4 Healthy Tips for Setting Goals When the Future Is Unclear

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Setting sights on the future can be a daunting task right now. With the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic dictating our calendars and rewriting the days, weeks, and months as we know them, it may seem easiest to just throw out the agenda and go along with the whims of the world. However, while staying in the present has its benefits, we don't have to give up on looking into the future altogether; we just need to shift how we're going about it.

After all, the point of planning ahead and setting goals isn't simply to achieve them with a 100% success rate but, instead, to create things to look forward to and work toward. Dr. Carla Manly, licensed clinical psychologist and wellness expert, advocates for a mindful approach to goal-setting, which starts with being appreciative of where you are now and then planning for where you want to be in the future. She recommends starting with two basic questions: "What do I want?" and "What do I need?" From there, she says, you can ask yourself how soon you want or need to reach a certain goal and start considering what steps you need to take to get there. So, if you decide you need to establish a better morning routine, you can lay out small goals—like planning to take a walk before starting the work day—throughout the week or month ahead to help you do so.

Another key to setting goals during the pandemic is to adjust to the times. Dr. Manly says she's seen many of her clients get frustrated and depressed because "people are still trying to set goals with a sense that the world will meet prior expectations and that life will be predictable." So, being flexible and willing to compromise with your goals is especially important right now. For larger goals, Dr. Manly recommends checking in with your progress every couple of months so that you can reset or restructure your plans as needed.

Keep reading for more of Dr. Manly's tips for setting goals that will promote a healthier mindset and keep you forward-focused during the pandemic.

Don't compare your goals to others'.

It's easy to buy into the narrative that there are people who are succeeding at quarantine life (i.e. the novel writers, project finishers, and bread bakers) and people who are not—like those of us who are simply struggling to remember to brush our teeth each morning. Dr. Manly explains, however, that this is a dangerous trap to fall into. When setting healthy goals for yourself, it's important to stay focused on what is reasonable, realistic, and necessary for you to achieve and not to worry about how those goals measure up to anyone else's.

For someone who is financially stable and has extra time on their hands right now, writing a novel might be a perfectly healthy and achievable goal to set. For others, though, personal goals may be more focused on things like figuring out how to pay the bills, finding new ways to be motivated to get out of bed in the morning, or taking steps to schedule a virtual therapy appointment.

Dr. Manly also notes that it's important not to compare your current life goals and needs to those from your past. "This is a very difficult and depressing time for many people," she says. "Just be kind and compassionate with yourself and don't hold yourself to standards of what you would've done at any other time of life."

Have a plan B and C.

If you put all your energy into creating one perfect life goal or plan, it's likely that the fallout will hit much harder if things don't pan out quite right. So Dr. Manly says she's been working with her clients to create multiple plans that can fit with various outcomes or possibilities.

For a client whose goal is to have a February 2021 wedding, Dr. Manly has helped her create three different plans: One for if the wedding can happen like normal, one for if the wedding needs to be socially distanced, and one for if the wedding can't take place in person at all. That way, no matter what happens, she will have some sort of groundwork to move forward with and be more prepared to deal with the emotions that come with each possible outcome.

Process your disappointment.

No matter how much you try to plan for every possible outcome, disappointment is inevitable when things don't play out how you'd hoped—especially when it's a big life goal, like getting married, moving, or traveling. When things don't go as planned or you're unable to meet past goals you have set for yourself, Dr. Manly says it's healthy to give yourself the time to process that disappointment. "Allow yourself to say, 'This is disappointing,' 'This is sad,' or 'I am going through grief,'" she says. This will allow you to move forward and reset your goals in a more realistic and achievable way.

Evaluate your relationships.

For some, Dr. Manly says, the most important goals to be setting right now are relationship goals. For anyone who is living with roommates, a partner, or family, the relationships you have to these people will affect your everyday life. So, working on these relationships could be the kind of goal that is key to improving your daily life. These goals could involve working on your communication skills, asking for what you need, carving out more alone time for yourself, or even finding new ways to be romantic with your significant other. If you live alone, working on building a healthier relationship with yourself is just as important, too.

"If you're happy at home, almost anything else in the world feels more doable," Dr. Manly says.

So instead of worrying about creating the perfect five-year plan or tackling the list of things you want to accomplish by a certain age, start by figuring out what you need to create a more comfortable and enjoyable life for yourself right now.