Goal setting in uncertain times
For many, events over recent months have a left big question mark over if and how to set goals in this climate. Whilst many people are setting career goals as usual, others are choosing to take each day as it comes. For others, goals have been set over a shorter period than usual. And, for some, goals this year are more internal looking, such as being more present, connected or intentional.
Ultimately, we set goals in line with what’s best for us. Whatever our approach to goals or intentions, we typically set goals to be where we want to be, feel how we want to feel, and create something important and meaningful to us. They give us a degree of control and responsibility in the present time and also for our future, even during uncertain times.
I’ve spent my career helping teams and individuals set their goals in my roles as a HR professional and career coach. Here are my tips as to how you can set goals that stick and create the outcome you really want, regardless of what’s going on around you.
1. Take full responsibility
Whilst many line managers and organisations are very good at supporting career development, similar numbers lack the relevant resources or inclination to do so.
However good or bad your boss or organisation, ultimately you create and drive your career success. Only you know what ultimately you want and don’t want and what works for you and doesn’t work for you. Moreover, your boss/organisation does not have an investment in your future or have to sit with the consequences at a later date. Taking ownership of this process keeps you firmly in the driving seat.
2. Get clear on your vision and connect with the goal
Without any kind of vision, we can lack any clear direction. Yet, when we give ourselves permission to create a vision for our life beyond job titles and salaries, we start to open up our thinking and connect with what’s really important to us.
And, when we visualise something vividly and often enough, our brain thinks it’s real and starts to create new neural pathways to get us there.
Check-in with your values here too. Knowing your values can help you set goals, make decisions and take action with trust and confidence, aligned with you true self.
Also, get clear on your strengths. According to research by Gallup, people who use their strengths daily are six times more likely to be engaged, productive and happy at work and less likely to experience stress or anxiety. Knowing your strengths – what you’re good at, you enjoy and what energises you – can help you set goals and take intentional action for a happier career and lifestyle.
3. Write down SMART goals
Now that you’ve got a greater degree of clarity around what’s important to you, you can start to set meaningful goals.
As you do so, ask yourself, what’s important about this goal? What will it give me? What will happen if I don’t achieve this goal? This can help sift out goals based on expectations that don’t really resonate with you.
Also ask if it will stretch you, move you forward and invigorate you in some way.
“You have to set goals that are almost out of reach. If you set a goal that is attainable without much work or thought, you are stuck with something below your true talent and potential.”
- Steve Garvey (baseball player)
Goals may be:
- Performance-related in terms of a final external outcome i.e. to secure a new job.
- Mastery goals in terms of working on being an expert in a certain area or developing a particular skill or behaviour or way of feeling.
Write them down in the present tense. This helps strengthen the vision of them being real and achievable which sends your brain, believing that you’ve achieved it, to help bring it to life.
Keep it to three-four stretch goals – goals which are going to help you move forward- but are a manageable number to stay motivated and focused.
How to set SMART goals
Set SMART goals as follows:
- Specific – ensure there’s no ambiguity as to what you want to achieve, i.e. I would like to be confident in my job.
- Measurable – how will you know when you have achieved it? i.e. I will be knowledgeable in X areas, I will have self-belief, I will be contributing ideas in meetings.
- Achievable – is it possible to achieve what you want to achieve in the time frame with the resources you have and where you are now?
- Relevant – how does it tie in with your vision and what’s important to you?
- Timebound – state when you would like to have achieved this or have made progress by to keep you focused.
Connect with this goal. Visualise yourself achieving it. How does it feel? If it feels, blah, then perhaps check in with what’s going on – is this the right goal?
4. Create a plan
“Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.” — Pablo Picasso
In my experience, this is where there is the greatest chance of the goal falling by the wayside. The goal can be important, meaningful and desired but if there is no sufficient plan, then it’s possible to get overwhelmed with how to achieve it and motivation is lost.
Break your goals down into quarterly or monthly goals and weekly and daily actions.
- What are the smaller SMART goals that will help you achieve your larger goals?
- What skills and resources do you have?
- What skills and resources do you need?
- Who can help you?
Create a plan. What are the regular activities you commit to taking that will help you achieve these smaller goals? A 30, 60 or 90-day plan may help you focus and stay motivated without a sense of being overwhelmed. A shorter review period also helps you become more adaptable as things change quickly.
Without these activities, the goals simply can’t be reached – action has to take place, no matter how small it is.
James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, tells us that what we repeatedly do (i.e. what we spend time thinking about and doing each day) ultimately forms the person we are, the things we believe, and the personality that we portray.
Research has found that by focusing on the progress rather than achievement and the small steps involved gives us a greater chance of achieving our goal. It removes the notion of the goal being all or nothing or a pass or fail, which can sometimes be frustrating and demotivating.
5. Review and celebrate progress
This is crucial to ensure that you are where you think you are, refine what’s not working, continue with what is, and use the learnings to propel you forward.
Focusing on progress moves away from the ‘pass or fail’ approach to goals. When our path doesn’t work out how we expected, we can feel a sense of disappointment and even failure, yet there are many paths to success and reviewing our action can help us adapt accordingly. If we don’t review our goals, we may underplay progress, lose focus and motivation and/or not realise when we need to change path and adapt.
We can do this by tracking activity. This may be in a notebook or a spreadsheet or a chart on the wall. This visual cue highlights what you’re really doing. Seeing progress is motivating and addictive.
We build confidence when we are in action, proving to ourselves that we can do it so we do it some more. It can feel satisfying and gives us gratification, which is what we naturally seek. If progress isn’t being made, analyse what’s working, what isn’t working and what you’ve learnt.
Acknowledge and celebrate your progress and successes. This is crucial in staying focused and motivated, even when things don’t necessarily go to plan. As humans, we have a tendency to focus on what’s not gone well as our brains want to protect us and keep us safe. Yet, this can then derail us as we lose the confidence and motivation to continue.
Celebrating progress ensures that we are not just focused on the end goal with a pass or fail mentality. The high we get from acknowledging and celebrating how we are progressing, no matter how small, strengthens our motivation to keep going and keeps us moving forward with focus. Also, confidence comes from doing (not thinking about doing) and as we take action, we build confidence and trust in our abilities which celebrating success reinforces.
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