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How Do You Set Productivity and Performance Goals Amid So Much Uncertainty?

The start of a new year traditionally calls for a reassessment of your working objectives and ambitions. But how do you create a meaningful plan of action when there are still so many open questions of where, when and how your work will even occur this year?

The calendar has flipped, yet with it we’re just a few weeks away from another anniversary that’s far less champagne-worthy: The pandemic’s quasi-official start date, those fateful days last March when thousands of workplaces upended how they’d traditionally done business. Since then, we’ve collectively faced the often severe modification of all sorts of plans, schedules, structures and more, both personally and professionally. Fast-forward to the present day, and even as vaccine distribution is ramping up, we’re facing down a time when COVID cases are spiraling and, in many places, city- and state-mandated restrictions still limit any sort of return to “normalcy.” While a gradual return to physical offices is expected and thousands of companies stand ready to reopen, exact timetables and how offices will be restructured remains hazy. Under these wildly uncertain conditions, is goal-setting even still a worthwhile undertaking?

Time management experts maintain that it is. Some even argue that making the effort to set professional goals is straight up essential for maintaining your productivity, and possibly your sanity, too. As Michele D’Amico, founder of the Los Angeles-based executive coaching firm Vetta rather wryly puts it, “The inherent hopefulness of goals is sometimes enough to keep us going.” 

But coming up with 2021’s list of reasonable resolutions includes plenty of caveats and extra considerations. So here are the strategies D’Amico and several other time management experts, productivity coaches, business advisors and professional organizers are discussing with their clients right now, as well as the overarching goals they suggest amending to your own work-life:

Make a point to consciously create new routines that apply to your own altered situation.

“Routines are like anchors, and when people feel anchorless, they drift,” says Susan Lasky, a New York-based productivity coach, professional organizer and business consultant. As the events of the past 10 months shook up the work routines of so many—plus, continually shifting rules and regulations have challenged even the most proactive of people—sitting down to reconsider a work routine is a worthy use of time. The key is to do it deliberately, thoughtfully and intentionally. Lasky advises even putting your routines into writing and posting them where you’ll easily see them.

Elizabeth Grace Saunders, founder and CEO of the Ann Arbor, MI-based time management coaching company Real Life E, notes that even if your work routines themselves remain uncertain, creating consistent routines within the rest of your life can positively benefit your productivity and stress levels. “Anything you can do that creates a sense of certainty can lower anxiety,” she says. “Regardless of where you work, you can come up with a good bedtime routine or a way you plan your work week. These can give you a sense of empowerment.” 

If you’re working from home, create a realistic schedule that includes time blocks for home chores and personal care.

According to a December Upwork survey, about 41.8% of the American workforce continues to work remotely now, with an estimated 26.7% expected to still be working from home through 2021. Though there’s been positives associated with WFH over the past 10 months, individual situations vary widely. Topping the list of WFH challenges are things like eldercare, childcare and homeschooling management, where responsibilities that may have been shared outside the home are abruptly brought under the same roof for safety. “In general, I think there is a growing understanding that work and life intertwine, and that’s one good thing that has come from the pandemic,” Lasky remarks. “However, the lack of clear boundaries between work and home life that many workers have experienced this past year have often reduced productivity and increased stress.” 

She recommends doing what your manager might not directly suggest: Taking advantage of the blurring of those lines to do some personal things during the workday, if that’s more efficient than saving them for evenings and weekends. The idea is to take time optimization and your energy levels into account, and make the best choice of how to use your time effectively. “If you’re not as focused in the midafternoon, take 30 minutes to move around cleaning,” she suggests. “Create a daily ‘grounding list’ with the most important things you need to do, whether for work or for home. Limit the amount of items to keep it real.”

D’Amico also points out the importance of not abandoning your work calendar, but rather scheduling everything you need to get done on it—from housework to self-care. “Set aside time for self care, really put it into your calendar,” she urges. Right now, as there are simply less options for self-care activities like getting a massage, a haircut or taking a vacation, time to recharge deserves equal importance to the other things you might list. As a self-care plan can help improve your overall well being, assist with stress management, and generally help keep you healthier in the long term, it’s worth the effort to block out time—and then keep the appointment.

