How to Set Goals in 2021

By Katie MacDougall, LPC


“For last year's words belong to last year's language—And next year's words await another voice.” ―T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

As we shut the door on 2020 and open another door on a new year, you may have mixed feelings about setting goals, making New Year’s resolutions, or planning events and trips. If 2020 taught us one thing, certain goals lose their luster quickly when we’re grieving or required to operate in survival mode. Anything can be canceled when you least expect it. This past year gave us a tangible reminder of James 4:13–14a (ESV), “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring.” We truly do not know what tomorrow will bring, so how do we live life intentionally with this kind of eternal perspective in mind? We do indeed seem to need “another voice” when it comes to expressing what truly matters (and what’s feasible) in the realm of goal-setting and personal development in 2021.

The question is, are we willing to pause long enough and learn some lessons from the previous year? Are we willing to lay down metrics and benchmarks that make us “feel” accomplished in favor of attending to the deep soul needs we all have? 

In his book “Margin,” Dr. Richard A. Swenson shares how we can potentially arrive at that point:

No one likes pain. We all want to get rid of it as soon as possible. But physical pains are usually there for a reason, to tell us something is wrong and needs to be fixed. Emotional, relational, and societal pains too are often indicators that all is not well. As such, they serve a valuable purpose—they help us focus.

Modern-day living, however, opposes focusing. Surrounded by frenzy and interruptions, we have no time for anything but vertigo. So our pain, it turns out, is actually an ally of sorts. In the hurt is a help. Pain first gets our attention—as it does so well—and then moves us in the opposite direction of the danger.

How can the pain in your story focus your attention to what matters? What perspective shifts can we make as we turn our eyes to the new year?

Hold Goals Lightly

One helpful mindset shift is to hold any goal lightly, especially one that is focused on metrics. What do I mean by that? Well, did you suddenly become a kindergarten teacher in addition to your day job? Did you take on additional duties of caring for neighbors or elderly parents who can’t get out as much? Then setting a hardcore fitness goal to head to the gym a certain amount of times per week, drop a certain amount of weight by a certain date, or train for a marathon may not be feasible or even healthy.

What if you instead made it a goal to get outside as a family once or twice a week and get moving? Then as restrictions are slowly lifted, the habit of being active is in place and you can shift gears into workout routines that you have done in the past. 

Like every year, the coming year will inevitably include a mix of unexpected joys and disappointments. Attainable, flexible goals for 2021 can leave room for you and your loved ones to process the pain of disappointment. 

Any goal that focuses on being present in the moment, making decisions more effectively, or character development rather than metrics and numbers may have a chance to serve you better in the coming year. By building healthy rhythms and routines, it will provide a sturdy frame for your life to continue to flourish on, pandemic or not.

Hold Schedules Lightly

We won’t soon forget how it felt to have most of March and all of April 2020 canceled. Event after event was canceled or postponed and our planners were bare. What does that mean going into the new year? It may be helpful to embrace a “pencil mentality” when it comes to planning. You may actually choose to use a pencil rather than a pen as a physical reminder that plans can change on a dime. Recognize it is a very real possibility that events will continue to be postponed as the year starts and people will also have to cancel as last-minute challenges come up.

Plan for it from the beginning so you won’t be as disappointed when it happens. Some verses from Philippians 4 come to mind when thinking about this lack of control over something as simple as our weekly plans:

…for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

Philippians 4:11–13 (NIV, emphasis added)

What Paul is telling us here in these verses is that there is a way to maintain inner contentment as outside circumstances ebb and flow; it just takes practice.


When to Address Deeper Issues

Sometimes, there are deeper issues that are keeping individuals from setting and reaching those important goals in their life. Depression and anxiety can wreak havoc on the motivation necessary to reach those goals and keep those resolutions.

From a Psychology Today article on motivation, the author writes:

Everyone feels demotivated or devoid of willpower at times. Even accomplishing a big goal can, paradoxically, lead to a listless lack of direction, as there's a sudden motivational void that needs to be filled, but no bullseye objective yet in sight.

If you're chronically unmotivated, or unable to begin a task that is of clear importance, several possibilities are in play. Your goals may need to be re-calibrated, usually because the task is too big or too amorphous and needs to be broken into smaller components, as discussed above. You may be experiencing burnout. 

You may need to addresses the root causes of depression and anxiety with a professional counselor to win back the confidence and motivation to build healthy habits and goals.

Remember that you are not alone in struggling to set healthy goals and rhythms and maintain motivation. At Morning Light Christian Counseling, we are here for you as you turn a brave face toward 2021. We offer both in-person and Telehealth options for continuing or starting your counseling journey. Contact us today to set up an appointment.

About the Author

Katie MacDougall holds a Master of Divinity with a specialization in Counseling from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary as well as a Bachelor of Science from Oklahoma City University. She is an ​Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) Certified Therapist, which is a research-based method to help those suffering from traumatic events.

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