How To Set Goals & Stay Motivated In 2021

Photographed by Erika Long.
Celebrate Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico. Send out one resume a week until I land a new job. Try to eat (a bit) healthier. Nope, nope, and nope.
For better or for worse, January tends to bring pressure to reflect on and review what we accomplished — or didn’t accomplish — over the previous 12 months. The expectation to constantly strive for greatness/self-improvement is so strong that even in a pandemic, which left many of us (particularly women, who bore the economic and domestic brunt of this global health crisis) at a standstill, we still feel like we should be doing better. I know it’s not my fault that my 2020 resolutions disappeared as quickly as toilet paper flew off the shelves back in March, but I didn’t let go of the need to succeed at something, anything, last year. The result: I felt like a massive failure.
As we limp into 2021, it can be harder to stay optimistic about setting and ticking off goals when we’ve been spinning our wheels and still don’t know how the next few months will play out. That’s why, this year, I’ve decided to give traditional goal-setting and New Year’s resolutions a break. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to make the most of a fresh start. I still plan on getting shit done. You can, too.
Here’s how to take back 2021 when you feel like you’ve failed last year.

Acknowledge 2020 was terrible

Last spring, my goal-crushing mode shifted into survival mode. Instead of landing a new gig and exploring Mexico for the first time, I leaned heavily on emergency government funds and comfort food to make it through the year. Guess what? THAT’S OKAY. “It’s about accepting that restrictions and limitations are there,” says Vancouver-based registered psychologist and executive coach Julia Somody, noting this is easier said than done when we’ve already invested time and effort in our plans, not to mention the dopamine hit that comes with achieving something on our to-do list and the letdown that comes with it when we don’t.
Even just recognizing that so much of 2020 was out of our control can help to ease these feelings of failure, says Somody — and may even lead to a breakthrough if you’re feeling stuck. “Stepping back and giving yourself time to think and process often helps us come up with new solutions.”

Focus on how you want to feel

Too often, we fixate on the shiny reward (A new job! A book deal!) of achieving what we set out to do. Then, we’re left chasing the next win. Instead, focus on objectives that align with your values and feelings rather than what you want to achieve. These are known as value-based goals and they can leave you more fulfilled in the long run, says Somody. “You feel satisfied both with the achievement of the goal and during the process, since value-based goals are, by definition, in line with what is meaningful to you.”
Plus, these goals can be altered to accommodate for uncertain circumstances, as long as they sync up with what's important to us. For example, my 2020 plan to travel to Mexico was definitely about a beach vacation, but it was also about staying connected to a friend who I only see twice a year. We may not be able to do that over margaritas in 2021, but we can schedule regular Zoom calls and still feel close to each other until we can meet in person again. This is in no way a replacement for our vacay, but it honours our value of friendship.

Make room for mini goals

“I don’t believe in setting goals more than a year away,” says Toronto-based success coach Rosa Osterling, noting it’s the perfect recipe for procrastination. “Our mind kind of goes, oh, I have so much time.” Research shows that smaller, short-term goals can make us more likely to cross them off a checklist. “What that does is it allows you to celebrate because the end feels so close, and that excitement helps build momentum.”
The more specific you can be about your plans, the better, because this helps you organize your time and track your progress. For example, instead of saying, "I want to be more active in 2021," I’ve decided to dedicate 30 minutes every Sunday in January to mastering one new yoga pose, and spend 20 minutes each morning before work in February to creating my own mini sequence.

Try to keep burnout at bay

Burnout was one of the many byproducts of 2020 as our homes became our offices, our kids’ schools, and the centre of our social lives, while we faced down a totally unknown virus and also felt compelled to learn how to bake sourdough bread from scratch. This reality, which is often foisted upon women, is not only detrimental to our mental and physical health, it can leave us paralyzed when it comes to future planning. "It becomes very difficult to make decisions because we just don't have the energy," says Somody. "It's like drawing from an empty well... We tend to beat ourselves up, which adds to our feeling more stressed and burned out. It's a negative, perpetuating cycle."
Establishing a schedule or routine, while it may seem like another stressor to pile onto your life, can actually help you stay on track of your goals. “Creating routines, like going for a walk in the morning before you start work or journalling after work is going to signal to your brain when you’re on home time and when you’re on work time,” says Somody. If that’s too big of an ask right now, try taking just five minutes a day to do something for yourself (outside of scrolling TikTok). It’s small enough of a commitment to become (fingers crossed) a habit.

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