And if juggling childcare or remote schooling is stacked on your plate too, treat those younger “colleagues” as part of your team in the effort to get things done, whether that’s through engaging them with an activity nearby while you work or enlisting them in household chores. “Make sure even the little ones have a role to play,” advises D’Amico. Saunders concurs, adding, “I absolutely recommend that you put a very high priority not only on doing your own daily and weekly planning, but also planning with your whole family. Get your spouse and kids involved in terms of talking through what is happening, what needs to be done and who will do what.” And if your kids are older, consider finding work-related tasks they could do themselves, like alphabetizing, filing, data entry, etc, and even consider paying them for their help, suggests Lasky.

Once you commit to a realistic schedule, hold yourself accountable to it.

Freelancers and solopreneurs have long known of the challenges associated with managing time independently; now, with managers and coworkers largely confined to video screens or phone calls, thousands more are experiencing the difficulties of self-motivation. As Lasky succinctly puts it, “Having independence means making more choices as to what to do and when to do it, and decision-making can be exhausting. Especially if you can’t as easily check in with your manager regarding priorities and project direction.” The solution, she believes, is to keep yourself on task even outside of time you’ve scheduled for work. “Wake up and get dressed, even if you aren’t leaving the house or doing Zoom calls,” she recommends. 

Create and maintain conditions that help you better shift into work mode. 

Many of the markers that signified the transition into work have gone by the wayside over the past 10 months, from the loss of a commute to choice of whether to even put on pants to start your day (…but really, put on some pants). “Even though people often complained about having to commute, when that buffer time was eliminated they realized how helpful it was,” notes Lasky. “The process of leaving home and the time spent in transit works to shift mindset from home-issues to work ones.” One solution she offers is to build in private transitioning time—perhaps even by doing something you might have done during a commute, like listening to a podcast or music. 

Saunders also advises designating a dedicated workspace and sticking to regular work hours, if you have the ability to do either or both. “This helps signal when you’re ‘at work’ and when you’re ‘off,’ which helps with motivation to get started in the morning and can give you guilt-free time off in the evening,” she says. “It can also help you set boundaries with those in your household, so they know when you’re available for things around the home and when you need to have your main attention on your work.”

Set time expectations and commit to being honest with your ability to deliver.

The challenges of working within a specific timeline and prioritizing tasks pre-dates the pandemic, but working outside the office can magnify those issues. “In the workplace, many things get done when you run into someone in the hall or the breakroom, or by walking into someone’s office with a quick question,” says D’Amico. “Without that, it can feel like we’re working in silos. That’s never a good thing for a team.” Adds Lasky, “When you are working in more of a vacuum, it is easy to make assumptions as to what you are supposed to do, what it should look like and when it is due. Unless you tell someone how long a task will take, they’ll usually assume you can get it done within a shorter window.” To mitigate this, utilize project management sheets that spell everything out and send follow up emails that specify actions and timelines, she suggests. It may seem like an extra step, but with so much less face-to-face communication, these extra clarifications can become major time-savers.

Finally, if you’re honest about your schedule, situation and speed, and life still throws a curveball your way, give yourself some extra grace as you work through the problem. “Let go of negative self-judgement,” advises Lasky. “There is also a pandemic of what I’m calling ‘SCDD,’ or ‘Self-Compassion Deficit Disorder,’ that isn’t deserved, nor is it helpful.”

Practice flexibility and adaptability as goals in and of themselves this year.

“Stay flexible” is sound advice for navigating nearly every change or crisis in our personal and professional lives, so it’s even more important now. “Resilience is the key here,” says D’Amico. “Think about what you are learning during this time and not what the problems are. The more we can do this, the better we will be at getting our job done and thriving—not just surviving—now and when this is over.” Adds Saunders, “I think we’ve all had to learn how to plan for the future but remain in the present. It’s good to prepare. But once you’ve prepared, you need to let go of worrying about what may or may not happen and focus on the good of the now.” 

In other words, making the effort to maintain optimism about the future, about your ability to rise to the occasion, and about the things you’d like to accomplish—even in the face of so much uncertainty—might just be 2021’s worthiest goal of all.