Just a few short months ago, soon-to-be graduates were looking forward to celebrating commencement with their family and friends, then landing and starting their first “real job.” Others who had recently entered the workforce may have been plotting their next career move, eyeing a promotion, or beginning to repay their student debt. They could not have anticipated the insecurity introduced by the pandemic, nor that it would continue into the foreseeable future. As the uncertainty lingers, young professionals and graduates will be forced to rethink the objectives they had set for the year and determine how to get their goals back on track.
One of the most significant challenges is the sense that lives are on hold. One young professional client of Patricia’s recently shared that the pandemic makes her feel that her career is in “neutral” — she feels anxious to move forward but is unsure about what the future holds. She’s not alone in her longing to advance her aspirations. In fact, setting goals and planning for the future is an essential aspect of our sense of well-being, because it can help combat the sense of helplessness and loss of control you’re likely feeling in the current environment.
Here are four questions to ask yourself to reestablish your goals in the face of uncertainty.
1) What is important to me in the near term? Long-term planning can be difficult under the most stable circumstances. It is especially challenging now, as the depth of economic downturn and timing of subsequent recovery are unclear. Establish your long-range goals (“I want to lead a team within the next three years”), but assume you’ll need to refine them as the future comes into a clearer focus. Spend more time on your near-term goals (“I will build my leadership skills by taking an online class”). You’ll have a better line of sight to what’s happening within the next month or two, and you’ll see quick wins, so you can adjust as needed.
2) What can I control? Shorter-term, process-oriented goals, such as “I will research three graduate programs this week” or “I will network with four new people this week” are critical when things are in flux because you will not likely fully control the outcome. This relates to a concept in psychology known as “locus of control”: your belief about how much influence you exert over your circumstances versus external factors. Determine which levers you have within your locus of control to help you achieve your goals and put your energy and effort behind those.
3) What are the actions I can take right now? When things seem overwhelming, you just need to take the very next step possible. Ask yourself: What is the very next thing I can do to bring me closer to my goal? For example, there may be skills you could develop in your current role, graduate programs you could research, or you could set up auto-payment for your student loans.
4) How will I be accountable? One of the most effective ways of staying on track is to create a community of support and accountability. Tell a few trusted friends or colleagues about your plans; ask them to check in with you about progress — it will compel you to make progress that you can report. You may want to create a “mentor board of directors,” a concept Dorie talks about in her book Reinventing You. For instance, you can gather trusted advisors and mentors to consult during a job search. You’ll get solid guidance and have an accountability loop.
The pandemic and resulting economic disruption have wreaked havoc on many professionals’ lives — and the impact is especially acute for those who are just starting out in their career journey. These are challenging circumstances, but by following the strategies above, you can plan, prepare, and set yourself up for success over the long-term.
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist and professional speaker who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Entrepreneurial You, Reinventing You, and Stand Out. You can receive her free Recognized Expert self-assessment.
Patricia Carl is an executive coach and consultant, and former Chief Human Resources Officer for both public and private equity backed companies. She has worked with clients from companies including Microsoft, Target Corporation, and Deloitte, as well as Silicon Valley start-ups.