How to Set Goals in an Unpredictable Year

Learn how to keep moving toward your goals, even when you can’t stick to the plan.

Published: Dec 29, 2020

All of Emilio’s 2020 goals went out the window in March, before he’d had a chance to make much progress on them. As an ambitious professional, he likes to put goals in place at the start of every year, but he isn’t sure if it’s worth it when no one knows what’s in store for 2021.

A Harvard Business School study in the 1980s found that 10 years after graduation, the 3% of MBA graduates who wrote down goals and their plans to accomplish them earned 10 times more than the rest of the class put together. Though those grads didn’t experience a pandemic during that decade, they surely faced other unpredictable events and still experienced success.

Unpredictability isn’t a reason not to set goals. Every year is unpredictable, even when we try to feel in control. So look at the opportunities, both personal and professional, that you want to take advantage of, and get out your pencil and paper.

Unpredictability isn’t a reason not to set goals. Every year is unpredictable, even when we try to feel in control.

Here’s what to consider when goal setting for 2021.

Reflect on the past to prepare for the future.

This year’s challenges revealed the strengths and weaknesses of companies, industries, and individuals, and changed many strategies as a result. “It’s important to set goals that align with the future, not with the past,” says Ryan Frechette, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. Here are some points to consider:

  • How your company or industry has changed or shifted priorities
  • How you’ve changed and developed personally
  • What you’ve learned about yourself
  • How your career development ideas and values have evolved, and what matters to you going forward in your career

Speed up your timelines.

Beware of setting goals that will take a year to achieve. In a quickly evolving world, you may end up working for months toward something that will no longer be relevant if the world pivots. If you do have a long-term goal, break it into smaller pieces that you can achieve within shorter time frames. “As the saying goes, ‘fail fast,’” Frechette says. As you check off each step toward your big goal, assess your direction and pivot your plan as necessary.

Draw upon your resilience.

Chances are, you’ve encountered obstacles and adapted throughout 2020, and built a lot of resilience as a result. Journal about the ways you’ve handled stress, used your emotional intelligence, practiced learning agility, and rebounded from setbacks.

If you end up having to change—or scrap—your list of goals midway through next year, remember that you have the skills to recover and keep moving forward. As uncomfortable as uncertainty is, the soft skills you build during this time will continue to pay off throughout your entire career.

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