The third week of January, surveys tell us, is when most New Year’s resolutions die, and I’m betting the killing fields are particularly bloody this year.
America may have a new president and the world a handful of effective vaccines, but while hope is on the horizon, it’s a safe bet that 2021 will still be wild. Unpredictability makes resolutions even harder to keep.
Given that none of us knows what the next months will throw at us, should you even try to set goals for yourself and your business? Should you adjust your usual strategy for reaching them? When I went searching for answers to these questions, I discovered that while experts don’t agree on every particular, they all say unpredictable times call for a different approach to goals.
What’s your why now?
Simon Sinek famously advises that if you want to motivate yourself and others, start with ‘why.’ When people understand the reason behind a goal, they’re far more likely to stick with it. That is clearly good advice both before and during a pandemic. But it’s also worth noting that crazy times often lead people to focus on a different ‘why.’
You may have experienced this yourself. Maybe a treasured goal you’d been working steadily towards before the virus struck no longer seems so relevant. Or maybe you’ve noticed your social media feeds filling up with friends who have reconsidered their lives while in lockdown and are moving to be closer to relatives or shifting gears professionally.
These aren’t just random anecdotes. Psychologists have identified something called “the Michelangelo Effect,” which suggests that when we’re forced to confront a crisis, our true deeper desires and truest personality begin to be revealed. Covid is chipping away at your exterior and, hopefully, revealing the David within.
So if you’ve been noticing your goals are shifting, it’s not just you. One survey of goals from a to-do list app, for instance, noted a big upsurge in goals related to family and relationships, for instance. And if you want to actually stick with your goals through the wildness to come, don’t fight these changes. You’re not going to find yourself very motivated if you’re actually chasing the goals of someone else or even an out-of-date version of yourself.
Focus on process, not result.
Even before the world turned insane, goals-setting was dangerous. Sure targets can motivate, but failing to meet milestones you’ve set for yourself can cause you to lose confidence and give up entirely. That’s particularly dangerous in 2021 when thanks to some new upheaval it’s entirely possible to miss your sales target or fitness goals through no fault of your own.
The solution is to focus less on your long-term aim, which isn’t within your control, and more on process, which is. So instead of ‘I’m going to lose 20 pounds this year,’ you might go with ‘I’m going to exercise for 30 minutes a day, four times a week.’ Instead of committing to saving X dollars by the end of the year, you could set a tiny amount each day and add to that when you can.
“In my experience, a better way to approach your goals is to set a schedule to operate by rather than a deadline to perform by,” Atomic Habits author James Clear advised years before anyone knew what ‘flatten the curve’ meant. It’s even better advice now.
One “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,” agrees time management expert Elizabeth Grace Saunders, who offered this example in Fast Company: “a profession-specific process goal would be for a salesperson 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.”
The bottom line is that goals are always hard, and they’re even harder when we’re in the middle of a period of global upheaval. That doesn’t mean you should drift through your days (seriously, that’s a very bad idea). Instead, it means you have to dig deeper into the why and how of what you want to do, and be a lot less focused on hitting a grandiose final goal by a certain far off date. Good luck.