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4 Strategies for Setting—and Achieving—Goals During COVID-19

By Steve Calechman
December 30, 2020

With 2020 already in the books, we’re faced with the prospect of making resolutions for 2021.

And frankly, we’d rather not.

Goals require planning, stamina, and resilience in the best of times, and these are not the best of times. We’re exhausted and have had enough of limits. Some may feel this is the year to forgo resolutions altogether, and few would question the decision; but, Robyn Landow, Ph.D., a New York City psychologist counsels that instead, this is time to stay the course. “Definitely don’t take the year off,” she says. “There’s never a time when you can’t create a goal.”

Making resolutions can actually help with the ongoing uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. “Goals are plans,” says Art Markman, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin and author of Bring Your Brain to Work. And making plans to try new activities, start new habits, or explore new avenues can turn a dreary winter spent in lockdown into something more bearable. “Learning a new thing helps differentiate the days.”

The trick is in the kind of goals you choose to set for yourself. Resolutions always take thought and planning. In 2021, they also require looking not only at what we want to do, but at what’s actually possible to do. As Landow advises, “You just have to be very realistic.”

Here’s what to consider:

Scale Down the Scope

When making New Year's resolutions, people often start too big and the resolutions become impossible to maintain. Instead, suggests Landow, start with mini goals and keep to a short time frame. Because while the next six months are unclear, “We kind of know the next two weeks,” she says. This may sound obvious, but pick something that’s doable now; so, goals like accepting more invites to parties or traveling might have to be backburnered until the COVID-19 situation is more resolved. So, your of-the-moment goals might end up being Resolution B or C—and something that you can start on January 1. Markman adds that just the knowledge that your goal is possible, and isn’t susceptible to any shutdowns, is a boost in itself. With this approach, you get early wins, your confidence grows, and it makes it easy to ramp up your commitment.

Find Your Connection

When you start a resolution with, “I should …,” you’re starting from behind. “We turn things we want to do into things we need to do, which turns them into chores,” says Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of How to Be Yourself. By ditching, “I need to take more classes this year,” for “Learning is important to me,” it becomes about the process, which is a more controllable element than the outcome. This switch also gives your goal more resonance, which helps when you’re pushing out of your comfort zone. “Connecting to the why increases your willingness to do something hard,” says Jill A. Stoddard, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and author of Be Mighty. And then make whatever you want to do as enjoyable as it can be. If your resolution is to read more, you can set your goal to finish one book on a subject you're excited about. “There’s this weird belief that if it’s good for you, it can’t be fun, and if it’s fun, it can’t be good for you,” Markman says. “That doesn’t have to be true.”

Make It Hard to Miss

Whatever you need for the resolution, make it as visible as possible. If it’s cooking, put a big skillet on the stove. Exercise? Invest in some small weights, placed in a prominent spot in your home. Reading? Buy an actual book, not an e-version. Anything that takes up physical space serves as its own constant reminder to give it attention. It also helps to put a sign up on your refrigerator of what you’re striving for, then tick off chapters, miles, recipes completed on a calendar or a piece of paper, anything to give your success a quantitative look. “It’s there in the environment,” Markman says.

The other element is accountability. Make others know what you’re trying to do. They’ll ask about your progress and that can keep you committed. You can also partner up with a friend and do resolutions together over Zoom. And remember, once it’s scheduled, you’re both committed to holding each other to that schedule. You can have the same goal, and that can add to the excitement and support, but it can also just be doing different things together. “Someone is just there, it puts pressure on you," notes Landow.

Use Limitations to Your Advantage

While the start of 2021 brings restrictions, it also means that expectations are lower. You’re most likely not going to be around large groups or in the office, so this is a chance to experiment with goals that may have felt awkward to initiate under the gaze of others. If you’ve toyed with the idea of going vegan, trying yoga, giving up beer, or making your own clothes, this might be the time to try, Landow says.

But this is also an opportunity to fill in what’s been missing from your life. It could be traveling or seeing shows—goals that might have to wait until later in the year when it's safer to do so. But another big element that is missing is social connection. And your right-now resolution could be to reach out to three friends every week, and doing so checks a lot of boxes. It makes you feel good. It makes the other person feel good, and it’s always achievable, offering you a sense of accomplishment. As Hendriksen says, “A goal should be concrete enough so you can check it off your list.”

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