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Defining A Goal

Updated: Jun 27, 2023

A new year is around the corner, and it’s common to see the new year as a new chance to start fresh, new year – new me! It’s also common for us to set goals that we simply won’t meet. Why do we seem to have the same goals over and over each new year? Likely it’s because we’re not overly successful in our pursuit of these resolutions. I asked my Instagram followers (@stacie_dertinger_bcba) if they were successful in achieving the resolutions they set for 2021 and 86% of respondents said “no”. It’s not for lack of motivation, or desire to change, but more likely it’s a result of stating resolutions in terms of a “dream” more than a “goal”.

Once you’ve identified the general area that you’re resolute about changing in 2022, you want to get specific about what exactly you’re talking about. In Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), want to break down each behaviour into clear operations, “an operation is any act that affects the environment “when terms are broken down into objectively observable and measurable components, they are said to be operationally defined” (Mayer et al., 2012, p.54). When trying to specific your goal in an operational definition you want it to be objective, clear and complete. Let’s use an example and show how you can take your goal area and create a specific behaviour to target in your new year’s resolution. Let’s use one of the common resolutions of wanting to “improve my diet”.

Objective – when defining the behaviours you will engage in toward your resolution, you want to make sure you state it in objective clearly observable terms. Objective means it outlines the behaviours in terms of what can be seen or heard in the environment – often Behaviour Analyst will use the “stranger test”, meaning if you gave your definition to a stranger on the street, could they correctly identify when the behaviour was or was not occurring. Your behaviour should not include any reliance on assumptions, judgments, or intent of private events, and speak only to operations you can observe overtly in the environment.

An objective definition of “improve my diet” might start with me outlining what a good diet looks like – maybe there is a vegetable or leafy green in every meal, maybe it’s that I include at least two different colours of food in each meal, maybe it’s that I have three meals and two snacks daily, maybe it’s consuming 4L of water daily or eating at least 2 fruit servings per day. As you can see, these are all things that can be observed by anyone in my environment, and they also all focus on what I SHOULD do- not what I shouldn’t. Nowhere here does it focus on me not eating a gingerbread cookie each night with a cup of hot cocoa…just as a hypothetical of course. Because we’re still constructional in our approach. We want to focus on what we WOULD see if I was engaging in an improved diet. I also avoid things like “eats a healthy portion” because I’m not sure I would even know what that was if I saw it – some days my portions are huge some days they’re small – is one of these more healthy than the other? That relies on judgement and assumptions, subjective information that is not part of a good operational definition.

Clear – when defining the behaviours you’ll engage in toward your resolution, you want them to be clear. Having a clear start and stop point and making sure that you’re looking at a behaviour. In terms of a clear start and stop point you want to know when the behaviour will be measured and occurring and when it’s over. If I’m looking at improving my diet, am I going to be concerned with every morsal of food I consume or am I going to focus on just the big things – just big meals and snacks, but not the bits and bites that sneak in through the day. When I put my plate away for example, that would be the end of an “improved diet” opportunity, or when I create my plate of food that would be the beginning of an “improved diet” opportunity. But if a couple of peanuts sneak into my hand when making dinner, that is not something I want to concern myself with in this behavioural resolution.

In terms of checking that you’re measuring a behaviour, we often use the “dead man’s” test when assessing if what I’m doing is referring to a behaviour or not. If a dead man cannot it, it’s not behaviour. For example, a dead man doesn’t eat dessert – so not eating dessert is not a behaviour. It is in fact the absence of a behaviour, so we don’t want to include this in our definition. Similarly, a dead man can leave a bite on the plate, so this is not a behaviour.

Complete – completeness refers to providing examples and non-examples of what you’re talking about in your resolution. I hinted at this earlier with my peanut example. I’m not concerned with a few bites that sneak into my diet, but I’m only focused on the meals and snacks through the day. To help with the objective definition of my behaviour I want to include examples and non-examples of what “improved diet” looks like or doesn’t. For example, improved diet would look like having a high protein breakfast such as eggs with bacon, or the Starbucks egg bites (my weakness), it does not include having a protein shake since although this is high in protein, I don’t consider shakes “food” for my own diet.

Once you have your behaviour outlined in objective, clear and complete terms you’ve got the operational definition to support your New Year’s resolution. Here is what it might look like all put together:

I am going to work on improving my diet in 2022. An improved diet will refer to anytime I have one of my three meals or two snacks in the day and includes but is not limited to having a protein rich breakfast, leafy greens or vegetables with every meal or snack, drinking 4 L of water per day. For example, improving my diet consists of having eggs and bacon for breakfast with some spinach in my eggs, and a glass of water but does not include having a protein shake for breakfast. Improving my diet is limited to the times where I am eating one of my three meals or two snacks and does not include any other bits and bites through the day.

Now that we have our behaviour more clearly defined, the next step is to figure out how to track it and measure how successful we’re going to be. This is often the step that is left out of the resolution process, and much to our own demise. Without data we don’t know what’s realistic, and we can’t measure our success or assess when it’s time to make changes!

Previous: Setting a new year’s resolution

Up next: How do you measure your new goals?


Mayer, G. R., Sulzer-Azaroff, B., & Wallace, M. (2012). Behavior analysis for lasting change. Sloan Publishing.


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