Setting Realistic Goals in Addiction Recovery

The first weeks of sobriety after getting clean can be a whirlwind of confusion. You’re expected to juggle family, work and friends again, while avoiding the old traps that helped lead to addiction in the first place. That kind of stress can be nerve-wracking, especially when feelings of anxiety or depression from prolonged stress often contribute to the start of substance abuse.

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However, being able to set realistic goals for yourself in addiction recovery allows you to ground yourself in rational thinking. You can create a structured system to help you stay sober and continue building healthy skills.

What Are Smart Goals in Addiction Recovery?

People have probably been telling you to set goals and stick to them your whole life. From teachers who insist on completing higher education as a goal to coaches who encourage you to up your scoring percentage, you’ve probably had your fair share of goals thrust upon you — and you’ve likely even achieved some of them. However, these types of goals involve pretty clear pathways to a quantifiable finish line, and that’s not quite what recovery goals are about.

When you’re in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction, there’s only one overarching goal: to stay sober indefinitely. It’s helpful to realize setting goals in recovery isn’t about outrunning addiction. It’s about creating a life that is strong in and of itself.

stay sober indefinitely.
Think of setting goals as though you’re constructing a house out of your emotions and behaviors. Each of those emotions and behaviors is an important building material, and your goals help you put those materials together in a meaningful way. Instead of staring at a pile of tools and materials without any idea where to start, you can begin by identifying which behaviors need to change on a foundational level and move from there.

What Goals Are Worth It?

Start Small

If your ultimate goal is to have a house strong enough to withstand addiction’s advances, you’ve got to start small. But where? When setting any goal, be sure to see if it’s viable by matching it up to the tenets of the S.M.A.R.T. acronym. It stands for:


Make sure you know exactly what you’re shooting for when you create goals. For example, instead of simply stating “get a job” as one of your goals, push your definition a bit further to something like “get a job offering at least 15 hours per week by the first of next month.” This narrows down where you can look, what you can and can’t accept, and exactly how long you have to achieve the goal, offering more built-in guidance than a generic intent to get any job.


The problem with vague goals is you’re never sure if you’ve achieved them. If your overarching goal is to “get in shape,” you’re likely to be disappointed if only because you haven’t set a specific threshold. You might instead try aiming to lose a certain number of pounds or be able to lift a certain-sized weight. Having goals that are measurable means you can quantify your progress and own it, rather than get stuck thinking, “Well, I might be almost there.”

set measurable goals


There’s no use having a goal in mind if it’s too vague. After all, you have to be able to identify the next steps if you’re going to take them. The narrower your goals, the better chance you have of formulating a viable action plan. For example, if your intent is to secure a job, determining which industries you can work in gives you an immediate head start on the action by:

  • Helping you narrow your search parameters
  • Telling you what to cut and what to add to your updated resume
  • Giving you an idea of what skills to practice


It can be easy to start setting unrealistic goals left and right once you begin recovery. Doing so is tempting because it can give the illusion of progress while being so unattainable you never actually end up doing any work on it. For instance, many people immediately jump to goals such as “I’m never going to relapse” right off the bat.

This is a bad idea. If you do end up relapsing, it can feel like any other achievements and progress you’ve got under your belt are now meaningless. It’s better to avoid this situation altogether by setting immediately attainable goals, such as, “I will write three sentences in my journal whenever I feel close to relapse”. This is something that is 100 percent doable and will provide visual evidence of progress as well.


If you create goals that are open-ended in terms of time, it’s very likely you won’t make much progress toward them at all. Procrastination and addiction go hand in hand, so it’s best not to allow yourself room to put off important progress. Target times for completion of goals also gives you a structure and pace for achievement, so you’re not doing no recovery work one day and overexerting yourself the next.

Aligning your addiction recovery goals with the S.M.A.R.T. model is a quick way to identify which milestones are worth including in your set. But successful goal setting in addiction recovery doesn’t translate into achievement without quite a bit of work.

the SMART model of goals in addiction recovery

What Makes Recovery Goals Harder to Achieve?

If you’re like most people, there’s been a point in your life when you’ve failed to meet a goal you set for yourself. New Year’s resolutions, anyone? Admitting shortcomings in the goal-setting arena is okay. You’re not alone, and knowing why goals are difficult can help you find success with them in the future.

