year and changes we want to make for the year ahead – but goal setting is something we can and should do at any time. When setting goals, it’s helpful to look at what’s working for you in your life at the moment and what isn’t working so well. This will help you to determine what you want more of, what you want less of, and what you want to achieve in your life.

Language Is Important

One of the biggest mistakes people make when they set goals comes down to language. They get stuck focusing on what they don’t want – for example, ‘I want to feel less anxious’ or ‘I want to stop procrastinating’ – and are distracted from the changes they want to make.

How we phrase goals is important because the language we uses focuses our minds and then this determines the behaviours that will follow. When we focus on what we don’t want (avoidance-oriented goals), this focuses our minds on the problem without offering us any solution. Think for a minute about what would happen if you were skiing fast down a tree-lined mountain and you were thinking ‘don’t hit the trees, don’t hit the trees’ – what do you think your mind would be focused on? Right, the trees – this is the result of avoidance-oriented language. If on the other hand you were to think, ‘head of the gaps, go through the gaps’ your mind would focus on the gaps – your solutions – and you’d start to evaluate what you need to do to find a way through.

Avoidance vs Approach Language

Avoidance oriented goal setting keeps you stuck on a problem. It can inflame your sense of anxiety and hopelessness, and it can do this all without offering any solutions. Approach-oriented language on the other hand frames the problem in terms of what you truly want. This switched your attention to solutions and naturally orients your mind to generate small but actionable steps that you can take to get yourself closer to the experiences you want.

What To Do

When you’re setting goals, tap into your avoidance-oriented language and use it to your advantage: what you don’t want shows you what you do what. If you want to feel less anxious, considering reframing your goal as ‘I want to learnt skills to be calm so I can soothe myself in times of stress’. If you want to procrastinate less, set a goal to be better organised and more proactive with your time.

Language is important – use approach-oriented language to set your goals so your mind is focused on the actionable steps you can take to get closer to where you want to be. And of course, we know that goal-setting works best when the goal is meaningful to you (i.e., is tied to your personal values) and fits SMART goal criteria (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, Time-bound).

If you still have trouble meeting your goals – consider working with a clinical psychologist.
A Clinical Psychologist can help you stay on track by showing you the skills you need to get more of what you want this year.

Andreas Comninos (PhD) is a warm and compassionate Clinical Psychologist with over 10 years’ experience. Drawing from a wise-range of evidenced-based treatments, Andreas has a knack for teaching ways to help empower people from all backgrounds to develop skills to free themselves from emotional and psychological struggles so they can take meaningful actions in their lives.


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