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How to set realistic work goals for 2021

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Lydia Smith
·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
·3-min read
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Group of children photographed from above on various painted tarmac surface at sunset. Photo: Getty
Group of children photographed from above on various painted tarmac surface at sunset. Photo: Getty

It’s coming up to the time of year when many of us set ourselves goals and resolutions at work. At the end of the year, many of us think of ways we can better ourselves professionally and boost our careers in the future, by vowing to learn a new skill, becoming more organised and being more assertive in the workplace.

Having goals is important, but studies suggest that not just any will do. Research shows that goals are not only important but also that the level of specificity and difficulty matters too.

Goals that are both clear and challenging drive higher levels of performance, but ones that are too big - and so seem unattainable - are more likely to be abandoned. So how exactly do we go about setting realistic goals that we can achieve?

“There are six factors that I encourage people to explore when they are setting goals that they are serious and committed to,” says Rob Baker, positive business psychologist and founder of Tailored Thinking, a positive psychology, wellbeing and HR consultancy.

“Thinking through these areas means that people are more likely to frame goals in ways that they are going to be sticky.”

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Firstly, it’s essential to work out why you want to achieve a goal. “Think about what you are hoping to achieve,” Baker says. “It can be helpful here to reflect on the positive outcome you want to move towards rather than the negative outcome you want to avoid.”

It’s also crucial to be extremely clear about what your goal is, too. A vague goal, such as “being less stressed” is far harder to achieve than to set yourself a goal of walking every day, which may well help drive down your stress levels. It can even help to tie your goal to a time of the day, or specific days of the week.

“Being clear what you will and won’t do means that it takes less cognitive effort to think about this and clearer if you are at risk of breaching your goal. For example, I won’t drink alcohol at home from Mondays to Thursdays,” Baker says.

Another trick is to keep yourself accountable by telling other people your goals. A partner, a friend or a relative can help keep you on track if you’re struggling. For example, if your goal is to not answer work emails past 8pm and your boss is messaging you.

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“We’re more likely to commit to something if we’re held accountable by others due to our instincts as humans to impress others. So, tell your colleagues, family or friends and you will be much more likely to achieve them,” Baker explains.

“Think about the barriers and what are going to get in the way. Thinking about these in advance means we are more likely to be able to deal with hurdles and challenges when they occur.”

If your goal is to learn a new skill such as coding or to do a short course to improve your management skills, consider the problems associated with these aims. Courses may be expensive and time-consuming, so you may have to go through your finances first or make sure you have enough time alongside work or other responsibilities.

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It’s also helpful to think about breaking up a goal into smaller, more manageable achievements. It is easier to aim towards minor milestones that contribute to larger goals in your careers. Harvard Business School academic Teresa Amabile has led extensive research into the power of “small wins” and how they help to boost motivation, productivity and creativity.

Finally, think about rewarding yourself too. Write down your achievements and set yourself small targets to reach every week. Once you hit them, treat yourself - it’s not easy to stick to a goal, and every step is progress.

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