Goal Setting is the Motivation Tactic We Need to Get Through Quarantine

I have to be honest, I’m actually almost enjoying quarantine. Sure, I am definitely missing seeing many of my friends, going out to hang out in a coffeeshop or bar, and rather bummed about canceling travel plans; however when I hear my friends talk about their quarantine experiences: feeling that they are not accomplishing anything, that they cannot find the motivation they need to get through work or school online, or my least favorite, that there isn’t anything to do; I can’t quite relate. The past few weeks have been some of the most productive of my recent memory — I am exercising, eating right, reading, writing, working and keeping relationships with those I care about more regularly than I ever have before. I’ve spent some time pondering what the secret is: why is my quarantine so productive, while others’ can’t seem to find anything to do, and how can others find the motivation to make the most out of their time at home?

A big part of the answer comes down to goal setting. As a student of organizational psychology, I’m well versed on the power of goal setting as a tactic for employee motivation — I once had a professor who believed goal setting was the only thing you needed to motivate individuals. I am beginning to think he may be right. My weekly goal setting has been the key to my success during this pandemic and the best part is, it works for just about anyone given the right approach. But finding the right approach and creating the right goals is crucial and will determine success or failure. The following are key strategies to making the most of short-term goal setting:

· Unpack Loaded Goals — Many of us have heard the acronym “SMART” in relation to goal setting. I personally believe this acronym to be useful yet overused. And how unoriginal would it be to publish yet another article about the importance of SMART goals to add to the hundreds already out there. But specificity and measurability are the most important part of the acronym. That’s because if you are specific about your goals, and you can measure them, any goal can be achievable. During my first few weeks of goal setting, I realized that I was checking off 90% of my list, but at the end of each week there were two or three goals I couldn’t accomplish. I wanted to make progress on a book, start a podcast, and begin writing more. Yet after Week One, I had failed to make any progress on all three. Why was that? It was because they were too broad. Compared with something like “do 30 pushups per day” which is very specific and objective, “Start a podcast” has no clear path to achievement — it’s a loaded goal. The following week I unpacked all three of the goals into specific steps I was going to take: Read four chapters of my book, start a Medium account and write one article, and split the podcast into several smaller goals including finding a podcast platform, creating cover art, and brainstorming guests. I accomplished all three goals the following week. Loaded goals are daunting, vague, and have no clear path to accomplishment — turn them into unpacked goals with specific and measurable parts.

· Diversify Your Goals — When it comes to short-term goal setting, such as creating goals for the week, I’ve found that it’s important to create goals in several different areas. Each week, I create exercise/fitness goals, reading and writing goals, schoolwork goals, personal relationship goals, and TV/Movie goals. If you’re a person of devout faith (or would like to be), consider adding spiritual goals; or if you enjoy cooking, try meal goals; musicians — music goals, and so on. The idea behind goal diversification is that if all my goals centered around exercise, I would be physically exhausted by the end of the week. If all my goals were reading and writing, my brain would be fried. Creating a balance of goals is crucial to avoid goal burnout. Furthermore, if your goals only center around one area, like exercise, you may find yourself making progress in that area, but remaining unmotivated and unproductive in anything else. Finding the areas that are important to you and allowing yourself to make goals in as many of these areas as you have time for and have a genuine interest in will allow for higher productivity and less chance of burnout.

· Put Your Goals Everywhere — This one seems obvious, but I’m still amazed at the number of people that I hear of making goals on a note in their phone, never to be seen again. Even if it isn’t intentional, it is easy (as with all things in life) to ignore things you can’t see. I write my goals each week on the whiteboard hanging above my desk so that I am always looking at it. Other strategies that work well include making your list your Lock Screen image on your phone, or putting them on Post-It notes to stick to your bathroom mirror. No matter the strategy you use, make sure they are impossible to ignore. Seeing what you want to do constantly stare you in the face is much harder to bypass than tucking a note away out of sight.

· Showcase Small Wins — Anyone leading change efforts in an organization or trying to maintain motivation among their subordinates understands the power and importance of small wins. Creating small wins is a crucial tactic for long-term goals (which is why it is beneficial to unpack goals), but can also be applied to having a variety of short term goals. Having some kind of way to check off what you have achieved increases motivation your remaining goals. Instead of erasing my goals after they’re achieved, I put a checkmark next to each one. For the rest of the week that goal is not erased from my mind, rather, I constantly get to remind myself that I achieved that this week. That simple feeling of achievement then motivates you to continue achieving the rest of your goals until the whole list is completed, and as the week goes on, you tend to become more cognizant of the items that don’t yet have a checkmark and think critically about how you’re going to make time to achieve them.

· Allow Flexibility — Nobody’s perfect at achieving their goals. If you have a daily goal such as doing a home workout every day, there is bound to be a day when you aren’t “feeling it.” Some would suggest pushing through and doing it anyway, but that isn’t a good tactic toward developing a positive relationship with your goals and avoiding goal burnout. A better tactic for daily goals is allowing for some leeway. If one of my goals is to read two articles each day, I will set that goal for 5 days out of the week instead of 7. So if there’s a day that I simply don’t have time to read given my other responsibilities or don’t feel like I have the attention span to fully devote myself to comprehending the article, I can skip that day. Just be cautious about how many skips you allow yourself (1–2 per week is usually plenty). It’s also okay to roll one or two goals over to the next week. Sometimes given the week’s circumstances you just can’t accomplish everything. But set a limit on how many goals you allow yourself to roll over (again, 1–2 is ideal), don’t decide to roll them over until you have to (i.e. Its Saturday night and there’s no way you have the time or energy to try learning a new song on guitar), and don’t allow a single goal to stay on your list for more than two weeks.

Despite the countless negative repercussions of Stay-at-Home orders and Coronavirus, staying productive is crucial not just for long-term success beyond the pandemic, but also for mental health now. These seemingly dark times present a unique opportunity for self-improvement and personal and/or career development, but only if you know how to do it. Better yet, these strategies can help improve productivity and low motivation even after the Coronavirus pandemic is over. In order for us to personally and collectively thrive even in the face of crisis and beyond, goal setting is the motivational tool we all need to master.



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Anthony Massa

Organizational psych guru interested in values based organizations, Gen Z, and the Future of Work. Working to create a happier, more productive workforce.