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3 Ways to Stay Goal-Focused During the Pandemic

Psychology can teach us how to stay on track in turbulent times.

Andrzej Nowak / Pixabay
Source: Andrzej Nowak / Pixabay

It is no stretch to say that the pandemic has fundamentally changed the way we live. Goals have taken a back seat to necessities. Priorities have shifted. Survival instincts have kicked in.

And, while the end of the pandemic might not yet be in sight, it's never too soon to re-dedicate yourself to your pre-pandemic goals. Here are three research-backed strategies to help you remain goal-focused in the face of COVID-19.

#1: Know the importance of self-control

Self-control has always been an important component of success. People who are able to delay gratification and resist temptations, urges, and impulses have been shown to be healthier, wealthier, and happier, on average.

New research forthcoming in the journal Personality and Individual Differences shows that self-control is perhaps more important now than ever. Michail Kokkoris of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and Olga Stavrova of Tilburg University found that individuals with high self-control were better able to stick to their pre-pandemic routines, had an easier time developing new goal-directed behaviors, and were more effective at turning these new goal-directed behaviors into habits.

“Even though the world has changed dramatically,” state the researchers, “high self-control people demonstrate a remarkable capacity to stick to pre-existing habits and have the flexibility to develop new habits that better meet situational demands. The combination of these two — maintaining past habits and developing new ones — is high self-control people's recipe for success in turbulent times.”

How do you know if you have high or low self-control? The following 13-question scale, which is a modified version of the Brief Self-Control Scale, can help. Rate your agreement with the statements below on a 5-point scale (1 = not at all, 5 = very much). Then add your scores together. If you score less than 40, you may struggle with self-control.

  1. I am good at resisting temptation
  2. I have an easy time breaking bad habits
  3. I am hard-working
  4. I don’t say inappropriate things
  5. I don’t do certain things that are bad for me, if they are fun
  6. I refuse things that are bad for me
  7. I have high self-discipline
  8. People would say that I have iron self-discipline
  9. Pleasure and fun rarely keep me from getting work done
  10. I am good at concentrating
  11. I am able to work effectively toward long-term goals
  12. I can stop myself from doing something when I know it is wrong
  13. I often act by thinking through all the alternatives

Regardless of how you scored on the test above, we can all do things to improve our self-control. One way to improve it is to define your goals and track your progress. A lot of us have every intention of achieving our goals, but we struggle to articulate exactly what it is we are trying to achieve. Clearly defining your goals and writing out a plan that allows you to gradually work towards them is a great way to initiate goal-directed behavior.

Another way to improve self-control is to tap into the power of “hard lines.” For instance, dedicating yourself to following certain routines like breaking a sweat every day or not eating after 8 p.m. is a good way to build self-control. As always, it’s better to start small and build gradually than to start with routines that may be impossible to keep up in the long run.

One area where self-control is especially important given the present circumstances involves diet. We are all spending a disproportionate amount of time at home and the pantry is only a few steps away. A recent research paper showed that "poor appetite or overeating" was the depressive symptom that has increased the most since the start of the pandemic. Be mindful of your eating habits and exercise self-control to the extent that you can.

#2: Don't exaggerate risks

With COVID-19 continuing to dominate the news, it’s easy to view the world as a dangerous place. Fear causes us to act defensively, which doesn’t align with the forward movement needed to achieve our goals. Remember, it is possible to be respectful of threats in our environment while also making progress towards our goals. Whether it’s COVID-19 or something else, environmental risks are a part of life. View these things as a part of life, not as all of it.

Second, don’t diminish the power of optimism. Research shows that adopting a mindset of “abundance,” as opposed to a mindset of “scarcity,” may help us reach our potential. Approaching the pandemic with a glass-half-full mentality could provide you with the psychological resources necessary to make progress on the things that are important to you.

#3: All inputs have an output

Equations have two sides. When one door closes, another opens. With risk comes opportunity. Keep this wisdom in mind as you look for ways to succeed during the pandemic. Most people have taken a hit during the pandemic — whether that’s the loss of a source of income, fewer activities and resources available for your family and children, or reduced access to healthcare. But don’t forget that there’s another side to the equation. Maybe that lost income source has caused you to embark on a new career path. Or maybe it has reduced your financial overhead (less commute time, car payments, work-related expenses, etc.) such that the net effect isn’t as bad as you expected. Maybe it has allowed you to tune out some of the noise that was holding you back in the first place. Whatever the case may be, look for ways to balance out the negatives with the positives. It’s likely that many of the reasons to be optimistic are hidden in plain view.

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