Writing Goals and Objectives

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We’ve already discussed degrees of specificity a bit when we distinguished goals from objectives. But let’s look a little further. Here are some examples of goals that we might have in my family:

  1. Everyone will get along.

  2. The kids will do well in school.

  3. We will stay healthy.

  4. We will manage our money well.

Those are all worthwhile goals to me, but there’s a problem: Not one of them is specific. What does it mean to get along? To my teen-aged son, it might mean that we let him come and go as he pleases without asking him to fulfill his household responsibilities. To my middle daughter, it might mean that her brother doesn’t do anything to annoy her. And to my daughter who is no longer at home, it might mean that we invite her over every Sunday so she can eat a home-cooked meal and do her laundry. As we discuss “getting along” with each other, we begin to recognize that each of us means something different by the term, so it is important to specify a goal well enough that there is little room for disagreement about what it means.

There is an inherent tension between specificity and importance. The more specific we make a goal, the less important we make it. For example, if the goal is that “Bob will earn a bachelor’s degree by June 30, 2010,” many intervening variables can influence attainment of the goal, and there are many ways he could attain the goal. Contrast this goal with a related objective: “Bob will call the CSUB admission office by 4:00 Friday to request an application package.” This objective is much more specific, but it is only a tiny step in the process of the larger, more important, goal.
Deciding how specific to make a goal will depend on many circumstances such as the interests and motivations of the individual who is establishing the goal, the anticipated duration of the professional relationship with the individual, and the history of success achieving goals. A general guideline is to write goals that are achievable within a reasonable period of time, with circumstances influencing the definition of reasonable. I like to ask clients, How will we know that we are through? Some related questions that help clarify client expectations for services are, What will you be doing when you don’t need to see me anymore that you are not doing now, and What will other people be able to notice is different that would tell them we have been successful in our work together?
Clients often make responses such as, Everything will be going better, or I’ll be happier. My job then is to follow up with additional questions such as, What will be going better, How can people tell it’s better, and How will you know? Although the process of helping clients be specific about their goals can be a challenge, it is one of the most important parts of the helping relationship. In fact, I suspect that having difficulty thinking in specific terms about goals might be one reason some clients need professional help.
Here are examples of specific goals:

  1. Carl will work in a legal, paid job 40 hours each week for four consecutive weeks by December 1.

  2. Cathy will move into an apartment for which she has paid a deposit and one month’s rent by October 1.

Although one could always find details to argue about, those goals are specific enough that most people are likely to be able to agree on whether or not they have been met. Contrast them with these:

  1. Carl will get a job by December 1.

  2. Cathy will get a place to live by October 1.

There are a variety of things Carl and Cathy could do that would meet the less specific goals that would not come close to meeting the more specific ones.

Notice that in each of the goals that we wrote for Cathy and Carl, we specified a date. A well-written goal specifies a time for completion. Without a time, we won’t know when to measure the outcome, so we won’t know whether to revise our goals, to change our intervention strategies, or to declare services unsuccessful. State an expected completion date for every goal and objective. Note that some service-planning forms already contain a column for expected completion dates. If so, it is unnecessary to specify the expected completion date in the goal statement itself.

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