This post is the first of a series that accompanies each week in my book, Retrain Your Brain: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in 7 Weeks. This week we start with Week 1, which begins on page 50 in the print edition.

This week is all about figuring out what your goals are for this program. In this context I’d like to draw from the work of psychologists Edwin Locke and Gary Latham (see this article for a review). They highlight the close connection between goals and motivation.

I often think we don’t spend enough time thinking about the right goals as we’re starting treatment. We often have a general sense of what we’re not happy about in our lives, but we haven’t been specific about what would be different because of the treatment.

If we’re going to build a bridge from here to there, we need to know what these points represent!

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As you work through this week’s material, spend a good bit of time taking stock of what’s going well and what’s not going well. This assessment will drive the goals you set.

Find a time to sit quietly and contemplate each area of your life. It will require honesty on your part, honesty about where you are and what you want to change.

Why do goals matter so much? According to Locke and Latham (L&L), goals drive action in at least four ways:

  1. Goals sharpen our focus on what’s important to us. By making what we value more salient, distractions that compete for our energy and attention can fade into the background. For example, if I set a goal to conquer my fear of driving, the pull to avoid my fears can become less compelling.
  2. Goals energize our efforts. Without clear goals we can feel unmotivated, unsure of where to direct our energy. When we know what we’re aiming for, we work harder, especially if we feel a deep connection with our goals.
  3. Goals lead to greater persistence. When we’ve decided what we want, we’ll be more likely to continue working toward that goal even when we face challenges.
  4. Goals compel us to find ways of meeting them. It’s easy to let not knowing how to meet a goal prevent us from setting it. For example, I might avoid committing to a goal of consistent exercise because I don’t know what form of exercise I want to do. Once I decide to exercise, I find a way to make it happen. The fact that you picked up this book suggests that you’ve taken that crucial step toward deciding to do something to change your situation. Thus you’ve raised the odds that you’ll find “task-relevant knowledge and strategies” (as L&L say) to help you meet your goals.

Goals turn dissatisfaction with our situation into intention to improve it. And that’s pretty empowering.

Speaking of empowerment, my favorite part of the L&L article I cited is where they tie it all together to show how well-chosen goals are part of what they call “the High-Performance Cycle.” Based on their model, the right goals generate excitement and a sense of self-efficacy—that is, an awareness that I am capable of reaching these goals.

Excitement and self-efficacy in turn lead to greater performance and greater satisfaction with our performance. As we see ourselves succeeding, our confidence goes up, as does our “willingness to commit to new challenges.” This idea is built explicitly into CBT in 7 Weeks, as success in initial activities feeds into our next round of goals. Success breeds success. Over time this cycle builds on itself, leading to ever greater levels of achievement and satisfaction.

As you think about your goals this week, aim for the following attributes:

  1. Specific. You should know when you’ve reached your goal. For example, “exercise more” is vague whereas “exercise 30 minutes 3x/week” is specific and measurable.
  2. Appropriate difficulty level. There’s a sweet spot in picking the difficulty of our goals. Too easy and we’ll be uninspired; too challenging and we’ll be disheartened. If you’ve ridden a bike with multiple gears, the former is like spinning in a gear that’s too small and the latter is like barely turning the crank over up a big hill. Aim for moderate effort that’s sustainable.
  3. Important. If we don’t care about our goals, we’ll have little chance of meeting them. Make sure your goals are indeed yours, not what someone else wants for you. Also consider why each goal is important; how will your life improve when you reach it?

This is sacred work, the work of determining what’s worth fighting for. It all starts here.

I’m excited for you as you begin this program. Have a great week!

I will post the next installment on November 7, 2016.

Please leave any questions or comments below.

22 thoughts

  • I just finished chapter 1 and am looking for the “Daily Activities” sheet to print, any direction on where to find it?? I have the kindle version of the book and it sent me to your site, which is amazing! Enjoying your book so far – looking forward to the next 7 weeks.

    • Thank you for your kind comments, Erin. I’m sorry you couldn’t find the forms. If you go to callistomediabooks.com/cbt and put in your email address, it should take you to the forms page. Please let me know if you continue to have trouble finding it. And all the best for these 7 weeks!

  • I recently received the following question from a Retrain Your Brain reader:

    “I am a 69 year old woman who has struggled with chronic physical pain that has affected my mental state and caused recurring anxiety and some depression. I have recently been diagnosed with a nerve related painful spine condition and seeing pain management MD. I am completing the Values/Activities section of your book and am frustrated because many of my values are being disrupted by my pain issues. It is a struggle to remain positive and pursue even simple daily activities. How can I continue CBT and improve my mental outlook? I have seen a psychologist in the past and used CBT methods. Thank you for any suggestions.”

    It’s a tremendous challenge dealing with chronic illnesses, and it absolutely affects our mental state. Frankly it’s depressing when illness keeps us from doing the things that bring us joy and fulfillment. We miss the way life used to be. And the unpredictability of our physical abilities can lead to gripping anxiety: Is my condition getting worse? Will I ever improve? What if I can no longer take care of myself?

    There may be alternative ways to live out our values when the ones we’re used to are no longer available. It might help to talk with someone who knows us well who might be able to help us brainstorm activities that would enrich our lives. Part of the utility of defining our values is that for most of them, the range of activities that can support them is limited only by our creativity.

    That said, I won’t be a Pollyanna and suggest that we can recreate our old lives with new activities. This is where a lot of the challenge and opportunity of acceptance comes in. Not accepting as though we don’t care about our loss of function, but accepting that we care deeply and may be heartbroken that even simple activities are a struggle. If a person is still struggling to cope with these challenges and talking with loved ones doesn’t lead to a path through them, then I would recommend seeking treatment with a professional who has expertise in these issues. I wish you and others in a similar position all the best.

