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Setting Career Goals When You Feel Overwhelmed


Sep. 30, 2022 Harvard Business Review

In many organizations, it’s the season for individual and team goal-setting. Deciding on a goal is generally something we want to be a rational and evidence-based exercise, combining a careful consideration of possibilities, resources, and obstacles with just the right amount of stretch. But what do you do when you feel like you have a very limited sense of what’s possible? When new obstacles seem to pop up around every corner and the sands are always shifting? When the idea of stretch seems laughable given how stressed and overwhelmed most of us are?

Setting goals in times of uncertainty and burnout can feel pointless, but it isn’t. Research shows that to engage our motivational systems and direct our brain’s energy to the right actions (both consciously and below our awareness), we need to have a clear sense of where we are, where we’re going, and whether we’re closing the gap between the two at the right rate. Without goals, we make bad choices and miss opportunities to act. But just as important, we can’t feel effective, which many psychologists believe is the most powerful source of life satisfaction and well-being humans have.

To set goals that make sense and motivate ourselves and others in such strange and often discouraging times, we need to set them with a growth mindset. And by that I don’t mean just “believe you can improve” or any of the other common oversimplifications of growth mindset. Having a growth mindset is a bit more nuanced (and more powerful) than simply believing that improvement is possible.

Your mindset is what you believe to be the larger meaning or purpose behind the work you do every day. A growth mindset is about believing that developing and making progress is the point of what you’re doing. As I’ve said before, it’s about getting better as opposed to just being good. And it’s about engaging in specific growth mindset strategies and habits to help keep you focused on the potential for growth in everything you do.

When you approach goal-setting through the lens of a growth mindset, you become more comfortable with uncertainty and more willing to entertain the idea of longer-term goals. Here are two strategies to help you get there that you can use for yourself or with your team.

Use growth-mindset trigger words to frame your goals.

When researchers want to study the effects of a growth mindset, one of the ways we do this is to describe the goal or task that someone is about to perform using certain words that evoke the idea of getting better rather than being good: improve, develop, over time, progress, become, and of course, grow.

These words serve as both explicit and implicit “primes” to your thinking. In other words, they shift the very meaning of the goal to being about developing, and they shift your mindset along with it. To use them, start by writing out your goal the way you would normally think about it. For example, your goal might be to “be an effective communicator” or to “increase sales by 5%.”

Then, rewrite it again using one or more growth mindset triggers. “Be an effective communicator” is now “become an effective communicator,” and “increase sales by 5%” is “develop our network of leads to improveour sales by 5%.”

This way of framing your goals isn’t about lowering the bar or being okay with poor performance. In fact, research shows that people who approach their goals with a growth mindset set more challenging stretch goals for themselves, not less. For example, in one study of medical supplies salespersons, researchers found that those who approached their work with a stronger growth mindset set more ambitious sales targets, put in more effort, engaged in more territory and account planning, and ultimately sold more units.

Establish progress and pivot points.

In such uncertain times, it’s important to explicitly establish progress and pivot points on a timeline right at the outset, so you can monitor both your rate of progress and the need to shift in light of new information along the way.

It can be all too easy to lose track of your goals, or to not think much about them until you get closer to the time you expected to reach them. When that happens, you may fail to adjust when progress is slow, or cling to a goal you should have revised when resources or customer expectations started shifting. For example, you may set a goal for yourself of developing a specific skill or reaching a particular sales target by year’s end. To succeed, what should you accomplish in the first month? At six months? If you don’t know, you won’t be able to course correct and, if necessary, try a different strategy or set a revised goal to have the impact you want to see for yourself or your team.

By using these two strategies to prepare for and engage in your goal-setting conversations, as a leader or a team member, you start out with a firm growth mindset foundation that you can then sustain as you pursue your goals through uncertainty, setbacks, and challenges of all kinds — something we all need now more than ever before.

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