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How to set goals for 2021 when everything feels uncertain

This year may not be the time for stringent New Year’s resolutions, but you can still create moments to look forward to.

How to set goals for 2021 when everything feels uncertain
[Photo: Joshua Earle/Unsplash]
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Typically the start of a new year brings a natural renewed enthusiasm for goal setting. The final digit of the year is turning, and you’re looking ahead to a hopeful new 12 months, refreshed and ready for your dreams and plans.

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But this new year feels different. Last January, we never could have imagined what would transpire throughout the course of 2020. And unfortunately, much of it wasn’t good. You, like almost every single person in the world, likely saw many dreams and plans crumble to the ground or get modified, in some cases beyond recognition.

And the coming year is still uncertain. In some parts of the United States and the world, life is seem to be pretty much back to normal with businesses reopened and people living life no differently than they did at the beginning of 2020. And in other places in the US and abroad, there are severe restrictions that make any semblance of normalcy almost impossible.

All this makes it very understandable that you might balk at the idea of making any goals for 2021. But before you dismiss the idea as foolish in light of all the uncertainty, hear what I have to say. As a time management coach who has been working with clients all over the United States and the world, I’ve found that goal-setting is actually more essential right now, in order to maintain your productivity but also your sanity.

Here’s how to set goals while we continue to face uncertainty.

Interrogate that “why bother?” attitude

Throughout 2020, I’ve seen more and more people fall into hopelessness about their present and about their future. Inevitably, this leads curtailing goal-setting and trying to make the most of the present situation.

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But this is the biggest mistake you could make.

One of my personal secrets to life success is, You only fail if you stop trying. If you haven’t stopped trying, you haven’t failed because there is always another chance to try again.

Despite the unknowns of 2021, setting goals still has great value. Having goals gives you a sense of self-determination that you have the autonomy to make choices for your life and the competence to achieve them. This is a key component of mental and emotional health. Goals provide a sense of focus so you aren’t drifting through your day without purpose or motivation to be effective at work or thoughtful with your time outside of your job. Goals provide a sense of accomplishment, which can give you a hit of dopamine, a brain chemical that makes you feel happy. And goals can be an excellent distraction from thinking about all the things in the world that you have no control over and can feel extremely anxiety producing.

Setting goals for 2021 is worth it for all of the above reasons. Also when you set goals, you receive the wonderful reward of being more likely to achieve the things that are truly important to you.

Through my work this year, I’ve seen that even if you’re in a part of the country or the world with more restrictive measures, you still can set and achieve goals.

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Schedule goals

One type of goal that you could set for 2021 is a schedule goal. One of the biggest themes that I’ve seen throughout this year is that not going into the office or having things like gyms consistently available has really caused people’s schedules to slip. Two of the biggest areas of “slip” have been sleep schedules and work start times.

I’ve seen many people stay up later than they would prefer due to kids being up later who don’t have in-person school as well as due to falling into extra hours in front of the TV or scrolling the Internet. This then leads to sleeping in later, skipping their morning routines, and in some cases starting work much later than they would like.

If you find yourself in this cycle, I recommend you make a goal around when you will go to bed and when you wake up. Relatedly, make a goal around when you will start work in the morning. Then aim to be as consistent as possible with those targets. For schedule goals, as well as the other following goals, a habit tracking app can help you measure your progress.

Process goals

Another category of goal that is completely within your control is “process” goals, or focusing on standardized routines that will help lead to the results that you want in life.

For example, I’m a big advocate of daily and weekly planning. Those are habits that I encourage all of my coaching clients to develop because they have such a dramatic impact on peace and productivity. If planning is not your favorite, you could at least make it a goal to do daily planning and have a written map of what you intend to do for the day.

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Other process goals can vary depending on your job and personal circumstances. An example for a profession-specific process goal would be for a sales person to have a goal to follow up on a certain amount of leads each week. You can’t guarantee sales, but you can choose to practice consistency in a measured process that can lead to the outcomes you desire.

Action goals

While process goals are around following a system, action goals are focused on doing what you say you want to do. For example, you might make a goal to exercise four times a week. So, if your typical gym or class studio is not available these days, you can still find ways to workout at home or if possible, outside.

An action goal at work might include tackling a project that has long been gathering dust on your to-do list. To start making progress, pick one or two of these key projects each month to focus on and accomplish.

Stretch goals

Stretch goals are the icing on the cake of your 2021 goals. These types of goal are particularly important because they involve certain achievement in your life you would typically get excited about, and now which may or may not happen. You might be able to travel, or you might not. You might be able to go to concerts, or you might not. You might be get that promotion at work, or you might not.

It’s acceptable to think about what you might want to do on these uncertain fronts in 2021. But I wouldn’t make them your only goals that give you something to anticipate. Instead, come up with some stretch goals that you can do even if everything is not open. For example, you might want to learn a language, practice an instrument, complete a certification, read certain books, or volunteer on a bigger level—like I’m getting certified to be a foster parent.

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Come up with stretch goals that are really within your control and can feel excited and satisfied about tackling. This way, you won’t sink into a feeling there’s nothing to look forward to, so why bother being efficient or staying off your phone because everything is always going to stink anyway.

I highly encourage you to set goals that you can focus on in the months ahead. We all might know what will happen in 2021, but we can still have a great year.