One morning last week, I sat at home drinking coffee instead of being out for what I call my “sunrise run.” I savored every mouthful, searching for any gratitude and positivity I could find.
I was struggling with the realization that all my confidence that I had learned the lessons of 2020 had disappeared — along with any confidence that my goals for 2021 were now in any way relevant.
I was trying to pick up the pieces after yet another hammer blow from this remorseless pandemic.
It was only a few weeks ago that I had described the pain of an enforced six-month separation from my husband, then the joy of our reunion and our plans to celebrate with a dream holiday to replace the one we had to cancel.
Goal Setting in Lockdown
But the Coronavirus was not finished with us. Just as I was congratulating myself on the way I had handled our situation and life in lockdown in South Africa, the virus bit back — hard.
My husband had returned to work in West Africa and, days away from coming home, we learned that a surge in COVID cases had closed the borders once more. Our plans were in tatters, our holiday once more just a mirage.
I had set goals, planned work, and started 2021 with a clean slate and big ideas. But someone must have hit the “repeat 2020” button. I, who had powered through similar events so strongly last year, fell apart spectacularly. I cried. Hours and hours of heart-deep “ugly crying.”
But, sitting down with my coffee, I realized that I had set 2021 goals with a 2020 mindset. I actually need different types of goals to reflect the likely ongoing unpredictability of 2021. I need to be adaptable.
I’m usually very flexible in my life and work, but that has never been reflected in my goals. Now, my first goal for 2021 reads, “Be flexible in everything, all the time. Rigidity will make me break. Flexibility will help me bend and adapt.”
A New Approach for 2021
My traditional goals — all centered around career, learning and financials — now include more personal aims, and more learning. So-called “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” have been be replaced with small, consistent, but nevertheless powerful actions.
And I’m not the only one reassessing the way I approach goal setting for 2021. Surveys conducted by Mind Tools’ parent company, Emerald Works, show a huge increase in the number of people setting goals for 2021.
Nahdia Khan is Emerald Works’ Head of Learning Community and Customer Voice, and she was my co-host for Friday’s #MTtalk Twitter chat.
Nahdia said, “In the post-Christmas lull, it’s normal to evaluate your personal and professional goals for the coming year.
“And as we bid farewell to a tumultuous 2020 and look forward to a more stable 12 months, people are slowly but surely starting to exercise more thoughtful control over aspects of their lives.
“Before the pandemic, 52 percent [of those surveyed] described themselves as having personal goals and a development plan. But during COVID, this increased to an astonishing 75 percent. 
Is Professional Goal Setting Easier?
“We’ve all had so much more time to reflect on where our priorities have lain in the past, and where they should actually lie.”
For me, my priorities are spending quality time with the people I love and care about. When it’s safe to do so, I’ll visit my parents. Not half-working and half-visiting — I want to be with them and be fully present.
Similarly, when my husband is home again, I’ll have clear boundaries around work so that I’m not “sort of” with him while working disjointedly, and feeling frustrated by both.
I’m going to relax more, spent time in nature, laugh more, exercise regularly and maintain a healthy weight.
But Nahdia’s research shows that, generally speaking, we are not good at prioritizing genuinely “personal” goals. Only 11 percent of people surveyed set themselves personal goals since COVID began, compared with a still modest 13 percent before the pandemic.
Nahdia said, “Are professional goals easier to set, and stick to, than personal goals? After all, aspirations within our careers are often built on the pre-existing foundations of our companies, and so provide us with a ready-made framework around which we can organize and arrange our ambitions.
“When it comes to our personal lives, goals are harder to set, not least because they are highly specific to us as individuals: blueprints on how best to achieve them are far less readily available.”
Another important factor explored by Nahdia and her team was the psychological impact of the pandemic and other stressors. Personal goals for 2021 are considered almost a luxury.
Nahdia said, “For huge swathes of the population, 2020 was about surviving, not thriving. Lots of us felt fortunate and privileged to even remain in employment, and the psychological safety provided by a steady and reliable source of income is difficult to overstate.”
Rethinking Goal Setting: What’s Really Important?
During our #MTtalk Twitter chat Nahdia and I guided the discussion on resetting our goal setting.
Here are the questions we asked, and a selection of thought-provoking answers from participants in the chat:
Q1. What’s the point of setting goals with so much uncertainty around?
@AnuMeera2024 goals bring much-needed structure where nothing is certain. All the more important as it gives a plan or sense of working toward a goal, no matter how small it is. That helps to reduce anxiety of uncertainty or feeling lost.
