Working toward feeling better often involves setting goals together with your doctor. It’s like creating a map that shows the way to a healthier and happier you.
Including goal setting in conversations with your health care provider can be an important part of your health journey. By articulating specific goals and priorities, you actively shape your treatment plan, ensuring interventions align with your needs, preferences, and lifestyle. Additionally, setting clear objectives provides direction and purpose, offering comfort and reassurance throughout the ups and downs of chronic illness.
What Goals Can You Set with Your Doctor?
You may work with your health care team to set a variety of goals, including treatment goals and personal goals. Here are a few examples.
- Returning to work
- Participating in gardening activities
- Completing a trip to the store independently
- Walking without assistive devices for a certain distance or duration
- Successfully getting out of bed each day
- Planning and enjoying an evening out with friends or family
- Reaching a healthy weight
- Adhering to prescribed medication
- Monitoring and managing medication side effects effectively
- Achieving target medication dosages or frequencies
- Incorporating medication reminders or alarms into daily routine
- Tracking medication usage and progress toward treatment goals
The Challenges of Goal Setting
Making (and keeping) goals isn’t always easy. Even with the best intentions, that initial surge of motivation can wane, making it harder and harder to maintain your commitment.
Goals can also be set aside if they aren’t attainable or take too long to attain. For example, have you ever tried a new exercise routine or new therapy for a few weeks (or even a few days) and then gave up because you didn’t see or feel tangible results? You’re not alone.
Research from the University of Delaware, highlighted in The Psychology of Setting Goals, suggests that our brains are wired to want instant gratification. When faced with the choice between something that’s easy with quick rewards versus waiting for something better later, we often opt for quick satisfaction, undermining our long-term goals.
Making SMART Goals Work
For Catina Morrison, a nurse, patient advocate, and creator of the non-profit Inflamed Sisters Thriving, setting SMART goals has been key to managing her multiple chronic illnesses and her business. Working with her doctor to set SMART, or Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound goals, allows her to decide on a goal and adjust it along the way so it remains realistic and achievable.
“When I think for us as chronic illness warriors, we should not necessarily always think about a time frame,” says Catina, who lives with rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, and endometriosis. “Maybe we don’t necessarily have to focus so much on the time that we accomplish the goal, but that we’re consistently implementing strategies that can help us reach our health goals.”
She adds: “The key is practice and consistency.”
Evaluating Your Health Goals
Catina suggests asking yourself the following questions as you assess your health goals.
How do I know if what I’m doing is working?
Pause and take a step back to see if you are still on course. “Measurable applies differently to each person,” says Catina. “We may plan to do something in six weeks, but really, it could be a year-long journey to get to where you want to be because of unexpected roadblocks or because it takes time.”
For example, Catina acknowledges that it takes time for medications to begin working so it is not practical to expect immediate results. How one patient measures success can be very different from the way another patient measures success.
To document her own health journey, Catina uses a journal. “I use a journal and I use my calendar and my phone. One of the journals that I had have really enjoyed in the past is the Mindflight journal. It was created by two women mother daughter who both have chronic illnesses.” The PatientSpot app (formerly ArthritisPower) can also help you track your symptoms, disease activity, and medications — and share it with your doctor.
If I’m not reaching my goals, what is in my way?
If your goal is to feel better from a new treatment but insurance slows down the process of starting that new treatment, then you will need to adjust your goal or your timeline.
Am I using a growth mindset?
Using a growth mindset refers to believing your wellness can be improved through effort, learning, and persistence. For example, a fixed mindset is “it is what it is,” while a growth mindset is “It can be better with more effort and a new outlook.”
Is my goal too big (for now)?
“Sometimes we want to get from point A to point C directly, but we need to go to point B first and take smaller steps to reach where we want to be,” says Catina. It could be that we are reaching for too much too quickly. Assess where you are, pivot if necessary, and move forward.
How consistent am I with working toward my goal?
When reevaluating goals, focus on consistency rather than just on the time limit for reaching the goal. Taking longer to accomplish a goal that you are not implementing regularly, and with fidelity, is not helpful. “It should not be that we are doing the same thing over and over again,” says Catina. If you are repeating something without any growth, it might be time to adjust your goal.
How can my doctor and I set goals that are realistic and achievable?
Maybe we don’t necessarily have to focus so much on the time that we accomplish the goal,” says Catina, “but that we’re consistently implementing strategies that can help us reach our health goals: achievable and realistic goals that can help us.
Tips for Goal Setting with Your Doctor
Goal-setting between patients and their doctors requires energy, time, listening, and collaborative action, according to a qualitative study in the British Journal of General Practice. Setting agreed upon goals worked best when both the doctor and patient had prepared for the discussion and listened to one another.
Before your appointment, plan for your discussion by thinking about what you want to accomplish. What are your goals? If you are evaluating current goals, are you satisfied with your progress?
At the start of the appointment, tell your doctor you want to address goal-setting at this appointment. Let them know you have goals in mind so that you can work together to find the approach to reach them.
These are some questions you can reflect upon to guide your conversation with your doctor.
- What strategies can we implement to ensure I’ve made progress? Decide on tools for measuring progress. Keep in mind that blood work only tells part of the story. Consider using another method of tracking your progress.
- We’re not seeing that growth from the previously set goals. What can I adjust in my plan to make a difference? Your doctor may have some ideas for how to integrate other types of lifestyle changes that could impact how quickly you meet your goals.
- Am I reevaluating my goals too early? If using a new medication, it may take one to three months to feel and see results. Ask your doctor about how long you can expect to wait to know how well a medication is going to work for you. A different dose or even the time of day you take a medication can alter how well the medication works in your body.
- What are the small, incremental changes that I can make that will help me accomplish the larger goal? Keep your goals attainable. “I think a lot of times with goals, people will commit to a very big goal and not realize the smaller steps they need to take to achieve that goal. If we have too big of a goal, we get emotionally distressed when we can’t do it, or we fail because we set too big of a goal,” said Peter Gable, professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Delaware, in The Psychology of Setting Goals.
By being prepared to discuss your goals with your doctor, you can ensure that you’re on the same page. Maintaining a growth mindset is crucial to avoid feeling discouraged when results aren’t immediate. Remember, you’re not alone in this journey. Setting and maintaining goals can be challenging, but staying connected with the patient community and listening to your body will help you stay on track.
Be a More Proactive Patient with PatientSpot
PatientSpot (formerly ArthritisPower) is an app and website made for people living with chronic conditions. You can track your symptoms and treatments, access support resources relevant to your needs, and choose to participate in research to help advance the understanding of chronic diseases. Learn more and sign up here.
Salter C, et al. Setting goals with patients living with multimorbidity: qualitative analysis of general practice consultations. British Journal of General Practice. 2019. doi: https://doi.org/10.3399/bjgp19X704129.
Wolf, A. The Psychology of Setting Goals. The University of Delaware. January 2024. https://www.udel.edu/udaily/2024/january/psychology-goals-habits-new-years-resolutions/.