Setting Achievable & Effective Eating Disorder Recovery Goals 

By Alexa Rivera

Setting Goals  

Goal-setting is an important tool for life and recovery. Throughout your life you’ll experience a lot of different intentions, feelings and motivations, but they only exist in the moment. Goal-setting takes them all and channels them into a specific plan of action to guide you toward a result. Goals are what transform fleeting emotions into real, concrete life changes. 

Recovery is a long, intentional process and as you live through your recovery you will be faced with opportunities to set up goals and become an active participant in your life. Setting achievable goals can make recovery easier by helping you make decisions, see your progress and put your choices in perspective. 

Creating Effective Goals 

Before you begin setting goals, it’s important to know what differentiates an effective goal from an ineffective one. There are a lot of goals that sound good at first, but they tend to be unachievable because they’re ineffective. Effective goals are singular (or few), realistic and specific.  

Make Goals Singular (or Few) 

Nothing describes goals more accurately than the phrase “quality over quantity.” Having dozens of goals, even five effective goals, can end up competing for your time and focus, making you unable to make any real progress on any of them. This can cause more anxiety as you try to keep track of so many moving pieces or wonder why you haven’t seen much progress. A few goals, between one and three, is all you should focus on at any given time. 

Make Goals Realistic 

While dreaming big is great, having goals that are too big can lead to a lack of focus, feeling overwhelmed or ultimately being unable to reach your goal. A goal like “be recovered” is amazing, but it’s complex, abstract and large. Goals like this are unrealistic because they don’t define what recovered means and don’t break down how recovery is achieved or what it looks like in everyday life. 

Having goals like this might be a sign you need to rework your goal, otherwise you’ll find them to be too difficult and end up disappointed when you fail. Ask yourself:  

  • Is this goal possible?  

  • Can this goal be achieved in a realistic amount of time?  

  • Am I ready for this goal? Am I in the right state of mind or place in my life to achieve this goal?  

  • What does achieving this goal look like? 

Setting up a series of smaller, reachable goals (subgoals) before the larger goal is a way to avoid this common goal-setting pitfall. Figure out where you are and determine what steps you need to take to get where you want to be. Each of those subgoals is a stepping stone towards your overarching goal. Make sure to give each of these goals your full attention and try not to think past them, since it can become anxiety-inducing, distracting and counterproductive to think ahead. Remember, you will get there. It just takes time.  

Make Goals Specific 

Non-specific goals can be a hinderance because they’re often not measurable. Goals require checking in and tracking your progress, but when goals aren’t specific enough you can get caught waffling, trying to determine if you actually did or didn’t achieve your goal or make progress and determining what counts towards your goal. 

Example: “Improve my mental health,” is a great goal but it’s too unspecific. A more specific version of this goal would be “visiting my therapist every other week” or “reduce my body checking or weighing to once a week.”  

In order to ensure you’re making progress or if you’re off-track, having a way to measure your goal is essential. Goals should be quantifiable and how they will be quantified should be determined when you make the goal, not as you make progress. 

Take Risks  

Goals wouldn’t be goals if you were already there. It’s important to continue to challenge yourself throughout your recovery. You want to push yourself to grow so that you can experience life and continue to overcome new challenges and have new experiences.  

When You Don’t Reach a Goal 

Sometimes you’ll fail to reach a goal. Failure is a part of life and everyone experiences failure at different points of their life. Failure says nothing about you other than you were not able to achieve this specific goal. It doesn’t make you lazy or incapable. It makes you human. What’s most important is that you take this as an opportunity to learn and grow. 

Focus on the Takeaways 

The spirit of goal-setting is to make life changes, and progress towards a goal facilitates this life change. It’s important that you recognize any type of progress you made toward your goal. Yes, your goal wasn’t completed, but you did make progress towards your goal and you are likely in a better position than you started. A little self-compassion goes a long way in keeping yourself positive and motivated. 

This is also an opportunity to reflect on why you were unable to achieve this goal: 

  • How much progress did you make? 

  • At what point or at what subgoal did you begin to struggle? 

  • Was this goal right for you or were you unprepared for it? 

  • Was your goal singular, realistic and specific? 

Recall Your Purpose  

Remember why you made this goal in the first place. There was a reason you made this goal, and reflecting on why you had this goal coupled with why you failed to achieve it can give you greater insight into whether or not you want to continue pursuing it. 

  • Do you want to try again? 

  • Were you satisfied with your progress? 

  • Do you still desire this outcome? 

Plan & Take Action  

This is the most important part going into your next goal-setting opportunity or revisiting your previous goal. Because you didn’t achieve your last goal, planning is more important than ever. A good foundation and understanding of yourself can help set you up for success in your next goal. Maybe you want to take another try at your goal, or maybe this time you’ll modify it to make it more effective. Whichever route you go, the fact you didn’t give up is what’s important.   

Are You Ready for Goal-Setting? 

Many of those living with eating disorders are perfectionists, which can make it difficult to set goals without becoming fixated or obsessed with the outcome or how goals are progressing. It’s important to ask yourself:  

  • Am I ready for goal-setting? 

  • Are my goals causing me negative stress and defeating the purpose of improving my life? 

  • Do I feel motivated to achieve them, or do I feel afraid, concerned and/or avoidant?  

Positive and Negative Stress 

Effective and healthy goals should induce positive stress. Positive stress (eustress) is accompanied by feelings of excitement and inspires you to achieve your goals and do your best. On the opposite end is negative stress (distress), which can make you feel anxious, concerned or avoidant. If goals are causing distress, it can be a sign you’re not ready for them or rework them, or that you need to alter your relationship with goal-setting. 

Sharing your goals with your therapist and asking them to help you with goal-setting can be a great way to identify problem areas and guide you through the process. 

Modified Goal Setting 

One way to participate in goal setting is to modify it to meet your needs while accommodating your current thought patterns. Having quantifiable goals can be difficult for people with perfectionist traits. Instead of using specific numbers, you can use thresholds:

  • Meet with my therapist more than 10 times this year.
  • Talk to a loved one more than twice this week 
  • Weigh myself less than four times this month 

Without effective goal setting it can feel like you’re never making progress or that you’re failing. Setting goals transforms your feelings into action and allows you to grow and opens you up to new experiences, and is a valuable tool you’ll use throughout your life. 

Last Reviewed: December 2023

ACUTE Earns Prestigious Center of Excellence Designation from Anthem
In 2018, the ACUTE Center for Eating Disorders & Severe Malnutrition at Denver Health was honored by Anthem Health as a Center of Excellence for Medical Treatment of Severe and Extreme Eating Disorders. ACUTE is the first medical unit ever to achieve this designation in the field of eating disorders. It comes after a rigorous review process.

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