Your Guide to Setting Realistic Goals with Clients

January 02, 2023

Exercise more.
Eat more healthily.
Lose weight.
Reduce stress.

It’s not surprising that these are among the top five goals Americans set for themselves at the beginning of a new year. Unfortunately, people are notoriously bad at setting goals and sticking to them because, while resolutions are always steeped in hope, they often lack accountability. 

You know how important accountability is for meaningful change to take root with your clients. Setting goals with them is key to driving this accountability. Setting realistic goals can also be a powerful tool for client retention.

Keep reading to explore the relationship between setting goals and client retention, learn about some popular goal-setting frameworks, and access a SMART goals worksheet you can download and use with your own clients as you set them up for success, and lay the foundation for a fruitful, long-term relationship.

Why Set Goals?

Goal setting automatically gives clients a reason to come back and check in with you on their progress. In fact, it’s a top method for keeping clients motivated. Experiencing success in achieving their health and wellness goals thanks to the work you’ve done together also builds long-term loyalty, which is an effective way to drive client retention and boost recurring revenue. 

If a client asks, “Why set goals?” here’s a few facts you can share with them: 

  • 92% of people who set New Year’s resolutions fail to follow through when the euphoria fades and the reality sets in around how much hard work is required to achieve the goals.
  • 70% of people who sent weekly updates to a friend reported successful goal achievement, compared to 35 percent of those who kept their goals to themselves, without writing them down.

We humans are susceptible to the optimism bias, which basically means we overestimate the chance of positive experiences occurring. This bias causes us to unwittingly ignore important information that can make or break our success. Having clearly documented goals helps bust the built-in bias by providing a clear roadmap to a desirable end result.

The Art and Science of Setting Realistic Goals

Why is it important to set realistic goals? First and foremost, it helps your clients experience more wins (and your business with customer retention management). Yes, you need to document goals as a first step towards accountability. But those goals need to feel concrete and achievable to your clients. 

If goals aren’t specific enough, your client can feel confused about where their treatment plan is headed or what actions they need to take and when. Imagine a holistic nutritionist setting a goal with a client to eat more leafy greens. There’s no context around how much to eat, what types of greens to incorporate into their meals, and how often they need to be eating them. So, the client might choose to eat one kale salad a week and call it done, leading to inevitable disappointment when they don’t achieve the results they were seeking.

On the other hand, if the goals are too aggressive your client may get discouraged and ghost you. Back to our holistic nutritionist example, if the documented goal is to incorporate kale, spinach, arugula, collard greens, and chard into meals, 7 days a week, most clients would quickly become overwhelmed. 

A strategy that can make challenging goals feel more attainable is to introduce “slack with a cost.” Essentially, this construct gives the client some wiggle room when it comes to achieving their goals. If there are many milestones and they miss one, it doesn’t result in total failure. Studies have shown that participants working towards goals that have “slack with a cost” built-in are more persistent and perceive the goals to have higher attainability.

Optimal goal difficulty
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Strong customer retention strategies include tactics that encourage repeat client touchpoints, like setting realistic goals. Let’s now explore some evidence-based frameworks you can leverage when setting goals with your clients.

Effectiveness of SMART Goals in Health and Wellness

We’ve explored the SMART goals definition in the past, in relation to setting your business goals. In fact, SMART goals have roots in the business world – it’s a framework that was created to help keep employees in a business focused on doing the right things. The letters in SMART stand for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-Bound. 

Although it was originally intended for businesses, it can also be a useful framework for setting health and wellness goals because it encourages clients to get granular in their thinking around what they want to achieve. We created a SMART goals worksheet that you can use in your own practice to help clients do this.

Here are some things to keep in mind about using the SMART goals framework for goal setting with your clients: 

  • SMART goals do a good job of making goals achievable and documenting what the goals are, how they’ll be measured, and by when. But they often don’t include a plan of action for getting it done. (Don’t worry: We’ve added that piece into our SMART goals worksheet). 
  • Goals will be more effective when tied to behaviors rather than outcomes. More on that below.  

With this in mind, let’s explore some other strategies you can use for setting goals

The Three Ws of Goal Setting

Another framework for setting goals is built around the self-determination theory (SDT) of motivation developed by Deci and Ryan. Before SDT came onto the scene, the prevailing wisdom was that people are strongly motivated by extrinsic rewards that reinforce the right behaviors. SDT posits that intrinsic motivation is more satisfying and leads to higher success rates. In other words, people prefer to pursue goals on their own terms rather than having an external system calling the shots.

In subsequent research, Deci and Ryan have stated that, “differentiating pursuit and attainment of goals in terms of their process (why) and content (what) is important for predicting behavioral quality and mental health.” Essentially this means that WHAT someone is trying to accomplish and WHY it’s important to them both contribute to their overall satisfaction and well-being. We explore the three Ws of goal setting below – What, Why, and a bonus factor (When) that speaks to the importance of deadlines in driving client motivation. 

What

Using the Three W’s framework starts with a simple question: What is your client looking to achieve? Besides encouraging them to consider and articulate their goals clearly, there’s evidence that defining the “what” affects well-being because it’s related to need satisfaction. 

People tend to pursue goals that help them satisfy needs. Experiencing autonomy and competence in the pursuit of successfully achieving the goal leads to positive psychological outcomes. 

Why

Once the what of a goal is in place, understanding why a particular outcome is important to your client helps to establish further context and provide them with a great sense of control. There’s evidence that when people’s motivations are more autonomous they experience greater satisfaction, less tension, and higher intention to persist in treatment.

