What are Internal Goals?

mindset Jan 30, 2024

“Instead of seeking contentment by trying to change the external world, rather we should think about how to change ourselves (i.e. internally).” William B. Irvine

We all love to set goals for ourselves, and as we start focusing on our goals, it becomes helpful to look at the difference between internal goals and external goals. The truth is, there will be more of a shift in our lives if we start focusing on our internal goals rather than external goals.

Most of us are victims of today's media narrative, social media and social conventions. Conventions that if followed, have the risk of leading us down a miserable and unfulfilling path. We have become pleasure-seekers, we are more anxious than ever before and we have lower levels of attention.  We are spending too much of our time focusing on our external world, which is being sold to us as the route to happiness.  But this is SO wrong!

What exactly are Internal Goals?

Internal goals are the personal objectives that we set for ourselves. Internal goals help us focus on the things we actually have control over. They relate to our sense of purpose in life, our needs and our values, and can help in relation to keeping us deeply motivated and focused. Our internal goals are more concerned with our personal development and growth; such as becoming more self-confident, increasing our emotional intelligence, or learning a new skill for intrinsic pleasure (as opposed to learning the piano in order to impress someone!)

Our external goals are more related to examples such as; our career, buying a new car, going on holidays or getting good grades. The interesting thing is, by focusing internally we are more likely to have better results externally.  For example, if you focus on becoming less judgemental towards yourself, less self-critical, the likelihood is, you will become less judgemental and critical of others.


Why is it important to set Internal Goals?

It is important to focus on setting internal goals because ultimately they will lead to long lasting changes in our lives which will give us higher levels of fulfillment and contentment.  By taking the time to reflect on who we want to be and how we want to react to the highs and lows of life, we can gain a greater sense of purpose and direction. Through reflection and becoming clear on our inner goals, our decision making will become easier and we will feel more motivated.  It’s well known that so many high achievers who have reached the top of their career and have been paid millions are often deeply unhappy, thinking well what next?

Through internal goal setting, we build greater self-worth as we take the time to show ourselves that we are worthy of time, attention and care. Internal goals is where it’s at.  External goals will be much more attainable and feel much easier once you have first focused on the internal.

For further help in internal goal setting, take a look at my blog post on New Year Journaling prompts here


Internal Goal ideas

Image via: positivepsychology.com

The image above is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  This approach suggests that we have to get our most basic needs met before we can reach our full potential.  We need to feel safe on an emotional and physical level before we can step outside of our comfort zone and set a new bar for where we want to go in life.

Once we have our needs met we can be at the top of the pyramid - self-actualisation.  The idea that we can reach our full potential.  We can begin to focus on the goals that will bring us most fulfilment, such as;

  • A healthy, loving relationship that can grow
  • A healthy work-life balance
  • Being open and honest with others, staying true to ourselves
  • Becoming a better listener, therefore others feel safe to turn to us
  • Working out our triggers and pain points
  • Learning emotional equanimity
  • Pursuing a passion
  • Getting creative
  • Engaging with altruism and contributing to others / the world
  • Acquiring new skills
  • Living in alignment with values and needs

Research suggests that intrinsic (internal) life goals are related to greater happiness, self-actualisation, vitality, and satisfaction with life, compared with extrinsic (external) life goals (Ryan et al., 1999; Niemiec et al., 2009).


How does control play a part in this?

To understand the internal and external goals distinction we can begin by looking at:

Things we can control

Our opinions, goals we set, values, character, work ethic, productivity, how we treat others, versus...

Things we cannot control

No control at all - What someone thinks about you, how someone else reacts, the traffic, the weather.

Internal goals include maturing as a person, strengthening your skills, moral values, looking at how you spend your time, finding self-compassion, and living a meaningful life. Internal goals are more realistic for us to accomplish as they are within our control. For example, if we want to feel fitter and stronger, we can create new habits to exercise and eat well, purely focusing on how it makes us feel internally.  This will mean we are likely to stay on track and be consistent, as the mental shift will outweigh any external gains.