@SocialSMktg Having something to focus on gives one a sense of stability. We focus on the goal, we change our tactics. Tactics change not the goal.
RossGarnerEW Goals let other people know what we’re working on too. They can protect us from getting overwhelmed with new requests.
Q2. How have the events of 2020 influenced your thinking about goal setting?
@comhunicate I now plan on what I can control, and have a very flexible event horizon looking forward.
@Mushcado 2020 (and now) hasn’t changed how I view goals at all. If they need to change, change them.
Q3. What are you doing differently regarding your goal setting process for 2021?
@CoachHollyW I’m intentionally setting up small wins toward the beginning of the year, so I can stay motivated, engaged, and continue to gain momentum for the bigger goals I have set toward the end of 2021.
@Mphete_Kwetli Collaboration is key in winning. Plan ahead and reflect on changes, and take chances/opportunity to inspire others.
Q4. Do you ever look back to previous goals in setting goals for the future? Why?
Data collected by @EW_Research highlights that learners were looking at past goals in setting future goals. This has increased hugely: 59 percent pre-COVID to 86 percent during COVID.
@Midgie_MT Yes, I look back to help me to adjust my current goals. Did I aim too high or too low? Did I tackle too many big goals or do I need to focus on fewer big goals?
@J_Stephens_CPA Yes. If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know yourself well. Look at what made you struggle with a goal that you may not have reached. If it’s in your control, adjust. If not, consider it in your plan.
Q5. What stops you from setting goals, and what could you do to overcome that?
@NgukaOduor I have never set goals before, since I didn’t love me enough. Also, everything seemed so far-fetched since nobody in my family had done so before. Now I learn and want to learn from those who have achieved their goals. Everything is possible.
@lg217 The main reasons that goals are stopped is lack of organization, stress, or not working to your full potential. The best way to stop this is by coming up with a game plan to accomplish your goals and stick with it.
Q6. How can you set goals related to intangible things such as joy, happiness or peace?
@ZalkaB Think of your life and identify areas where you’d like to do more of what makes you happy, where you’d like to experience more peace. Then look at small actions you can apply to change what you’re missing. Small changes can make big differences.
@MapDorcas Tricky one, as intangible things are subject to individual perception. I guess by actually enjoying both the means and the end? Not being too prescriptive?
Q7. How much of your personal goal setting is about learning and development?
@llake Off-hand, I’d say it’s a thread of 100 percent of every goal. Life is about learning and the growth it brings.
@MicheleDD_MT I am an avid learner, so many of my personal goals focus on learning and development: learning to roll a kayak, trying a new hobby or developing a new skill. It’s all learning.
Q8. What would you like from your manager to support you in setting your goals? How critical is their feedback?
@MarkC_Avgi Feedback from managers has always been beneficial, but even more so now when many are working remotely, both from the perspective of the individual and their manager. The loss of in-person contact has had a significant impact on morale and mental health.
@carriemaslen Development plans should be employee owned and manager supported. Lots of ideas that are no cost: shadowing, reading, podcasts etc.
Q9. How have you changed how you set your team’s goals for 2021?
@NahdiaKhan Support for managers so that they can support their teams will be vitally important.
@Yolande_MT I think people have realised the value of managing according to output and values, rather than hours. Hopefully they’ve adjusted their goals accordingly.
Q10. What support or accountability will you put in place to help them progress with their goals?
@JKatzaman Think of goals as content creation where we all need editors. The strongest goals will reflect the review of a trusted partner and coach, who can suggest filling in weak points and keep you from going overboard and into frustration.
@ColfaxInsurance I heard from someone last year that they have an “accountability wall,” where they post sticky notes saying what they did to reach a particular goal each day/week/month/etc and then they talk about these milestones at team meetings, and I LOVE it!
Over the past weeks, we’ve explored and discussed self-care, lessons we’ve learned, and rethinking our goal setting. In our next #MTtalk chat in the “Reflect, Recover & Reset” series, we’ll be talking about building our mental muscle, with guest host, Dr Supriya Dhongde. In our poll this week, we’d like to know what has most helped you to become mentally stronger. To see the poll and cast your vote, please click here.
In the meantime, here are some resources to help you rethink your goals and adapt to achieve them. (You’ll need to be a Club member or a Corporate licensee to access them all in their entirety.)
 Data taken from: the Learning Health Check with a sample size of n=1123 learning leaders and the Learner Intelligence with a sample size of n=5644 (Pre-COVID), and n=1036 (During COVID) employees.