Goals change. Sometimes it’s the calendar that prompts us to revisit what we’re working toward; sometimes it’s life itself that forces a reevaluation. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has obliterated project timelines and reset career paths across the board, which has made reassessing plans a priority at companies worldwide. And it’s underscored a clear reality: Some goals, no matter how fiercely wanted or assiduously worked at, are unattainable.

But resetting the targets in your five-year plan doesn’t mean you’ve failed. And smart reassessments and thoughtful planning can set you up for success, even if you’re changing your focus.

Here’s how to go about it.

Knowing When to Reset

Knowing when it’s time to revisit your plans is crucial. “Goals change as the business changes — sometimes annually, perfectly aligned with the annual performance review process. But more often goals change iteratively,” said Laura Handrick, an HR professional at mental and behavioral health website Choosing Therapy and an HR and business consultant.

“You may start a project with a goal in mind, only to learn once you're fully immersed in the details that another more urgent goal appears,” Handrick said. “Goals are fluid like that.”

Even if your ultimate aim — say, a dream like launching your own business or hitting a certain professional milestone — remains the same, your interim targets could need shifting, Handrick noted. “Goals should be realigned as often as needed to ensure the high-priority work of the business gets done," she said.

Reevaluating your goals isn’t just a fallback when your first-choice outcome isn’t attainable, either. In fact, Josh Rovner, organizational leadership consultant and author of Unbreak the System: Diagnosing and Curing the 10 Critical Flaws in Your Company, pointed out that sometimes goals — for both individuals and corporations — need to be revisited even if they are attainable.

“At the strategic level, if the goal is not moving the needle on company performance even though it’s being achieved, then it’s time to revise it,” Rovner said.

But sometimes a target needs to be reset because it’s just not happening. This can feel demoralizing at first, but there is an upside. Dana Case, Director of Operations at online filing services firm MyCorporation, said reassessing a goal that isn’t working is an opportunity for growth.

“It’s okay if the initial goal does not work out,” Case said. “There may be a series of reasons as to why this is, ranging from realizing the goal is not something you wish to achieve in the long run, to discovering that it may exhaust your resources more than you anticipated.”

How to Refocus

Whether it’s driven by new business needs, changed circumstances, or any other reason, setting a new target can seem daunting. But experts say these key steps can bring clarity to the process. 

1. Focus on learnings.

It’s normal to feel disappointed or even embarrassed when a goal goes unmet. But don’t let those feelings keep you from learning.

"Make a list that details what you personally learned about yourself and the goal that you initially set,” Case advised. “You might have come away from the experience learning which direction you would rather not take your career in, for example. Or you might have picked up valuable lessons along the way about what it was like to pursue this type of goal even if it didn’t fully work out.”

Takeaways from the first goal could and should inform the new one. “Look at the reasons why the initial goal was a poor fit and address those directly,” Rovner said. “Possibly consider shrinking the goal next time, or making the new goal one or two parts of the previous goal that didn’t fit. You could also make it a goal to overcome — or work toward overcoming — the issues that stopped you from achieving the original goal.”

2. Give it time.

There’s no need to rush to replace one goal with another. In fact, giving the process some space is necessary.

“The key is to spend as much time as you need figuring out your goal,” said Debra Eckerling, founder of coaching consultancy The D*E*B Method and author of Your Goal Guide: A Roadmap for Setting, Planning, and Achieving Your Goals. “Then you can make a plan.”

Eckerling’s method — determine your mission or goal, explore your options, and brainstorm a path forward — relies, she said, on the goal setter spending several days journaling about their hopes, worries, reactions, and thoughts to get clarity on exactly what they want to achieve. Only then, she said, can clients move forward with creating a mission statement.

“If you don’t know what you want, you can’t figure out how to get it,” Eckerling said.

3. Be specific and aligned.

Case agreed that spending sufficient time lining up the details is critical in making a reset target successful.

“The best way to reset a goal is to make sure the new goal is specific, and you are able to reach it in small, measurable steps,” she said.

That specificity is just as essential when the new target is tied to a job, whether it’s on the employee level or part of a company-wide shift. In fact, according to Heidi Pozzo, leadership consultant and founder of Pozzo Consulting, any company-set intentions should not only be granular and focused, but they should also be clearly understandable in the framework of the company’s own plans.

“If goal setting is done well, every person in the company should have goals that link all the way to the top goals of the company,” said Pozzo. “That way, [employees] know what they need to do and how they fit into the overall plans of the company. They also know the goals are working in sync across the organization and are not at odds with the goals of others.”

4. Be prepared to do it again.

As counterintuitive as it seems, don’t think of the newly reset goal as a final step, suggested Reuben Yonatan, CEO of cloud communication advisory site GetVoIP.

Revising goals should be a regular process,” Yonatan said. “Employees shouldn't wait for a change in condition or the realization that the goals were not the right fit. The company should have a program that allows employees to review their goals either quarterly, biannually, or annually.”

Including periodic dates on the calendar for formally rethinking objectives helps keep end results in sight, and makes the process an ongoing effort. And when it comes to clarifying and resetting goals, practice makes perfect.

If 2020 has shown us anything, it’s the importance of being flexible. As jobs, communities, and economic conditions remain in flux, the ability to be agile and reimagine objectives is essential for every worker, regardless of industry. When change is the only constant — professionally and personally — knowing when and how to reset the agenda is a skill worth having.