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How setting well-formed goals helps you get the life you want

People generally find they can stop drinking with relatively little trouble. I used to do it for weeks and even months at a time when I was doing various healthy eating challenges. But then afterwards, my reward for completing these challenges would be to reach for the alcohol again and I would quickly spiral back into being out-of-control and miserable.

The reason people find it more challenging to stay sober once they’ve stopped drinking is because they haven’t yet addressed any underlying issues that led to an unhealthy relationship with drink in the first place – so the desire to reach for something outside of themselves to help fill a perceived “gap” within themselves or to plaster over an untreated wound comes back.

The best way to ensure that staying sober becomes easy and effortless is to create the life and the future that you want, where you can be who you want – the version of you that you’re happy with – and you can fulfil your aspirations. When your life is full and meaningful, when you’re living it with purpose and satisfaction, when you’re enjoying your relationships with people close to you and you’re happy with who you are, THAT is when you are truly free and have absolutely no need or desire to reach for alcohol or anything else to make you feel better. You don’t need to feel better because you’re already feeling at your best – or you’re on your way there.

The way to achieve all this is to have a goal, an aspiration or a dream. Even something as simple as a sense of who and how you want to be. You then get familiar with that goal – you bring it to life by thinking about it, visualising it, living it in your imagination, even drawing or painting it or writing songs about it. You then set yourself small goals along the way that are the steps you need to take to get you there.

Goal-setting is a common phrase used in coaching circles. It’s considered important for success in business, in learning, in sport and in life. However, not all goals are created equally. For a goal to be helpful to you and to be achievable it needs to be “well-formed”. It needs to make sense to you, be in line with who you are and what you want, it needs to be in your control and it needs to be possible. When you set yourself small well-formed goals along the road to your big, future destination (which is also a well-formed goal) you are much more likely to reach your destination quickly and easily and with less detours.

Here’s an example from a coaching client of mine who I’ll refer to as Diane.
Diane wanted to get fit. Her ultimate goal was to be happy with her body and to be fit and well. She wanted:

  • To feel strong
  • To be slim
  • To have lots of energy
  • To be sleeping well
  • To be giving her all to her job and her family
  • To enjoy the time she had with her family and friends
  • To be comfortable in size 12 (UK) clothes 

Diane created a really clear visual picture of herself as she’d be when she had achieved this goal. She imagined herself with her younger son (who was a baby at the time she started thinking about this), running around the park with him, picking him up and swinging him around, playing running games with him and enjoying being out of breath. She could picture what she was wearing: running leggings, trainers and a small vest. She could imagine the sounds of other children’s laughter around them in the park, her own son’s voice out-of-breath and giggling. She could feel the warmth of the sun on her arms and she could feel the adrenalin and the energy coursing through her body. She could see her trainers against the green of the grass and could see the red sweaty face of her son laughing hard in front of her. She could see his blue shorts and his little legs pumping furiously as he ran away from her. She could smell the freshly cut grass and people’s barbecues in some of the gardens round the park.

Diane really made this experience (how she was going to be when she had succeeded in her goal) come to life by using all her senses and asking herself: How will I know that I have been successful? This created a sense of possibility. She started to believe it could happen and started to get excited by it. She brought it to life by imagining it fully in lots of detail. She then decided to capture it by drawing it on a large sheet of paper. Every time she looked at it, she would think of a new detail and add it in. This kept it fresh and always at the front of her mind.

She had some way to go to reach this goal as she was overweight, had some health issues that she had been avoiding and was very unfit.

So, she started by setting herself smaller goals along the way:

  1. To be able to fit into size 16 clothes
  2. To do a challenging physical activity for 15 minutes every day
  3. To be able to fit into size 14 clothes
  4. To do an exercise class with other people twice a week
  5. To be able to fit into size 12 clothes
  6. To do challenging 30 minute workouts 5 days a week

Her initial action plan to reach goals 1 &2 looked like this:

  1. Research healthy and challenging physical exercises to do at home
  2. Find a healthy and sustainable eating plan online and follow it
  3. Plan a weekly menu for her and her children with healthy meals and do a weekly shop to get all the necessary ingredients
  4. See the doctor and start taking action on her health issues
  5. Talk to her children so they understood what she was doing 

Within a year and a half, Diane had gone from a size 18 to a size 12/14 and was living the life she’d dreamed of (except she’d done it so quickly that she had to wait a while before her youngest son could actually run around the park with her). Diane succeeded because she set herself well-formed goals and breathed life into her picture of what success looked like.

Whatever your own goals are, you can apply exactly the same principles as Diane to ensure they are well-formed and can lead to your success.

In Module 3 of the programme, we go into this in a bit more detail and give you some more guidance on this, but here is the basic principle for setting yourself some well-formed goals. We use the acronym, POSIE, which is explained below.

P – Positive
Your goal needs to be stated positively. So, if you’re phrasing something negatively, you need to turn it into a positive.

 Negative Positive
I don't want to be fat and unfit anymore I want to be fit, slim and healthy
I don't want to drink alcohol at the wedding I want to be happy drinking soft drinks at the wedding
I don't want to shout at my kids I want to respond to my kids calmly and in control
I don't want to be a failure I want to feel proud of my achievements
I don't want to drink anymore I want to enjoy life sober

O – Owned
Check that your goal can be owned by you. That is, it needs to be within your control. It needs to be about you and no-one else. Remember that we can’t always change the outside world and the people around us but we can change how we experience it.

For example, if you want your partner to change their behaviour, that’s not within your control – you can’t own it. You can instead decide that you want to respond to your partner differently. Choose a goal that's about you and is within your control.

S – Sensorial
Ask yourself how you’ll know when you have been successful. Imagine that success happening and pay attention to as much detail as possible using your senses. When you imagine what you’ll see, hear, feel, taste and smell, you start to bring your experience of success to life like Diane did. This motivates and excites you. Your goal starts to seem possible and even likely. You’re making success happen!

I - Intentional
Your old way of living life, the old behaviour or problem, began with a positive intention. For example, the positive intention by my drinking was to feel better about myself.

You need to check that the positive intention behind the old behaviour is going to be met by the new behaviour, this new way of living your life. If it’s not, the unconscious part of your mind could sabotage your efforts as it wants that positive intention to be met and it knows the old way of doing things works.

You can find out what the positive intention behind the old way of doing things was by asking yourself:
What did I get by doing…?
What was the positive reason for doing…?
What do I actually want?

And, then you can check the new way of doing things still meets that positive intention by asking:
How does this goal still give me… (positive intention)…?

So, for me, what I got by drinking was that it made me feel better about myself. When I decided to get sober and asked myself “How does being sober make me feel better about myself?” I had a long list of answers:

  • I stop feeling guilt and shame
  • I start to feel more self-confident
  • I feel happier with myself
  • I get my health and energy back
  • I can focus on my aspirations and future with nothing to get in the way
  • I can be 100% myself
  • I can learn to like myself

And, there were plenty more!

E – Ecological
It’s important to check that there are no unintended consequences in other areas of your life when you have achieved the goal. The outcome you get needs to maintain a positive (or ecological) environment for you.

In order to fully understand the possible implications of achieving the goal, you can ask yourself:

What impact might this have on…
• My job
• My life
• My family
• My relationships
• The team at work

I’m going to go over each of the POSIE sections in the next few guidance videos, just to make sure they’re clear, but for now, what’s important is that you understand that setting well-formed goals is a key to your success in getting and staying sober. To eliminate the desire to drink, you need to be happy with who you are and with where you’re going in life. Setting yourself goals to get you to where you want to be sets you up for success and makes your journey there much easier.

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