Setting goals for work in 2021: is it worth the trouble?

Jan 18, 2021 5 mins

Setting goals for work in 2021: is it worth the trouble?


Joanna York


How we may laugh at the professional goals we set for 2020 when, 12 months later, promotions, pay rises and work-life balance seem concepts from the distant past.

As the health pandemic rolls on, setting work goals for 2021 might feel like a big ask. The past year has provided a crash course in uncertainty that has made many of us question our priorities. A survey of 6,000 knowledge workers undertaken in mid-2020 found that 45% of respondents saw their goals change at least once since working remotely, with 39% losing motivation as a result.

This is no surprise: setting goals means saying we believe in our own agency and have hope in the future, which can be difficult in times like this. So, looking into a murky waters of 2021, where do we begin? We spoke to Penelope Jones, founder of career support resource My So-Called Career, to find out. Here she reveals how to set a good goal, boost your motivation and feel optimistic for the year ahead.

1. Learn from the past

It’s quite possible that you achieved a grand total of none of the professional goals you set yourself in 2020, and that looking back on the past year leaves you feeling a bit deflated. If so, you’re not alone. One recent poll showed that 56% of us didn’t manage to hit the career goals we set at the start of the year.

Don’t see this as failure, says Penelope Jones—you just need to change your perspective. “You might say, ‘I failed with my 2020 goals, so 2020 was a failure for me.’ But actually, what did you do instead? What did you achieve? How did you survive? Whose lives did you impact? Those are all just as valuable, if not more valuable, than that goal you may or may not have succeeded in.”

If you wrote a list of everything you learnt and achieved in 2020 it would look completely different to any other year of your life. We have had to question how we work, what our jobs mean to us and how we balance health and happiness with professional life, for starters. “We had to redefine what normal looks like, let alone what success looks like,” said Jones.

However, Jones believes that going through this experience has “huge value” for our careers. We are now in a position to ask fundamental questions about what we really want from work. Jones suggests asking yourself the following: What did I learn in 2020 that changed how I think about work and that will help define my relationship with work in this next phase?”

Work out the answer and, she says, “[It] is more powerful than any kind of arbitrary New Year’s goal that we can ever set.”

2. Set a flexible goal

To set goals, you need to be able to look to the future and see opportunity. It’s all about feeling in control and, above all, optimistic about what you might achieve this year.

According to Jones, it’s best to start by detaching yourself from the targets you think you should be hitting. Next, look at the options open to you. “What I’m doing with all of my clients this year is thinking about the possibilities rather than the goals. This feels a much more realistic way for us all to motivate ourselves without loading on a punishing list of targets when we’re not fully in control of our circumstances.”

It is also crucial to avoid investing too much of your self-worth in the goals you set. “Having goals is important,” said Jones. “It can help us chart our own course if we have a sense of the direction that we want to go in. But when we get too caught up in our goals, it can actually stop us from thinking about what might be possible.”

Her advice? “Hold your goals lightly.” This means acknowledging that goals can change and be flexible as they are there to serve you, not constrain you. The best kind of goals help you make choices about what is important rather than making you a slave to them.

3. Choose your theme

For your next task, Jones suggests focusing on one central question for the year. “Rather than saying by December 31, 2021, I want to be able to take x, y and z off my list, think about what theme you want to use to underpin your year.”

For example, in the midst of a pandemic, the theme of kindness might help you to set goals that prioritise how you treat yourself and others at work. The theme of balance might encourage you to make decisions throughout the year that make time for healthy habits alongside work. Find a word that will “prompt you to think about yourself in context and your work in context rather than just a tangible goal”, said Jones.

This gentler form of goal-setting goes hand in hand with seeing your career as a work in progress. Your theme should help with decision-making and act as what Jones described as a “north star” for career progress—it does not set a defined path or pass/fail outcome. “It really pushes you towards thinking about the journey rather than the destination,” she said.

4. Take small steps

It takes a series of small steps to move towards your “north star” goal—these are what Jones calls “get-me-there goals”. If you decide that you want to find a new job in 2021 it might seem a daunting prospect, so break it down into smaller daily tasks such as updating your CV or speaking to people who do jobs you admire. This way, the overall process becomes more achievable. It’s all about working out the next steps that are within your control.

Next, identify your “scaffolding”—the people who can help you along the way. “Scaffolding is something that holds us steady and supports us,” said Jones. Who is going to support you? Who is going to motivate you? Who is going to help you make it feel okay when you have to take a little step back before you can take a leap forward?”

5. Be empathetic

What if you’re the scaffolding for other people? How can managers set goals for team members in 2021? For Jones, empathy is essential. It is paramount to consider individual team members’ personal aims and capabilities now more than ever. “I cannot think of anything more important that a manager can do right now than recognising that we are all working in a varying set of circumstances,” she said.

Many of us have almost a year of working remotely under our belts, but circumstances can still be challenging and changeable. It’s important for employers to show flexibility—or even eschew traditional goal-setting altogether. “Be aware, be empathetic, be kind, and recognise that everyone is an individual and they will respond to things in different ways,” said Jones. “Find out what you can do to keep people engaged and motivated —that is going to be better than any specific goal.”

6. Embrace the uncertainty

What if goal-setting for 2021 still feels a daunting task? Jones recommends trying to make your peace with the uncertainty that is sure to be a presence in our work lives this year—and even trying to embrace it. “Sometimes we just have to surrender control. And that’s not a bad thing,” she said. Uncertainty can really test our resilience and it can set us on new paths. We can’t be certain about a lot of things, but we can all be hopeful.”

Photo: WTTJ

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Setting goals for work in 2021: is it worth the trouble?