As the year winds down, you’re likely working through what next year looks like for you.

But, before you lock into any plans and goals for the year and for the first quarter, please read this. You’ll thank me later (and for quarters to come).

Goal-setting is the place where you’ll either avoid burnout at work or enable it.

I’m not going to go into the specifics of SMART goals. But this framework for setting specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely goals is an important foundation. If you sign-up for too much too quickly, you’re going to sink your future self.

So it’s critical to not only outline your goals, but to get crystal clear on what you’ll deliver. And , you need to make sure you’re aligned with your manager on all this. Most times this work tracked in the object and key results (OKRs) format.

Once you finish your goals and OKRs, their work is only beginning.

How to use your goals when new priorities come out of nowhere

I’m not going to break any news to you that how you finish the quarter or the year is rarely according to plan. That means that unexpected priorities are going to come out of left field. Rather than this catching you off guard, you need to have a plan for this scenario.

If you don’t have a plan, you’ll need to absorb the new priority that sneaks in the side door (it always comes in the side door!) while still delivering on everything else that has your name next to it. That’s a recipe for more hours, lower quality work, and burnout.

How to set and use your goals to prevent burnout

So, use this three-step process for setting your goals. It’s a tested way to use your goals to play defense against burnout.

  1. Align with your boss on the 2-3 things that will move the needle per quarter. Anything more than that and you’ll be biting off more than you can chew. And you’ll be prioritizing low-impact work.
  2. List out the activities, your role, key dates, and end results in detail and in a referenceable place. Be explicit as possible so there are no unwritten assumptions. This will be key later.
  3. When that pesky priority comes in the side door (who left it open again!?) mid-quarter, here’s your game plan. Always enter this as a trade-off conversation. Refer to your goals and discuss them with your boss. If this new side-door priority must happen,  you must cancel or postpone something else.

It’s critical not to make exceptions to this policy, not only for your wellbeing, but to maintain your high bar of contributions to the business. You have a fixed amount of shelf space over a given period. You can always be flexible about what goes on the shelves, but you have to be firm that you can’t add additional space.

You have a fixed amount of shelf space over a given period. You can be flexible about what goes on the shelf, but you have to be firm that you can’t add additional space.

Plans change but your bandwidth doesn’t.

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