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The role of goal setting and goal proximity in treating addiction

A comprehensive plan for recovery will often require setting goals. This may include goals around moderation criteria, improving physical health, attending educational and support groups, attaining a new job or housing, and systematically working through relationship dynamics. One key ingredient to goal setting, which is often overlooked, is goal proximity. This simply means how near or far the end-goal is from the present point in time.

Research in motivation theory has consistently proven that, to maximize your chance of success with goals, you must set both near-term and long-term goals that support each other. In the research literature, this is referred to as setting proximal (near) and distal (far) goals. One of the most recognized experts in goal setting is Albert Bandura, who is a Professor of Social Science in Psychology at Stanford University. Apart from being a renowned researcher in the field of psychology, Bandura has also served as the president of the American Psychological Association.

One finding in Bandura’s research is that people perform better when there is a condition that involves both near and far goals, as opposed to just a single, and distant goal. For instance, instead of setting a goal of losing 12 pounds in 90 days, it is more effective to set goals along the lines of this:

  • Lose 1 pound per week.
  • Lose 12 pounds in 90 days.

This can be even more granular by setting smaller goals even more frequently. In the above example, this could be done by introducing small and attainable goals throughout the course of a week, to support moving towards that week’s goal.

It has also been shown that attainment of a near term goal improves one’s belief in their ability to attain a longer-term goal. Another surprising side effect of this approach is that people wind up setting more difficult goals for themselves when setting both proximal and distal goals.

Lastly, the attainment of near-term goals also has the strong benefit of helping one develop intrinsic motivation towards attainment of a given goal. This is very important particularly in difficult and transformational work like addiction recovery. In very general terms, extrinsic motivation is when you do something because someone else is telling you to. This is similar to getting therapy because the court system has imposed it on you. On the other hand, intrinsic motivation is when you do something because it is internally rewarding. For instance, this may be similar to playing a sport because you enjoy it. So, when one attains a near-term goal, the event helps develop intrinsic motivation towards the pursuit of a longer-term goal.

Setting goals is an essential part of the recovery plan. Goals can be set for various areas of life. In doing so, it is important for the therapist and the patient to work together to devise goals that are attainable, are spaced apart properly, and work together in such a way so as to maximize success.

Author: Seda Gragossian, Ph.D.

Talk Therapy Psychology Center


  • Bandura, A; Schunk, D. Cultivating competence, self-efficacy, and intrinsic interest through proximal self-motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol. 41, 1981.
  • Bandura, A. Self-Efficacy. 1997.