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!


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.

11 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 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:

      • 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.

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