How to Set Realistic Goals During Recovery

Choosing to begin your recovery journey is a commendable and courageous decision, that comes with both challenges and triumphs. Central to this journey is the art of setting realistic goals, a skill that can significantly influence the success and sustainability of recovery. Here we’ll discuss the importance of establishing attainable, measurable, and personally meaningful objectives, which align with the unique circumstances and stages of each individual’s recovery process. By blending expert insights with compassionate guidance, this piece aims to equip you with some of the tools and knowledge needed to set, pursue, and achieve goals that not only aid in recovery but also foster a renewed sense of purpose and fulfilment in your lives.

Why Is Goal Setting Important?

In addition to impacting your recovery journey, goal setting carries several noteworthy benefits that may not always be immediately apparent. Addiction is a chronic and life-long condition which can have a significant impact on an individual and their outlook on life. For example, people who have an addiction can also have feelings of low self-esteem and worthlessness. 

One of the aims of realistic goal setting is to help rebuild confidence and belief in yourself, but this won’t happen overnight. This can be an important tool to help improve your self-esteem and self-worth in recovery. We often feel better when we are achieving things and completing goals, but at the same time, we have to strike a balance, and if we are setting too many goals or some that are not realistic, it can harm us.

Creating SMART Goals

The SMART goal-setting framework has been a gold standard tool in educational institutes, from medical schools to aviation training. It guides creating goals that are more likely to be achieved by ensuring that they follow a set number of standards. 

Research has shown that using SMART goals can be an important factor in achieving success when making health changes. In recovery, if you can set step-by-step goals that are aligned with your motivations, then you are more likely to succeed. 

But, before setting some goals, it may be a good opportunity to spend time alone and self-reflect. Even if you use evidence-based methods for goal creation, if they are not aligned with your own motivations, wishes and desires, then you are far less likely to achieve them. It is also important to ensure that these are your personal goals, not ones you think you should do based on external pressures like family or friends. Spending time journaling and reflecting on your recovery goals can help you to build the solid foundations for setting the right goals. 

The SMART framework can help you create the best possible goals -S-M-A-R-T is an acronym that stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. Let’s now look at each one individually with examples to help you set your own goals.


For a goal to be effective then it needs to be specific. So, how do you set specific goals? A specific goal needs to be able to answer the following questions:

  • What exactly needs to be done?
  • How will it be done? 
  • What steps need to be taken to get it done?

In the context of recovery – a goal that may initially be “I need to rebuild my relationship with my family” can be further broken down to be more specific and practical. This involves asking the questions above and reworking until you have it in its simplest form. For example, in this case, let’s say you would like to rebuild your relationship with your sister because of past actions in your addiction journey, which you regret and want to make amends. A goal that is more specific using the SMART criteria may be:

“I am going to rebuild the relationship with my sister, by firstly meeting up to apologise for my actions. I will then look to make a weekly call with her to check up on her and continue to repair our relationship”.

Another example of this: 

Non-specific  GoalsSpecific 
I will download the Calm meditation app and spend 20 minutes meditating daily. I will go for a walk every other day and ensure I get a better night’s sleep by being in bed before 10 pm. I will follow a Mediterranean diet and avoid processed food. I will eat three meals and my latest meal is not to be later than 7 pm. 
I want to look after my mental health I will download the Calm meditation app and spend 20 minutes meditating daily. I will go for a walk every other day and ensure I get a better night’s sleep by being in bed before 10pm. 
I want to exercise more I will go to the gym three times a week in the morning before work for 45 minutes. 


For a recovery goal to be successful, you need to know when you have achieved it. A goal needs to be measurable for you to know if you have been able to complete it. Measurable goals allow us to track our progress and ensure we are on track. To achieve this, you must ask yourself “how much” or “how many”. 

In the classic case of – “I want to lose weight” – it is far better to specify a measurable amount. So a goal that is – “I want to lose 4kg in 3 months” becomes an improvement on its predecessor. While we may not achieve every goal, when we can measure our success, it can still help keep us motivated.


It’s important to make goals that are realistic and achievable. For example, if you are the manager of a League 2 football team – your goal for the next season will not be to win the Premier League. It is important to be mindful and make our goals not just on what we want to achieve but what we can achieve within the time frame and the situation we are currently in.

In the context of recovery, you may be looking for a new job. It is crucial that we are also not too tough on ourselves and we do not set ourselves up for failure. So a goal that says “I will find a job by next week by looking on Indeed” – may be specific and measurable but it may not exactly be achievable. Job hunting at times, can take weeks, sometimes months. What can often be more useful can be breaking it down into smaller goals like;

  • “ I will update my CV by the end of the week”.
  • “ I will contact recruitment agencies and forward my CV by next Tuesday”. 
  • “ I will hand out my CV to local businesses in my high street by next Friday”.


We talked about the importance of reflection and journaling. This will be very useful for this question – Why is this goal relevant and important to you? People often do better at achieving goals when there is an intrinsic (internal) desire to achieve the goal. Make sure your goals are aligned with your recovery journey. 

For example, if you are in recovery from alcohol addiction and want to set a goal that helps you meet more people – then a goal that is “I want to meet my friends in the pub every Friday to catch up” may not be the best outcome as it may increase your chance of a relapse because of the setting. A recovery goal should be valuable to your journey and not put you at risk. 


A time-bound goal means setting a deadline. The neuroscience of goal setting shows that when you give yourself a time frame, you are more likely to achieve the goal. It’s human nature when we have a task for us to think, ‘I’ll do it later’ or ‘Let me just do this first’. When we set realistic deadlines and plan, it allows us to have a constant target to work towards. 

Join the thousands of people who have begun their path to abstinence with Smarmore Castle.

Tips For Recovery Goals

While the framework above can be useful, there are some downsides to using rigid systems in recovery. 

The emphasis on ‘achieving’ may cause undue pressure and overlook the fluid nature of recovery. It is important not to place too much burden on yourself with the goals you have set. 

Each person’s recovery path can be filled with challenges and setbacks. As well as setting realistic goals, you can also write them down and find an ‘accountability partner’ – someone who can help you be accountable for your goals. This can help foster commitment and improve your chances of success, while also allowing communication and support along the way. 

All of these are important factors to consider when creating a holistic and healing recovery path with supportive aims rather than achievement-oriented ones. This can help create a recovery process that is kind and compassionate towards yourself and your well-being. Click here to read more about how you can use compassion, kindness and mindfulness to achieve your goals.

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