When

Much like the time-bound component to the SMART goal-setting framework, it’s important for clients to commit to a timeframe for reaching each goal. Deadlines help people overcome procrastination. In addition, publicly committing to a deadline is a powerful motivator and much more effective than a self-imposed deadline that nobody else knows about. 

By agreeing on reasonable deadlines together, you can coach clients to experience more success in reaching their goals. Goals can also be broken down into smaller milestones, each with their own deadlines, to make them more manageable and attainable.

Why framing matters when setting goals

While the end result of a goal is well worth celebrating, much of the value that comes from achieving that goal is in the positive habits clients form along the way. Sticking with those habits is what makes the most impact on long-term health and wellness.  

No matter which method you use to approach setting goals, you also need to be thinking about how you frame each goal for maximum effectiveness. 

Process vs. outcome 

sleeping better, or taming chronic reflux so they can finally kick their PPI meds to the curb. But there are a bunch of behaviors that have to change in order to experience a successful outcome. Research supports the idea that focusing on the processes required to achieve the outcome leads to greater success. 

In one study of health behavior change, getting people to create an action plan for accomplishing their goal and asking them to rate their confidence for carrying out that plan led to more than half making behavior changes consistent with the action plan. We baked actionable steps into our SMART goal template to add a layer of process under the outcomes in that goal-setting framework.

To contextualize the idea of process vs. outcome, imagine a client has a goal to lose 15 lbs. This is the outcome, but there are different ways to achieve it. While your protocol will include a combination of exercise, nutrition, and perhaps even supplements, you can start by focusing on one behavior: walking at least 30 minutes each day. Then the client’s task is to ingrain that behavior by their next visit a month from now. By framing the outcome in terms of specific behavior changes, the client has a clear action plan on how to reach their goal.

Mastery vs. Performance

Framing goals in terms of performance puts the focus on abilities, which can be dangerous. When setbacks occur with a performance focus it’s tempting to interpret the result as failure, with your client’s confidence taking a big hit. 

In contrast, mastery goals are about learning new skills or further developing skills you already possess. In this case, setbacks are not only tolerated, they’re expected and therefore reframed from “failure” to a necessary part of the growth and learning process. 

Returning to our client whose goal is to lose 15 lbs, choosing mastery over performance would mean encouraging them to focus on their progress when it comes to making healthy meals over the number on the scale. That way, if they lose less weight than they hoped to at any particular point on the journey, they are less apt to consider it a failure, and more apt to celebrate their growth in cooking skill and how that will contribute to achieving their goal in the long run. Giving them the opportunity to join a program like an online challenge is another idea to encourage mastery, by connecting with a like-minded community and supporting them to embrace mastery.

Approach vs. Avoidance

In simple terms, approach goals focus on the behaviors you want a client to follow, while avoidance goals focus on behaviors to stop. Let’s look at these two strategies through the lens of our client with weight loss goals. 

Approach goal = Incorporate more vegetables into every meal. Their practitioner could provide meal plan templates and ideas on how to work veggies into omelets, replace salty snacks with crunchy vegetables, and replace a go-to starch with something like riced cauliflower for an added hit of veggie power.

Avoidance goal = Stop eating all refined sugar. This is a cold-turkey goal that will be more difficult to follow, and likely lead to “cheating” or non-compliance, followed by feelings of failure. Indeed, the research shows that people following avoidance goals tend to evaluate themselves more negatively on measures of self-esteem, optimism, and depression. 

What is the best goal-setting process for client retention?

Ultimately, choosing the best goal-setting process will depend on your personal preferences and comfort level using any particular framework. You may even find that while one framework works great with a particular client, a different framework is more effective with another. Experiment to find what works best for you. 

What’s clear is that setting goals can be a great tool for fueling more success and better client retention. With New Year’s resolutions on the horizon, it’s an opportune time to reach out to dormant clients or those who haven’t been consistent with reaching their goals in the past. The “fresh start effect” is in full swing, where people are more likely to have enthusiasm for tackling their goals around temporal landmarks. You can also tap into this effect around seasonal events (like the lead-in to summer) and other big milestones in a client’s life (like a landmark birthday or the arrival of a grandchild). Enthusiasm will only take clients so far, so leveraging a goal-setting process to encourage and support meaningful behavior change is key. 

Help to Get Started: Your SMART Goal Template

Banner: Redeem Your Free Done-For-You Goal-Setting Templates with code CLIENTGOALS2023

We’ve created four form templates in Practice Better that you can use to set goals with your clients. To redeem them all, simply use CLIENTGOALS2023 when creating a form from a template in the Forms and Waivers section of your Practice Better account. Not sure how to access the form bundle? Learn how to add a form template.

Don’t have a Practice Better account yet? Start your 14-day trial and see how Practice Better can help your clients reach their goals. 

Here’s what you can expect from the form template bundle to start off your clients’ goals on the right foot:

Goal-Setting Template

The first is for the client to fill out on their own before meeting with you. The intent is to get them thinking about what’s important to them and the support they need to follow through on goals. 

SMART Goal Template

The second is a SMART goal template designed for you and your clients to work through in tandem. By filling it out together you can drill down and add more color and specificity to their goals.

Goal Update Template

Since tracking is crucial to achieving their goals, we’ve made it easy to get a progress report from your client before your next session with them.

Habit Tracker Template

Encouraging your clients to develop healthy habits will help them see the impact that daily changes have on their overall goals. This weekly habit tracker allows clients to lay out their activities, identify potential obstacles, and help them get closer to achieving their goals.

How to Customize Your Form on Canva

Don’t forget to make a copy of our Canva template.


Practice Better is the complete practice management platform for nutritionists, dietitians, and wellness professionals. Streamline your practice and begin your 14-day free trial today.

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