Having realistic and well-defined goals can help a person throughout the recovery process. Setting goals with the SMART formula can give people the best chance at success.

Addiction recovery is a long process that is marked by many milestones. Setting goals can help a person move from one stage to the next without getting stuck. The main goal during recovery is to get and stay sober, but this big picture can be broken up into several small goals to make it more manageable. Goals for substance abuse recovery may include enrolling in rehab, finding a doctor, completing a treatment program or joining a support group.

Importance of Goal Setting in Recovery

Recovery can be a fresh start. However, change takes time and people won’t magically have a new life after they detox from drugs or alcohol. Goal setting in recovery can help people figure out what they need to do in order to get from where they currently are to where they want to be.

The benefits of setting goals in recovery include:

  • Helping someone focus on the present and future
  • Not dwelling on the past
  • Developing patience and a good work ethic
  • Creating a sense of pride when people reach their goals

Further, studies have shown that learning how to set effective goals can help people reduce drinking and drug use.

Once a person begins their sober journey, they may find that they have more time, money and energy to do new things. They may want to start developing new skills and trying new things as a part of their new lifestyle. Recovery goals don’t necessarily only include plans related to sobriety. They can also include goals that apply to different areas of life, such as personal relationships, getting a job, spirituality or improving one’s financial health.

Step-by-Step Goal Setting

People in recovery can use step-by-step goal setting to increase their chances of success. Before a person decides on any goals, it’s helpful to first do a little bit of reflection. People should think about what they like in their current life, what they would like to be different, what new things they hope to get in the future and how they would like to be spending their time. Each person’s addiction recovery goals will probably be a little bit different; it’s okay if one person’s goals aren’t the same as another person’s.

One helpful tool for recovery is SMART goals. SMART is an acronym that stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. When people set goals using this formula, they are more likely to take actions that help them get where they want to go.

Step 1: Specific

It’s not enough to say, “I want to improve personal relationships.” SMART goal setting involves coming up with a concrete action to take. People wanting to set a goal related to drug addiction recovery can make a goal more specific by thinking about who, what, when or where the goal is related to. Examples of recovery goals that are specific include “I will apologize to my mom for a past action” or “I will improve my relationship with my brother by calling him once a week.”

Step 2: Measurable

SMART recovery goals that are measurable include answers to questions like “how many” or “how much.” For example, “I will eat healthier” is not a measurable goal, because it can be hard to track whether a person is eating more nutritious foods than they used to. Instead, a person may want to try saying “I will eat one serving of vegetables every day.” Setting specific and measurable goals during recovery helps a person tell for sure whether or not they are meeting their goals.

Step 3: Achievable

Recovery goals shouldn’t be impossible. If goals set in addiction recovery are too hard, a person will probably get frustrated, give up and be more at risk of relapse. To set achievable personal recovery goals, a person should consider whether the goal is realistic and think about obstacles that might get in their way. An achievable recovery goal example might be “I will get a full- or part-time job in the next six months.” On the other hand, expecting to get a job within a week probably isn’t realistic. If a goal seems too big, a person can also try breaking it down into smaller steps. For example, rather than getting a job, a person might make a goal to learn how to write a resume, and then once they achieve that, make another goal to send out the resume to a certain number of places.

Step 4: Relevant

Relevant goals for recovery include ones that help a person get or stay sober. They should be meaningful to that person and help them on their journey in some way. For example, an addiction recovery goal that is relevant might be working out at a gym a certain number of times per week. This can help someone relieve stress and improve their physical health, which can help a person to stay sober.

Step 5: Time-Bound

When a goal is time-bound, it has a deadline. For example, a person can specify that they want to achieve the goal within one month, six months or one year. On the other hand, if someone’s goal is to build up a new habit to help with the recovery process, they may say that they want to do a certain activity once a day or once a week. One way someone can set a time-bound goal is to work with a counselor to come up with realistic goals for when they want to reach each stage of drug addiction recovery within a certain treatment program.

Sticking to Your Recovery Goals

Making goals is the easy part. Sticking to goals can be much harder. Luckily, there are many things a person can do to help stay on the right path.

First, it is important not to be too ambitious. If someone tries to reach too many goals all at once, they will probably fail. Sticking to just a couple of goals at a time makes a person less likely to burn out and more likely to be successful.

One easy trick for sticking to goals is to write them down. Putting them in writing makes them easy to keep track of and often helps people be more likely to achieve them. For example, people can write a deadline on a calendar so that they can be reminded of it.

When people surround themselves with others who are supportive, they are often more likely to reach their goals. Two people can try being accountability partners and provide each other with encouragement. Someone can also ask their loved ones to check in with them to make sure they are working towards their goal. For example, a person who wants to stay sober may ask their loved ones to have them to do random drug tests. If the person in recovery knows that they could be tested at any time, they may be less likely to relapse.

Successful recovery from addiction involves being flexible. Not reaching a particular goal isn’t necessarily a failure. It may just be a sign that a new plan is needed. Also, sometimes other things happen in life that throw a goal off-track. For example, if someone gets sick, they might not be able to keep up with a habit as well. This is perfectly fine as long as the person is able to get back on track once things return to normal.

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Editor – Rob Alston
Rob Alston has traveled around Australia, Japan, Europe, and America as a writer and editor for industries including personal wellness and recovery. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Maureen McNulty
Maureen is an academic researcher with a passion for science communication. She has a bachelor's degree from The Ohio State University, where she majored in Molecular Genetics and minored in English. Read more

Aghera, Amish; et al. “A Randomized Trial of SMART Goal Enhance[…] Educational Actions.” The Western Journal of Emergency Medicine, December 21, 2017. Accessed September 18, 2019.

DeMartini, Kelly S.; et al. “Drinking Goals and Goal Attainment in a […]Adult Heavy Drinkers.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, September 2018. Accessed September 18, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.