How to effectively set goals during a pandemic

New Year’s resolutions not go to plan? It’s not too late to make the most of the year. We’ve rounded up research on goal setting to help you effectively reach yours.

2021 is finally upon us. While we are still struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic, for many a new year and the hope of vaccines marks a fresh start that allows us to leave behind the previous year and hope for better things. Whether you’re the “new year, new me” type, or would just like to focus on something other than the current state of the world, we’ve rounded up some research and advice on goal setting to help you stay on track this year.

Don’t put too much pressure on yourself.

It’s been almost a year of restrictions and everyone is tired of the situation. It’s not necessarily the time to be pushing to be your best self. Prioritising your mental health and the basic things to keep yourself okay, such as sleep, getting some fresh air, eating regularly and maintaining some contact with friends or family will always be more important in times like these than being super productive or achieving lofty goals.

Think critically about the meaning behind your goals.

Are you planning to read 20 books this year because you enjoy it and learn from it, or because you think others will think higher of you for doing so? Make sure your goals have personal value for you, and you’ll be more likely to keep up with them despite obstacles or difficulties. Write down a list of goals, and then have a think about why you wrote them down. Ask yourself:

  • What will you gain from it and why is that important to you?
  • Would you do it if social media didn’t exist, or if your friends don’t know about it?

Try an open goal

While goal theory has focused mainly on SMART goals (Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-based) evidence is emerging that open goals could be more effective in achieving what we want to achieve.

SMART goals are binary- you either achieve them or you don’t. If you plan to not drink soda for 30 days, and give in for one day, you’ve failed that goal (and often don’t see a point continuing with it). However, not drinking soda for 10 days could be a big achievement for someone who usually drinks a can a day. While SMART goals can be effective in business management, there is evidence that open goals could be more beneficial for personal growth, especially when learning something new.

Open goals are framed as “see how well you do”. For example: “See how many days I can go without soda”, or “See how many kilometres I can run this month”.

A study on effects of open goals on physical activity found that open goals elicited the highest satisfaction and intent to repeat the activity, while SMART goals elicited more pressure and tension. Another study found that open goals were more effective for those who were not already sufficiently active.

Set an open goal by deciding what you want to improve or try, and then figuring out how you want to measure it, and a time frame. Here are some ideas:

  • I want to see how many books I can finish this month.
  • I want to see how many kilometres I can run this year.

Start small and achievable.

Starting with small goals that are relatively easy to achieve will help to get yourself going. Starting with something big and difficult increases the chances you’ll give up and be put off goal setting entirely. Alternatively, break one big goal into small chunks and start easy. Set one or two goals at a time and add to them or set new ones as you achieve them.

Track your progress somewhere visible

Create a calendar to put up on your wall or by your computer to cross off days completed, keep a tally, or take regular photos of how you’re getting on. Seeing your goals in front of you keeps them in the front of your mind and helps you stay motivated.

For now, set goals that you can work on at home, with few people

Many of us are still living under national restrictions that are lifted and tightened as the days and weeks go on. Until the world situation improves, try to set goals that are achievable under the tightest regulations. This way, you don’t have to worry about which restrictions are in place at which times, and can maintain continuity and focus until the situation improves. Keeping that purpose and routine of working towards the goal is a great way to feel in control while waiting for things to improve

Here are some examples:

  • Spend more time cooking and planning meals.
  • Learn how to braid hair
  • Do stretches every morning.
  • Work on a hobby you’ve neglected or try a new one.

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