Five Tips for Goal-Setting in Chaos

Published: September 15, 2020
Estimated reading time: ~4 min


In the midst of the pandemic, a presidential election, innumerable acts of state-sanctioned violence on Black and brown bodies, and raging fires everywhere, goal-setting might feel like an insurmountable task.

There is so much to do. Your staff, community members, students, and families are struggling. You made a commitment to practicing antiracism and now you must live up to it. You were supposed to start strategic planning yesterday. School is in session. You have an election to win. Where do you even begin to prioritize and plan?

The good news is that goal-setting doesn’t have to add to the chaos; it can help you move through it. When there’s immense change and uncertainty, goals can help you get clear on what’s most important and transform your intentions into concrete plans and action.

Whether you decide to start now or postpone until the end of the year, here are some tips for 2021 goal-setting:

1. Get grounded.

There’s a reason that performers, athletes, and public speakers engage in pre-game rituals before they hit the stage or field—they can help you get grounded and focused on what’s ahead. Goal-setting isn’t just another to-do—it’s a moment for pausing, reflecting and resetting your compass. There’s a lot at stake. That’s why it’s worth doing something—whether that’s meditating, listening to music, or just taking a few deep breaths—to clear the clutter in your mind and connect you to your body and your purpose before diving into the work.

2. Seek perspective from your team and surface operating assumptions.

While there are plenty of unknowns, your team has the collective wisdom, experience, and context to set you up for goal-setting. Reflect individually and with your team at all levels of the organization—especially with Black, indigenous, and people of color staff and those closest to the communities you aim to serve—on this question: “What do I/we assume to be true about our context, our work, and our people in 2021?” If you’ve already done scenario planning, you can pull assumptions from your scenario plans. Here are some things that might be on that list:

  • The office will remain closed / we will be teaching remotely until X.
  • We want to prioritize serving the most marginalized people in our community—that’s X and Y.
  • The legislature will have a regular session during X period and might have a special session during Y period.
  • Our funding levels will remain roughly the same, with a potential 10% increase.
  • We’ll have two vacancies on our operations team.

Think of this exercise as a warm-up activity for goal-setting, like applying primer before painting. Establishing and aligning on a few knowns will help identify what is realistic (the “R” of SMARTIE!) while bringing in more perspectives, but it’s not where the goal-setting happens.

3. Prioritize.

Identify the 3-5 most important things you need to achieve next year as an organization. Usually, your goals will fall into a few broad categories: programs (campaigns, student learning, projects, coalition work), people (hiring, staff development, leadership), fundraising and finances, and infrastructure (culture, internal systems, policies, and processes). It’ll be tempting to think about all of the things you can do in all of these categories, but force yourself to prioritize by asking: What is the one thing we need to accomplish in this category to be successful?

4. Leave space in the suitcase.

Generally speaking, the lighter your load, the more nimble you can be. Prioritizing just a few goals makes space to focus on the most important things, pursue emergent opportunities, and respond to curveballs—and if 2021 is anything like 2020, there will be curveballs. Approach goal-setting as if you’re packing for a trip. If you’re bringing so much stuff that only a Tetris master can get your suitcase to close, you’ll have no room for souvenirs or emergency supplies, and you’ll end up jettisoning some items anyway.

5. Let good enough be good enough.

There are two ways that you’ll need to resist perfectionism creeping into your goals. First, don’t spend months perfecting your goals down to the last word, metric, and footnote. Instead, give it your best shot, build in time to revisit them, and tweak as needed. Second, what felt realistic at the beginning of 2020 might feel incredibly ambitious in 2021. Acknowledge the places where success is just getting the thing done, and resist your urge to overachieve.

Want more? Check out our resources and offerings on setting SMARTIE goals: