BY CAROLINE BENNER, Greater Good Science Center
Here’s how to predict which of your goals will feel meaningful and achievable.
Some of us, like Sean LaRochelle of Napa, California, have goals that benefit from the changes a pandemic brings. LaRochelle used the time at home during the pandemic to build a replica of the Matterhorn, the Disney roller coaster, in his backyard.
But many of us have spent the year struggling with setting and achieving goals. “Some goals will be harder to achieve during the pandemic simply because they will have been thwarted by circumstances outside of people’s control,” says Jilly Gibson Miller of the University of Sheffield, U.K. “Some goals may have actually become totally unachievable so people will have been left with the disappointment of having to put something off, wait, or give up on their goals.”
If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. But feeling like you’re in limbo or constantly failing to live up to your expectations for yourself may only be adding to your pandemic stress. New Year’s is a good time to consider which of your goals to let go of until the pandemic is over, and how to connect with goals that feel more achievable and personally meaningful.
1. Eschew goals that are vague or outside your control
The environments we live and work in have become disordered during the pandemic. For many of us, schedules are disrupted, the kids are home, and there is no office to go to.
While it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless, it’s not inevitable. In a study in early 2020 in Germany, Cort Rudolph of the University of Saint Louis found that people who felt a sense of personal control around the pandemic were more satisfied with life and experienced greater positive emotions and lower negative emotions. “Maintaining a sense of personal control over one’s goals seems to be especially important now, and in particular for one’s well-being,” he says.
What does this mean for your goals or resolutions? Writing a novel, for example, is something that is eminently within your control. It’s a better choice for a goal now than trying to get a novel published, which is hard to feel you have control over. Or you can focus on the parts of a goal that are in your control. If you are looking for a new job, you can’t control whether someone hires you, but you can control how many resumes you send out.
A second study led by Bob Fennis of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands sheds light on what happens to our goals in rocky times. “When environmental cues trigger an experience of disorder . . . and hence when they are motivated to restore perceptions of order, people are more attracted to clear, well-defined goals and motivated to attain them,” the study found. For example, if you want to write in your journal more often, make the goal and process to achieve it unambiguous: Write one page, on whatever topic you feel like writing about, three days a week, as soon as you wake up.
In addition, the study suggests that goal setting itself can actually bring a sense of order to our lives in times of chaos. So holding on to some realistic goals during the pandemic may actually help us get through it.
2. Ditch the goals that feel externally imposed
Some of the goals we set are truly authentic to us, stemming from our deepest desires. Others are more external, inspired by what the people or society around us value. And these kinds of goals may be even harder to achieve during a global pandemic.
“It might not be a good idea to focus too much on externally imposed or socially desirable goals that are not personally endorsed because these goals are experienced as a burden, and now this might be accentuated even more,” says Michail Kokkoris of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.
Instead, consider pursuing goals that align with who you are and what you value. “Self-concordant goals facilitate goal attainment,” Kokkoris continued. “For example, in our research we have found that one reason why people with high self-control are more successful at goal pursuit is that they choose goals that reflect their true selves,” he said.
So losing weight because your mom said you should may not be the best goal to pursue right now. Instead, ask yourself what you value particularly at this moment. Perhaps the growing mental health crisis terrifies you. Or you have been appalled by recent displays of racial injustice. Then ask if any of your goals serves these values. Writing a children’s book about kindness when kindness is one of your deeply held values would be a better pandemic goal—or at least one you’re more likely to achieve—than following your mom’s advice to lose weight.
In many ways, the pandemic is helping to remind us of what truly matters, and that can apply to our goals, too.
3. Stay away from performance-avoidance goals
For a performance-avoidance goal, you view yourself as in competition with others, and your main objective in that competition is to not fail. For example, you are planning to run a 5K race and your goal for the race is to not finish last.
A study led by Andrees Stan of the University of Pitesti, Romania, found that students have higher test anxiety when they are pursuing performance-avoidance goals and trying not to look incompetent at school.
In other words, it’s stressful to be competitive and constantly afraid of failure. Add the stress of the pandemic, and it’s unrealistic to expect we’ll succeed at these kinds of goals.“When people are stressed out, trying to meet their goals generally becomes more difficult,” says Peter Gollwitzer of NYU.
If you ask AnneMarie Conley of UC Irvine what the best goals to pursue during the pandemic are, she says: “The short answer is mastery goals.” When people pursue mastery goals—where you are trying to get better at something on your own terms, basically competing against yourself—they tend to be more persistent and experience greater well-being. Instead of worrying about being last in the 5K, then, consider framing the race as a chance to improve your best previous time. Or take up a hobby that is much less competitive, like knitting or growing vegetables.
4. Avoid goals that depend on in-person social support
Before the pandemic, you might have had several social networks to support your various goals—a writing group that meets in a coffee shop to help you with your novel, a running club that you train for your 5K with. Because social distancing makes these support networks much harder to maintain, consider instead the novel forms of social support the pandemic offers.
You can always look for virtual groups to join during pandemic time. But you may also be able to rely on a broader sense of “we’re in this together” to help you persevere. In a study during the pandemic in Great Britain, Miller and her colleagues found that social support helped people achieve the difficult goal of practicing regular hand washing because it felt expected. “Social support . . . really helped,” Miller told me. “Other people were also doing it so it felt ‘normal.’”
So consider goals that might benefit from a feeling of solidarity with other people during the pandemic. For example, thinking of other working parents—and accepting it is the new normal to have your kids at home while you work—might help you feel less overwhelmed as you try to keep up with all your professional projects.
5. Don’t depend on your old routines and habits to accomplish a goal
Look carefully at how you got your old habits accomplished. If-then statements—like “If I drop my daughter at school, then I go run on the track,” also known as “implementation intentions”—can keep you on target to achieve your goals even when life gets chaotic.
“If-then plans are known to automate the goal-directed response; the planned behavior is performed immediately, effortlessly, and without conscious will when the specified critical situation is encountered,” says Gollwitzer.
Running was easy when you could stop at the local track after taking your daughter to school. But now you don’t take your daughter to school, and so your exercise goals have fallen by the wayside. The pandemic has rearranged life so drastically that we may have lost our old routines without replacing them with new ones.
“We need to develop new routines and habits that are better adjusted to the current situation,” says Kokkoris. “Even if we cannot keep up with our previous habits due to various objective obstacles, we need to discover new ways of doing things.”
That means coming up with brand-new implementations intentions if we still want to pursue our old goals. You don’t take your daughter to school anymore, but maybe you could keep up your exercise habit by formulating a new if-then plan. For example, “If my husband supervises my daughter during her first Zoom class of the day, then I will go for a run around my neighborhood.”
Many of us are just trying to survive this time. There’s no pressure to set high goals for yourself right now—or any goals, for that matter. But if setting goals brings you a sense of order and control, and you want to do it, these tips might help you with your own personal Matterhorn.
Keywords; goals, habits, psychology