There’s a way to shift external goals to a more internal goal focus.  For example: my goal is to get a job promotion at work.  We can shift this to be: my goal is to be the best version of myself at work.  The truth is, reaching a promotion at work will not be within your control.  However, if you focus on being the best version of you, you still have the potential to be promoted, but your focus is on what you can actually control.

If we focus on external goals, for example focusing on what we look like and how attractive we are to others, we are more heavily focused on what other people think of us which is always out of our control. All the gym and healthy eating in the world will never guarantee you are attractive to someone!


Real Life Example

When a client of mine came to me, she had struggled with her body image since her early teens. She was influenced by the outside noise of ‘diet culture’ and had always believed that you exercised in order to lose weight. Because of this, she was never consistent with her workouts and always put a lot of pressure on herself when she didn’t workout, shaming herself for not doing enough. Through understanding the concept of internal and external goals, she shifted her mindset to focusing on exercise as purely an internal goal, which for her, was to improve her mental health. As soon as she made this shift, her exercise routine became consistent, she noticed the benefits on her mind and how good she felt post exercise.  Rather than continually focusing on what exercise would make her look like on the outside and to everyone around her. It became about her, and only her!!

External goals focus on material rewards, peoples opinions, high incomes, social approval and what you look like externally. We want a certain income level, a certain size house in a certain neighborhood, and a certain car to go with it all,  because we believe all those things will impress other people and make us happy. External goals create pressures that don’t need to exist, and can drive us to high levels of anxiety as we try to impress other people… which will always do damage to your self-worth.




Tips for setting internal goals:


Core Values

Take some time to think about what you want to accomplish, short term and long term. It’s important to create a clear vision. This can relate back to your core values, and what you want out of your life. Core values are traits or qualities that represent what you deeply care about, what drives you and what sets your soul on fire. 

When you get clear on what it is that you value, what is it that you believe, you care less about what those around you are doing and you are able to get laser focused on yourself. Think about what core values are important to you eg: growth, happiness, respect, resilience, self-acceptance, being present?

I delve deeper into understanding core values here in my blog on letting go of expectations.


Specific, Measurable, Acheivable

Goals should be specific, measurable, and achievable. For example for personal development you may have low self-confidence and this is an area that you would like to develop. You can start by thinking of something you already like doing ie: exercise, and begin by taking yourself to classes and meeting new people in order to develop your confidence. Any self-improvement will always take you out of your comfort zone!



Create a plan of action.  A great way to track your progress through journaling, is by doing a morning self-evaluation. It has been scientifically proven that by doing this task first thing in the morning is most beneficial as it provokes clarity and comfort and you can channel that morning energy to have a more successful start to your day. Tracking your progress and focusing on the small wins that you have achieved daily will help you stay focused and motivated on the goals that you are going after. Achieving the goals you set out for takes time, therefore making note of it, will help you see the changes and keep you motivated.

Question examples could be:

  • What specific goal do I want to achieve? 
  • What are the steps I need to take to get there? 
  • Why do I want to reach that goal? 
  • How would my life change if I achieved that goal? 
  • How do I expect to feel after I reach that goal? 
  • What problem do I want to solve by reaching that goal? 
  • What have I done so far?
  • What can I do today to start working towards that goal?



In conclusion, setting and achieving both internal and external goals is an essential part of personal and professional development. By having a clear vision, setting specific, measurable, and achievable goals, prioritizing internal goals, creating a plan of action, staying focused and motivated, and regularly reviewing and adjusting your goals, you can achieve your goals, feel fulfilled, and reach your full potential. Focusing on your internal goals will help you reach your external goals in a much more aligned way.  If we just focus on the external, we are likely going to end up feeling disappointed, disheartened and frustrated.  Internal goals are within your control whereas external goals are not within your control.


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Written By Sophie Dear


In 2015 I was signed off work due to insomnia and anxiety. I was incredibly stressed both physically & mentally and as a result I suffered from numerous health problems. I trained as a yoga teacher & began to heal myself through meditation & movement. However I soon burnt out for a second time 2 years into my teaching journey. Becoming a yoga teacher hadn’t magically transformed me - I realised I needed to do the deeper work!

Want to listen to my full story? Check out some of the podcast episodes I've been featured on.

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