In many cases, people’s goals simply fall by the wayside due to shifting priorities, but that won’t slide when it comes to addiction. When you’re in recovery, all your focus has to be on maintaining sobriety and building a life where substance abuse is a thing of the past. So why is it that even with significant motivation, people can fall short of their recovery goals?

The thing about addiction is it produces long-term shifts in prioritization, whether you realize it or not. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines addiction as “a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences”. This penchant of the addicted brain for making drugs the most important thing in the world can be extremely distracting even when sobriety is achieved and recovery in progress. Let’s find out why.

How Addiction Hijacks Your Brain

When thinking about how goals are formed and carried out, it’s helpful to break the process down into three equally important parts:

  • Ideation: Goals don’t just come out of nowhere. They come from observing your surroundings, thoughts, feelings and actions, and coming to the conclusion that something needs to change.
  • Planning: This is where things get serious. You’ll follow the S.M.A.R.T. template to figure out what steps will carry you toward your goals.
  • Implementation: Even if your ideas are good and your planning solid, it can still be really hard to pull everything together and play out your strategy in real life.

These steps are difficult to follow through with for any goal, but the thought patterns of an addicted brain can derail any one of them if you’re not careful.

When someone first uses an addictive substance, a chain of reactions is set off within the brain, all tied to what we call the “reward pathway.” When functioning normally, our reward pathways are activated when we engage in activities necessary to survive, such as eating, drinking, sleeping and socializing. When we participate in such activities, our brains release a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which in turn gives us feelings of pleasure.

reward pathways are activated when we engage in activities necessary to survive

The brain records activities that cause dopamine release, reinforcing our desire to repeat the behavior. When we’re talking about things like giving your child a hug or successfully completing a difficult work or school assignment, that’s a good thing. But there’s something different about substance abuse.

In the case of drug or alcohol use, the amount of dopamine released is astronomically high compared to normal stimuli. Because of this overload, continued drug and alcohol abuse burns out the reward pathway, leaving your brain stuck in a reward/reinforcement pattern that convinces you getting drunk or high is the most important thing at any given moment.

The goal of rehab addiction treatment is to instill the coping mechanisms necessary to out-think your addicted brain, but it’s a long process. Even when you’ve maintained sobriety for days, weeks or even months, you can unexpectedly fall back into addictive thought patterns. It can be incredibly disruptive when you’re trying to focus on achieving recovery goals.

Tips for Staying on Track

Just like any other aspect of recovery, goal-setting is something that has to be worked at consciously. It can get tiring at times, but it’s one of the most profoundly positive behaviors you can instill in yourself during recovery. Luckily, there are a few key things you can do to make it easier on yourself and more effective at the same time.

goal-setting has to be worked at consciously

Find Resources

One of the most important ingredients for a successful recovery — goal setting included — is knowledge, and there are plenty of ways to get it. Between online information, support groups and therapy, there’s no excuse not to reach out and continue learning about addiction and recovery in both social and studious settings. Joining a 12-step group or other community-based program is one of the best ways to find both friendship and personal development in recovery.

Create Accountability

It’s all too easy to fall through on commitments when you’re the only one that knows about them. It’s an unfortunate fact that most people are more likely to be okay with letting themselves down than letting down a friend, but in this case you can use that to your advantage. Find a sponsor, or appropriate friend or family member to share your goals with. Others can help support you when you’re having difficulties meeting your objectives, and having another person in the know is a good way to avoid dropping your goals for lack of engagement.

Be Flexible

Life can be frustrating, and obstacles can appear when you least expect them. That’s why it’s important to keep a degree of flexibility. You may find yourself needing to adjust certain timelines for goal completion or even scratching some goals altogether, depending on the circumstance.

For example, imagine one of your goals is to write and complete an in-person apology to a specific person. However, this person then makes it clear they have no intention of seeing you. In this situation, you could still complete your written apology without delivering it. You could even decide to try again with a different person in your life. The point is not to give up, even when one of your goals runs into a brick wall. Always replace an old goal with a new one and keep moving forward.

replace and old goal with a new one

Be Kind to Yourself

When you’ve set an important addiction recovery goal, not achieving it can lead to intense frustration and other negative emotions. If you were unable to find a job in your specified timeframe or meet a physical fitness goal, you might turn those negative emotions inward on yourself. But that does no good and a lot of harm.