  • I just downloaded the book, although I see that this took place several months ago? I’m sure I can still use the book and apply the material to my daily life. It’s such a relief (in a good way) to find others that may be struggling, such as myself … It makes it easier to know I’m not alone.

    • I appreciate your comment, Amy. Yes, I posted those entries last fall, with the idea that people who wanted to could follow along in “real time” as they completed the 7 week course. But the book and the online materials are equally relevant now as then. I also started a Facebook group for the same reason, to connect people who may be going through similar things. It’s here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/CBTin7Weeks/.

      • Thank you for your response Dr. Gillihan – I really appreciate the success and dedication you have put forth in helping so many people. I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of the book and helping my current situation.
        Thank you

        • Thank you for your kind words, Amy. It’s truly my pleasure. All the best to you as you embark on the first steps of this new journey. Don’t hesitate to check in here or on the Facebook group if you need anything along the way.

  • Hi there, I’m an outpatient therapist for community mental health center and I’m using your book to help low-income adults that struggle with depression and anxiety through a CBT group. I was wondering if a digital pdf copy of the book is available for purchase? Thanks!

    • Hi, Rebecca. I’m thrilled to hear that you’re using my book in your work with low-income adults in your CBT Group. I don’t believe there is a pdf copy of the book available to purchase, because of copyright issues. How many people are in your group and where are you located? I would like to help out if possible.

  • Thanks for replying so quickly! I have 6 people in the group right now. I’m located in a little town called Shelbyville, KY. The agency I work for is called Centerstone KY. The group began with 1-2 people and I’m slowly expanding as people recognize how beneficial the group is and that these skills do help them manage symptoms effectively. Let me know if there is other info you need. Thanks again!

    • My pleasure, Rebecca. That sounds great about the group. I’ve contacted you via email for more information. I look forward to hearing more!

  • I AM GOING TO GET THE BOOK TOMORROW AT BARNES & NOBLE BOOKSELLERS IN KING OF PRUSSIA TOMORROW SO I CAN FINALLY CONQUER THIS ANXIETY TRAIN DEVIL WITCH HEX TOOMB DEATHBED ETC I AM SO READY TO BEAT THIS ANXIETY BECAUSE IT HAS BEEN HOLDING ME BACK FOR 31/2 MONTHS

    • I wish you all the best as you start out with the book, Nicholas. Enough is enough, huh? I can sense your frustration and your determination——a powerful combination as we aim to make changes.

  • I wish you luck too Nicholas…your determination as Mr.Gillihan points out is obvious. That’s half the battle…a lot of us when embarking on our own journeys have been so broken for so long, it’s hard to muster any energy never mind determination ! I have a feeling you will have this crazy horse tamed very soon and you will be in control of it not it in control of you. When you get through the other side…I know you maybe can’t imagine so now but you will see all the residual positives from what I imagine has been one of the worst times of your life. …overcoming challenges like this can’t fail to change you as a person…..for the better.

    • Dee, thanks so much for your words of encouragement to Nicholas. I love seeing all of us help one another as we work to overcome life’s challenges. We draw strength from each other.

  • You’re welcome Professor Gillihan…but their really is no need for thanks, …I cannot help it ! 🙂 The need and desire to offer encouragement and support when and where applicable is just a natural reaction. My Grandmother was a big influence in my formative years ( she took on the maternal role and supported my father after my mother left ) and taught us some values that I have lived my life by…the main one being ” do unto others as you would have them do unto you ” ( ” have ” being the operative word ….sadly ). I didn’t understand exactly what that meant at the time but I am glad I asked because as I grew it became more and more apparent that she was right and it was important to do so…not just for the other person but for yourself too. How can you expect people to treat you in a positive, supportive encouraging, non-judgemental and kind way if you can’t/don’t/won’t do the same !? Being the opposite only churns you up inside….I don’t get why some people find it so difficult just to be right with their fellow man. These people ( in my experience ) are usually the first ones to be outraged when others treat them adversely…even in the tiniest way. Maybe I just met a lot of narcissists and Sociopaths ?? I think I have been living with someone who has traits that all too closely fit the given criteria of the Sociopath for the last 7 years….which is how I discovered your book and what brings me here. I shall be exploring several of the titles among your ” resources ” tab too !! I was almost done with life….really, but I somehow gathered enough energy to try build my shattered self up enough to get out of the situation I am currently stuck in ( living in a bedroom for the last few months to try avoid any conflict) instead of trying to understand and fix it…..I can;t and sadly, never could…I just didn’t realise that until very recently. Even though he has pulled every part of me to pieces until there is no sense of self left….no hopes and dreams, goals, likes and dislikes, opinions, choices, decisions made….I still can ONLY treat him as I would have liked him to treat me !!! When I am better….I will be glad I did….it costs NOTHING to be nice to someone and the smallest gesture can mean the world….I don’t get why we all don’t want to live by my Grandma’s advice ( though I am reading about it right now….a theory called the Mediocre mind ). The world would be a fantastic place 🙂

  • More than anything…I need to know why I let him ( and others ) treat me this way…after all people can only do to you what you let them do ( another og granny’s life lessons ). I look forward to implementing your wisdom and getting not the old me back but a better new and improved version. Thank You and peace and love to everyone regardless. 🙂

    • Thank you for sharing about your experiences, Dee, and your grandmother’s wisdom. There’s nothing like the Golden Rule, right? All the best on your journey to a new and improved version of You.

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