How to set goals in uncertain times

When the future feels precarious, striving toward healthy goals can seem daunting. Here, an expert shares realistic strategies to help you reset and stay on track in a sideways world.

Even in the best of times, setting and working toward personal goals isn’t always easy. Never mind now: In light of ongoing hardship and uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic, you could get the sense that any future planning is pretty much a pipe dream.

Fortunately, healthy change is possible—even during challenging times. If you’re considering a personal reset for 2021, a few simple strategies can help turn wellness goals into reality. Below, a mental health expert offers five tips for achieving positive growth when the world feels unpredictable.

Start from the heart

Difficult times have a way of shaking up our priorities, says Dr. Brian Wind, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Nashville, Tennessee. His advice: Begin the goal-setting process by reflecting on what feels relevant and meaningful to you right now. Otherwise, he says, “we’re not likely to stick with goals that don’t resonate with who we want to be or become.”

For example, if it’s important for you to enjoy outdoor activities with the kids in your life, you might decide that improving your physical strength and stamina are means to this end. Or if you find that you’ve been feeling too exhausted to thrive as a leader in your workplace or community, developing a self-care routine and building better sleep habits might be worthy aims. Effective goals bring to life your values—not what others assume is best for you.

ID your action steps

With so many unknowns hanging over our collective future, charting a clear, actionable path toward personal goals can be especially helpful. “The more precise we are in our goal setting, the more likely we are to accomplish what we set out to, since we have a clearer picture of the what, when, and how to do it,” Dr. Wind says.

Once you’ve landed on a big-picture intention—for example, eating a healthier diet—it’s time to drill down and brainstorm specific steps. In this case, you might say, “I will prep four dinners a week with at least two servings of veggies in each.” Then see how that goes. Says Dr. Wind, “Specific goals provide road maps for what we need to do.”

Add; don’t subtract

Changing a behavior is sometimes easier when we have a rewarding alternative to take its place, Dr. Wind says. So rather than pouring your energy into breaking a habit, he suggests adding healthy habits to your rotation. Let’s say you want to cut back on sugary desserts in your diet: A goal such as, “I’ll slice up fresh fruit each morning for a healthy, sweet snack I can enjoy throughout the day” probably feels a lot more doable than a grim vow to “quit cookies.”

Some people also find it helpful to keep a list of backup ideas handy in case an unwanted urge pops up, Dr. Wind adds. Options might include stepping outside for fresh air, calling a friend for a chat, listening to a guided meditation that helps you feel grounded, or engaging in a favorite hobby that redirects your attention.

Aim for what’s in reach

Much about the world feels heavy right now. Helpful goals will reflect your current reality and won’t overburden you. “Setting your sights on what you’re confident you can achieve—rather than what feels beyond reach—helps ensure you do what you set out to and feel accomplished rather than overwhelmed,” Dr. Wind says.

One useful technique for forming achievable goals: Work within a foreseeable time frame—say, one to three months instead of a full year out. “We’re better at planning for a near future we can envision vs. a distant one we can’t see as clearly,” Dr. Wind says. And don’t worry about your goals being “too easy.” If you accomplish what you set out to do, congrats! From there, you can level up with new goals that support your progress.

Plan to stay flexible

Chances are, you’ll still experience moments (or, y’know, weeks) when following through on a healthy plan feels hard. That’s 100% normal even when there isn’t a pandemic upending daily life. Approach it as an opportunity to take stock: What’s been working so far? What’s getting in your way? “Reflect on everything you’ve accomplished until that moment and refocus on what you can do to feel more on track,” Dr. Wind advises. And know that even the most carefully conceived plans don’t always come to fruition. Being kind and patient with yourself can help empower you to change course if you need to—and keep moving forward.

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Katherine Schreiber, MFA, LMSW, is a social worker and freelance journalist in New York City. She is the author of The Truth About Exercise Addiction: Understanding the Dark Side of Thinspiration. Follow her on Twitter @ktschreib.