Remember this is a learning process, and acknowledging and embracing your shortcomings leads to positive future developments. Ask yourself, “Did I do my best?” If the answer is yes, then you have done all you could. If the answer is no, then it’s time to go back to the drawing board and find out what went wrong. Either way, you deserve a pat on the back for the progress you have made.

Good Goals to Start With

Still not sure exactly where to start with setting realistic goals in addiction recovery? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. There are a lot of areas that any given person needs to work on when rebuilding life after substance abuse, so choosing which to start with can be difficult. Consider these examples of smart goals in addiction recovery by category.

Social & Familial

For a lot of people, repairing and building up relationships is a top priority after completing addiction treatment. But “make new friends” or “rebuild bridges with my family” are both huge, overwhelming goals. As with most objectives, you have to pare them down to attainable milestones, and that’s extra tricky with interpersonal relationships. It’s a good idea to set goals that will help you develop an understanding of how you affect others in relationships. You might consider goals like these:

  • Keep an interaction journal
  • Make a list of what you look for in a friendship
  • Practice (and take notes on) looking at arguments from another’s perspective
  • Make a list of what positive attributes you can offer in relationships
  • List specific ways to become a better parent/child/sibling and do them
  • Create a daily or weekly compliment quota

How you affect others

What these have in common is they lay the foundation for self-awareness and healthy boundaries in relationships, as well as encouraging you to look closely at your own attitudes in social and familial situations.

Work & School

Getting back to equilibrium in your work and/or school life after struggling with addiction can be tough. Whether you’re picking up where you left off or pushing your performance, these are some good starting goals:

  • Turn in 100 percent of assignments on time
  • Speak to a boss or professor about specific performance benchmarks
  • List your best and worst strengths and pick one of each to focus on
  • Choose one new way to decorate your office/workspace
  • Specify what you like about work or school
  • Re-organize your workspace

Work and school performance is often tied directly to how comfortable you are in your space and subsequently how engaged you are with that environment. So simple starting goals can be as easy as brightening up and personalizing your space, or making exact quotas and schedules for your workflow.

simple goals like personalizing your space


Taming the emotional rollercoaster that runs through addiction recovery can be overwhelming, especially in the early days after rehab. You may feel out of control or anxious, but starting with these simple goals can put you on the right path:

  • Keep a journal of mood swings
  • Commit to writing down and examining triggering moments
  • Learn to identify irrational emotional reactions
  • Begin practicing mindfulness once a day
  • Find a hobby and practice it at least once a week
  • Seek out effective counselling

One of the best things to do when developing your emotional acumen is simply to keep track of what you’re feeling as much as possible. Choosing to track your emotions as one of your addiction recovery goals is the first step to finding out what upsets you, what triggers you, and what makes a positive difference in your overall feelings.


Although addiction recovery can start to feel like it’s all in your head, it’s important not to forget the body. After all, a healthy diet and exercise can help lower your level of stress and make relapse less likely. In addition, a 30-minute session of vigorous exercise can help lessen the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Consider adding a few of these physical health goals to the mix:

  • Get a gym membership
  • Introduce one new fruit or vegetable into your dinner rotation
  • Get at least 3 servings of fruits and/or vegetables per day
  • Get at least 3 days of cardio in per week
  • Enroll in a class for sports or other exercise (yoga, dance, etc.)
  • Go for a short walk at least twice a week

As you can see, goals that are tied to your physical health are often the easiest to achieve. Adding some goals aimed at improving your physical health can not only improve how you feel overall during recovery, but sticking to them can add momentum to your goal-setting when you need it the most.

goals aimed at how you feel

Goal-Setting Assistance, Before and After

Recovering from addiction is a deeply challenging process. Although the ability to identify and set smart goals is vital to a healthy recovery, it’s not the sole secret to success. The most effective way to get clean and receive the full suite of recovery tools you need is to contact a reputable rehab center.

12 Keys Rehab is a premier addiction treatment center where you can receive the compassionate care that’s the foundation of permanent recovery. If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction to drugs or alcohol, one of our expert staff members is here to help. Only 11% of the people who need treatment for chronic substance abuse and addiction actually get it. Be among that 11 percent. Call 12 Keys today for more information on starting the drug-free life you deserve.

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