Setting goals that stick

If you set goals at the start of 2020 – chances are they were made redundant when COVID-19 hit. But while the world remains full of uncertainty, Andrew May believes goal setting is still important. MPA spoke with the author of MatchFit and CEO of Strive Stronger for some tips on setting goals in the COVID environment.

Happy new year

New Year’s Eve 2021 certainly stood out from previous celebrations. Fireworks across the country were cancelled and people everywhere were told to usher in the new year from home. But while the way we celebrated NYE was distinctly different, the habit of making a new year’s resolution still remained for countless people. While some may think goal-setting is now a pointless activity given the changing COVID situation, May believes quite the contrary.

“I think it’s still important to set goals, but 2020 showed us we do need to be flexible,” he said. “It’s not like a share portfolio with a full dividend investment plan, where you just set and forget. You can’t do that with goals – more so now than ever, especially in business.”

He offered the following tips for setting goals that stick.

  1. Avoid making new year’s resolutions

Contrary to popular belief, setting goals on New Year’s Eve is a recipe for failure – in fact, about 90% of new year resolutions don’t eventuate, said May. This is because people tend to make goals that are too big when they are caught up in a moment of celebration. They also tend to be fatigued from the year. Peers can play a big part in this – it’s hard not to come up with a resolution for the year if everyone around you is announcing theirs.

  1. Set goals that aren’t in concrete

Flexibility is an important part of goal setting in an uncertain world, said May. Australians were just starting to feel like life was returning to normal in the lead-up to Christmas last year, but a new cluster in Sydney soon meant state border closures and snap lockdowns. Since our external environment is always changing, it is important we be agile with our approach.

Read more: How to navigate uncertainty in the workplace

“Goal setting is giving us a target, but that target does and can move,” he said. “Those people who are going to flourish in 2021 are those who set goals but regularly come back and reassess.”

  1. Don’t do too much, too soon

When making big changes in your life, it is more effective to take small steps, said May. Habit stacking is a way we can utilise our existing habits to build new ones that can help us reach our goals. A client of May’s who wanted to get fit but found it too difficult to get to the gym regularly, changed her habits by doing 10 squats and 10 push-ups every time she made a cup of tea or coffee. Before long, she had upped the number to 15 and then 20. Since she was having about six hot drinks each day, she soon got stronger and realized that getting to the gym wasn’t so difficult after all.

“A little bit of success leads to momentum, so start out small and build momentum,” said May.

  1. Change your environment

A lot of people don’t think to change their environment before taking action on their goals, said May, and this can be the difference between success and failure. If your goal is to become a healthy eater, first you must empty your pantry of all sugary, processed and fatty foods. Similarly, if your goal is to be more productive while working from home, setting up a neat and conducive home office from which to work can do wonders.

Read more: Creating positive learning environments

  1. Identify yourself positively

If you struggle to quit smoking and you identify yourself as a smoker, you are essentially shaping whether you succeed or fail before you’ve even begun.

“How we identify ourselves is really important,” said May. He suggests telling ourselves a new story tied to the goal we are trying to achieve, rather than limiting ourselves with labels based on our old habits that we are trying to break.

  1. Recognise and reward along the way

It’s always important to recognise achievements and reward ourselves accordingly – not just when we succeed in our goals, but while we are in the process of achieving them. This doesn’t mean letting ourselves slip from our goals and rewarding ourselves with the comfort of old habits, it means treating ourselves to a nice dinner, getting a massage, or even writing in a journal.

  1. Pull into neutral

It’s not always easy to feel positive – especially when you read the latest COVID news. But, getting caught up in a negative mindset around the uncertainty of the world and the ways life has changed over the past year won’t do you any favours when it comes to achieving goals. In fact, any goal you make from a negative mindset is doomed from day one, said May. While it’s not always possible to go from feeling negative to positive, May recommends a neutral approach – much in the same way you can’t change from reverse to first gear when driving without putting your car in neutral.

“If it’s too much to be optimistic, hold a neutral space, be mindful and present in the moment. Then think what’s good in my personal life, what’s good about my health, what’s good about my family and relationships and what’s good in my career?” he said. “When you shift from negative and hold it in neutral, you’re much more likely to be in control of your thoughts and the processes.”